As Ger­mans pre­pare to vote, a mystery grows: Where are the Rus­sians?

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - International - By Griff Witte

BER­LIN — In 2015, sus­pected Rus­sian hack­ers broke into the com­puter net­works of the Ger­man Par­lia­ment and made off with a mother lode of data — 16 gi­ga­bytes, enough to ac­count for a mil­lion or more emails.

Ever since, Ger­man politi­cians have been watch­ing ner­vously for the fruits of that hack to be re­vealed, and for pos­si­ble em­bar­rass­ment and scan­dal to fol­low. Many war­ily eyed Septem­ber 2017 — the date of the next Ger­man elec­tion —- as the likely win­dow for Rus­sian med­dling to once again rat­tle the foun­da­tions of a West­ern democ­racy.

But with the vote only a mat­terof days away - and with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s Euro­pean neme­sis, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, seem­ingly on track for a com­fort­able win — the hacked email­shaven’t ma­te­ri­al­ized.

Nor have Rus­sian-linked pro­pa­ganda net­works churned into over­drive with dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns. Even Krem­lin-or­ches­trated bots — blamed for the vi­ral spread of fake news in last year’s U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign — have been con­spic­u­ously silent.

The ap­par­ent ab­sence of a ro­bust Rus­sian cam­paign to sab­o­tage the Ger­man vote has be­come a mystery among of­fi­cials and ex­perts who had warned of a likely on­slaught.

Have Ger­many’s de­fen­sive mea­sures — sig­nif­i­cantly boosted after the hacks and pro­pa­ganda cam­paigns that pre­ceded last Novem­ber’s U.S. vote — ac­tu­ally suc­ceeded? Or has Rus­sia de­cided to pull back, reck­on­ing that the costs of an­tag­o­niz­ing Ms. Merkel out­weigh the ben­e­fits?

Or per­haps Moscow is sim­ply bid­ing its time.

“That’s what makes me wor­ried,” said Maksy­mil­ian Czu­per­ski, di­rec­tor of the At­lantic Coun­cil’s Dig­i­tal Foren­sic Re­search Lab. “Why is it so quiet? It doesn’t feel right.”

Much is at stake for Rus­sia in the Ger­man vote. Ms. Merkel, a Rus­sian speaker who has jousted with Mr. Putin through­out her 12year ten­ure as chan­cel­lor, is crit­i­cal to the West­ern al­liance’s chances of hang­ing to­gether amid a con­certed Rus­sian cam­paign to pick it apart.

To her left and her right are Ger­man par­ties that have ad­vo­cated a far softer line on Moscow. The far­right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) party, in par­tic­u­lar, has taken stands that would please Mr. Putin, in­clud­ing calls to abol­ish the Euro­pean Union.

Mr. Putin has de­nied that his gov­ern­ment is be­hind ef­forts to in­flu­ence elec­tions in the United States and be­yond, while coyly ac­knowl­edg­ing that “pa­tri­ot­i­cally minded” Rus­sians may be act­ing on their own.

But if Rus­sia was hop­ing to un­der­mine Ms. Merkel be­fore the Sept. 24 vote, it doesn’t ap­pear to be work­ing: Her cen­ter-right party has re­mained well ahead of all com­peti­tors in all polls, while the AfD’s sup­port seems to have topped ou­tat about 10 per­cent.

Whether Rus­sia makes a con­certed push to med­dle may not be known un­til elec­tion night - or be­yond. Ger­man author­i­ties are cer­tainly not yet declar­ing vic­tory, and they have urged politi­cians and the pub­lic to re­main on alert as the cam­paign hits the home­stretch.

In re­cent days, Ger­man cy­ber­se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have warned that Rus­sian-linked net­works may try to ma­nip­u­late the vote count, per­haps throw­ing the out­come into dis­ar­ray. And the coun­try’s top do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer said his staff is con­duct­ing hourly checks of sites such as BTleaks to make sure there’s no fresh sign of the hacked doc­u­ments from the Bun­destag, the Ger­man Par­lia­ment.

Mean­while, a lead­ing Ms. Merkel ally re­ported that on the eve of the cam­paign’s only na­tion­ally tele­vised de­bate this month, her web­site was hit with thou­sands of cy­ber­at­tacks — many of which ap­peared to em­anate from Rus­sian IP ad­dresses.

