Ger­man in­tel ex­pects Rus­sia to interfere in fed­eral elec­tions

Fake news part of plan to hit trust in democ­racy

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY GUY TAY­LOR

BER­LIN | In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials here are on high alert, brac­ing for a wave of cy­ber­at­tacks, em­bar­rass­ing in­for­ma­tion leaks and fake news sto­ries spread on so­cial me­dia as part of an ex­pected Rus­sian cam­paign to sow po­lit­i­cal dis­cord ahead of next month’s Ger­man fed­eral elec­tions.

The na­tion’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence agency says Moscow would like to see Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, a backer of sanc­tions against Rus­sia, lose in Septem­ber, but since that out­come is un­likely, the Krem­lin can be ex­pected to set­tle for any shenani­gans that weaken the pub­lic’s “faith in democ­racy.”

Many fear the Rus­sian sub­ver­sion ef­fort will get fuel from the U.S. pres­i­den­tial vote while even con­tested charges of Rus­sian hack­ing and med­dling in the cam­paign have be­come a con­sum­ing po­lit­i­cal and legal dis­trac­tion for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In­te­rior Min­is­ter Thomas de Maiziere has pointed to Rus­sian in­flu­ence on the re­cent U.S. and French elec­tions, warn­ing “it can­not be ruled out that there will be sim­i­lar at­tempts on the elec­tion in Ger­many.”

But for some here, par­tic­u­larly in East Ger­many,

where Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin once honed his skills as a KGB op­er­a­tive, there is lit­tle ques­tion that a Krem­lin­backed sub­ver­sion cam­paign is al­ready well un­der­way — and that its aim may be even more per­va­sive than Ger­man in­tel­li­gence wants to ad­mit.

There are as many as 3 mil­lion Rus­sian speak­ers in Ger­many and, ac­cord­ing to Dmitri Gei­del, a lo­cal city coun­cil mem­ber in the heav­ily Rus­sian-Ger­man Marzahn-Hellers­dorf district of East Ber­lin, Moscow’s aim is to ag­i­tate them and draw in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion to their pres­ence.

“One of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­ests is to stir up the Rus­sian-Ger­man pop­u­la­tion,” Mr. Gei­del told The Wash­ing­ton Times on a re­cent visit to the district, where he says the most no­to­ri­ous ex­am­ple of “fake news” pro­mo­tion by “Rus­sian state pro­pa­ganda out­lets” un­folded in Jan­uary 2016.

The so-called Lisa Case be­gan when the satel­lite news chan­nel RT, the web­site Sput­nik In­ter­na­tional and var­i­ous Rus­sian-lan­guage so­cial me­dia plat­forms sud­denly ban­nered scan­dalous head­lines about the al­leged ab­duc­tion and rape by three Arab Mus­lim men of a 13-year-old Rus­sian-Ger­man girl from Marzahn-Hellers­dorf.

What came next was like a page from the KGB play­book on the art of spin: An ul­tra­na­tion­al­ist, far-right Ger­man fringe party known for its align­ment with Mr. Putin or­ga­nized a rally in the district, re­plete with what Mr. Gei­del says were “fake rel­a­tives” vouch­ing for the tale of the al­legedly raped girl.

The story was bo­gus. But Ger­man po­lice took more than a week to de­ter­mine that the girl was out with a friend on the night in ques­tion. By the time the find­ings were made pub­lic, hun­dreds of Ger­mans of Rus­sian des­cent were demon­strat­ing in cities across Ger­many.

The ral­lies erupted just as the na­tion was en­gaged in re­gional elec­tion cam­paigns al­ready dom­i­nated by heated de­bate over the Merkel gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion a year ear­lier to wel­come in more than 1 mil­lion refugees from Syria and other Mid­dle East war zones.

An­a­lysts have de­scribed the Lisa Case as a wake-up call over the po­ten­tial im­pact of Rus­sian med­dling. But Mr. Gei­del says the most sig­nif­i­cant as­pect of the in­ci­dent was the ease with which Moscow was able to in­cite and mo­bi­lize the na­tion’s Rus­sian-Ger­man pop­u­la­tion.

“For us, it was shock­ing be­cause Rus­sians in Ger­many are re­ally quiet and calm and are just not known for par­tic­i­pat­ing in pol­i­tics,” he said. “It was very sym­bolic. The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment wanted to see the protests spi­ral and go to Bran­den­burg Gate or to the Bun­destag, so that it would make bet­ter pic­tures to spread around the in­ter­na­tional me­dia.”

The goal ap­pears to have been to “show that there are Rus­sian-Ger­mans here in Ber­lin,” said Mr. Gei­del, who added that “it would be a very big plea­sure for Putin if he could men­tion to Merkel that, if she’s not care­ful, there could be 100,000 Rus­sian-Ger­mans in the street.”