But over­all, of­fi­cials and ex­perts say the scale of ap­par­ent Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence is far lower than they had ex­pected.

Volker Wag­ner, chair­man of the Ger­man As­so­ci­a­tion for Se­cu­rity in In­dus­try and Com­merce, said his group re­cently con­ducted a com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of its mem­bers on the is­sue and came up empty.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which works closely with Ger­man in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to coun­ter­act shared threats, did not find “any ev­i­dence . . . that there are more so­phis­ti­cated at­tacks com­ing from Rus­sia in the pre-elec­tion pe­riod.”

Mr. Czu­per­ski, mean­while, said the stream of fake news and bot-spread dis­in­for­ma­tion had vis­i­bly slowed.

If ev­i­dence of Rus­sian med­dling con­tin­ues to be min­i­mal, ex­perts say, there may be valu­able lessons in un­der­stand­ing why Ger­many has proved un­usu­ally re­silient.

One is that Ger­man author­i­ties have been es­pe­cially ag­gres­sive in try­ing to pub­li­cize and com­bat Rus­sian sab­o­tage ef­forts as they emerge — a con­trast to the United States, where the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion last year was re­luc­tant to sound the alarm on what in­tel­li­gence agen­cies later con­cluded was a con­certed Rus­sian cam­paign to help then­can­di­date Don­ald Trump de­feat Hil­lary Clin­ton.

When pro-Rus­sian news out­lets be­gan cir­cu­lat­ing a story last year about a Rus­sian-Ger­man girl named Lisa who was al­legedly ab­ducted and raped by Arab mi­grants, Ger­man of­fi­cials shot down the story and ac­cused Moscow of “po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda.”

Ger­man in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have also named Rus­sian-linked groups as the likely cul­prit be­hind the Bun­destag hack, and they have been out­spo­ken in their be­lief that Moscow will try to sway the Ger­man elec­torate against Ms. Merkel.

Ger­man law­mak­ers, mean­while, in June passed strin­gent leg­is­la­tion that im­poses mul­ti­mil­lion-euro fines on com­pa­nies that fail to re­move fake news and defam­a­tory con­tent from their web­sites.

The leg­is­la­tion, which was vig­or­ously op­posed by Face­book and other so­cial me­dia firms, does not go into ef­fect un­til Oc­to­ber. But al­ready, com­pa­nies have be­gun to com­ply.

Pa­trick Sens­burg, a Merkel ally in Par­lia­ment and an in­tel­li­gence ex­pert, said he has re­ported some 30 ac­counts to Face­book in the past sev­eral months that he sus­pects of be­ing pro-Rus­sian bots. The ac­counts all have the same friends, of­fer no per­sonal de­tails and use the same lan­guage to at­tack him.

In most cases, he said, Face­book has acted on his com­plaints by tak­ing the ac­counts down.

Ger­man de­fense may not ac­count en­tirely for the ap­par­ent lack of a game-chang­ing Rus­sian of­fense.

Si­jbren de Jong, a Rus­sia ex­pert at the Hague Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies, said the Rus­sians may have de­cided to play a less ag­gres­sive role in the Ger­man vote after they “over­played their hand in the U.S.”

For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, Mr. de Jong said, di­rect in­ter­fer­ence in Ger­man elec­tions would be a risky bet. Not least are the eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions for two coun­tries that re­main close trad­ing part­ners, de­spite sanc­tions that Ms. Merkel has cham­pi­oned.

Nor do you med­dle in a vote where the out­come ap­pears pre­or­dained. Sev­eral Ger­man par­ties — in­clud­ing the far-right AfD, the cen­ter­left So­cial Democrats and the far-left Die Linke, or the Left — have far more Moscow-friendly poli­cies than the ones es­poused by Ms. Merkel’s Chris­tian Democrats.

But even after 12 years of Ms. Merkel, Ger­man vot­ers ap­pear in lit­tle mood to shake up the sys­tem and veer away from her stud­ied cen­trism.

Markus Schreiber/As­so­ci­ated Press

A poster of Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel for the up­com­ing gen­eral elec­tion in Ger­many dis­played at street in Ber­lin on Mon­day.

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