Fight­ing over ‘fake news’

A NATO anal­y­sis on the “Lisa Case” last year fo­cused on the role played by Rus­sian gov­ern­ment-owned me­dia in a clas­sic “dis­in­for­ma­tion” op­er­a­tion to hurt Ms. Merkel. The Ger­man chan­cel­lor was sharply crit­i­cal of the Krem­lin’s pres­sure on Ukraine, and played a key role in im­pos­ing Euro­pean Union sanc­tions after Crimea was an­nexed.

“Rus­sian for­eign me­dia co­op­er­ate with sys­tem-crit­i­cal jour­nal­ists, pseudo ex­perts and con­spir­acy me­dia,” the anal­y­sis said, adding that out­lets such as RT help am­plify the rel­e­vance of fringe po­lit­i­cal groups that “pro­mote the lift­ing of sanc­tions.”

Jo­erg For­brig, a se­nior trans-At­lantic fel­low with the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund of the United States in Ber­lin, said Rus­sia will be tempted to med­dle in the Ger­man elec­tion be­cause ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests the re­wards far out­weigh the risks.

“Where [in­ter­fer­ence] suc­ceeded, as in the United States, it has man­aged to wreak havoc across en­tire po­lit­i­cal sys­tems,” Mr. For­brig wrote re­cently in a blog for For­eign Pol­ “Mean­while, where it failed, as in France, Rus­sia has had no po­lit­i­cal or other price to pay. This ex­pe­ri­ence can­not but tilt the Krem­lin’s cost-ben­e­fit anal­y­sis in fa­vor of med­dling.”

The Krem­lin ve­he­mently de­nies such ac­tiv­i­ties, and RT says the claims about its op­er­a­tions in Ger­many are non­sense.

“These ac­cu­sa­tions are made with­out a sin­gle piece of ev­i­dence, a sin­gle ex­am­ple of the ‘fake news’ RT sup­pos­edly has been spread­ing,” Anna I. Belk­ina RT di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing and strate­gic de­vel­op­ment, told The Times.

“The rea­son for this is sim­ple: there are none,” she said. “The main­stream me­dia ac­cepts these ac­cu­sa­tions by the French and Ger­man pub­lic fig­ures at face value, with­out chal­leng­ing them, or both­er­ing with the most ba­sic fact-check­ing.

“Those who are ac­cus­ing RT of spread­ing fake news are them­selves ac­tu­ally spread­ing fake news, namely about RT and Rus­sia,” she said.

It’s an as­ser­tion echoed by Rus­sia sym­pa­thiz­ers in Ger­many, many of whom align them­selves with con­tem­po­rary causes of the far right as they take pride in the post-World War II role Moscow played in East Ger­many.

“I love Rus­sia. East Ger­many was oc­cu­pied by Rus­sia. They gave Ger­many free­dom again,” said one 53-year-old man, who waved a Rus­sian flag at a re­cent an­ti­im­mi­gra­tion protest in down­town Ber­lin.

“At the mo­ment, the Amer­i­cans, the Brits and the West Euro­peans still oc­cupy Ger­many,” said the man, who asked to be iden­ti­fied only as Werner and said he grew up in East Ger­many. “I don’t believe the Rus­sians med­dled in the Amer­i­can elec­tion, and I don’t believe it’s hap­pen­ing here ei­ther.”

‘Cham­pagne in the Krem­lin’

Ger­many’s do­mes­tic in­tel­li­gence agency, the BfV, has sought to draw at­ten­tion to the Krem­lin-backed “fake news” cam­paign. But the agency’s big­gest warn­ings fo­cus on the threat of po­lit­i­cally driven cy­ber­at­tacks from Rus­sia.

The agency claims a group backed by Rus­sia hacked the com­puter sys­tems of Ger­many’s par­lia­ment in 2015 and tar­geted Ms. Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU) party in May 2016.

A BfV re­port last month said Ger­man politi­cians and par­ties tar­geted by hack­ing of “con­fi­den­tial emails or other sen­si­tive data must as­sume that ex­plo­sive or com­pro­mis­ing facts could be made pub­lic” ahead of the Sept. 24 elec­tion in which Ms. Merkel seeks a fourth term.

The chan­cel­lor’s al­lies say Mr. Putin doesn’t care that the Ger­man chan­cel­lor grew up be­hind the Iron Cur­tain in East Ger­many, speaks flu­ent Rus­sian and may rep­re­sent the Krem­lin’s best diplo­matic chan­nel to the West.

“In the event Merkel would fail in the com­ing elec­tion, Putin might open a bot­tle of cham­pagne in the Krem­lin be­cause he might think sanc­tions the EU has against Rus­sia may be lifted more eas­ily if Merkel wasn’t around,” said Jur­gen Hardt, a CDU mem­ber and chair­man of the Ger­man par­lia­ment’s for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee.

Mr. Hardt said in an in­ter­view that he doesn’t “so much see a [struc­tured] cam­paign to dis­rupt our elec­tions,” but rather “a dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign to con­vince peo­ple that the Ger­man gov­ern­ment is not as good and strong as they believe.”

That fits, he said, within wider Rus­sian ef­forts to un­der­mine NATO and the EU with var­i­ous cy­ber­op­er­a­tions. “We have in­for­ma­tion that trolls in St. Peters­burg have per­son­ally put fake mes­sages into so­cial me­dia and that ‘cy­ber­bots’ are am­pli­fy­ing it,” Mr. Hardt said, as­sert­ing that Rus­sia’s aim is to “make it ap­pear there is a huge move­ment” crit­i­cal of West­ern in­sti­tu­tions seen as hos­tile to Moscow.

NATO sources have briefed him, Mr. Hardt added, on in­stances in which of­fi­cials posted facts on the al­liance’s so­cial me­dia feed only to find that, within sec­onds, thou­sands of de­ci­sive “coun­ter­com­ments” had ap­peared on­line. “This is not pos­si­bly done by peo­ple; it can only be done by ro­bots,” he said.

It is in no way sur­pris­ing, he added, that Moscow would be try­ing to stir up eth­nic Rus­sian Ger­mans in Ber­lin.

“The big­gest num­ber of dou­ble-pass­port hold­ers in Ger­many are ac­tu­ally Rus­sians — or Ger­mans with Rus­sian pass­ports — and the Krem­lin wants to ex­ploit that,” said Mr. Hardt. “We have fam­i­lies from Rus­sia in Ger­many who are prob­a­bly bet­ter in the Rus­sian lan­guage than in Ger­man and there­fore are poi­soned by the pro­pa­ganda.”

A ‘Soviet mind­set’

The most no­table fea­ture of Marzahn-Hellers­dorf may be the vast Sovi­et­style apart­ment blocks that line the district’s wide av­enues.

Rus­sian signs adorn the aisles of sev­eral mar­kets in the district, where vodka can be found on sale in smart green cases that hold shot glasses and spe­cial bot­tles shaped like Rus­sian­made Kalash­nikov ri­fles.

Mr. Gei­del, the lo­cal coun­cil mem­ber, who is run­ning for a seat in Ger­man par­lia­ment for the cen­ter-left So­cial Demo­cratic Party (SPD), was ex­cited to dis­cuss pol­i­tics.

The 27-year-old said he is not en­tirely sure whether Rus­sia has a clear strat­egy for its ac­tiv­i­ties in Ger­many. The goal may be to “stir in­sta­bil­ity by push­ing neg­a­tive mes­sag­ing about a refugee cri­sis,” Mr. Gei­del said, adding that far-right par­ties — the most pop­u­lar be­ing the Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) — are “feed­ing on such mes­sag­ing.”

“Maybe the whole project can shift some votes to the far right,” he said, spec­u­lat­ing that if the AfD grows strong enough, then it could desta­bi­lize the long-stand­ing par­lia­men­tary “grand coali­tion” be­tween the mod­er­ate CDU and SPD, a coali­tion that has helped keep Ms. Merkel in power for more than a decade.

“If that hap­pens, the more rad­i­cal par­ties sud­denly be­come vi­able coali­tion part­ners to rule the gov­ern­ment,” said Mr. Gei­del. “This would be bad for Ger­man democ­racy be­cause it would lead to the weak­ness of the big par­ties.”

Mr. For­brig said the so­lid­ity of Ger­man po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the main­stream press make it un­likely any Krem­lin plan to interfere in the cam­paign will have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact.

“At most, Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence can make the cam­paign rhetoric more vir­u­lent, add com­plex­ity to the party land­scape, and com­pli­cate coali­tion build­ing,” he wrote. “But if decades of Ger­man post­war pol­i­tics are any­thing to go by, the end re­sult will, nev­er­the­less, be a func­tion­ing gov­ern­ment. And, judg­ing by her rat­ings, Merkel will be at the helm.”

But Mr. Putin may for now be sat­is­fy­ing him­self sim­ply with keep­ing the pot boil­ing in the Rus­sian-Ger­man pop­u­la­tion and see­ing what hap­pens down the road.

“That’s his hope, but even that, I don’t think is re­al­is­tic,” said Mr. Gei­del. “The Rus­sian-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion would have to be far more ac­tive here to truly have an im­pact. The typ­i­cal Rus­sianGer­man cit­i­zen may have a Soviet mind­set, but he does not protest here. There is no such cul­ture of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism among that pop­u­la­tion.

“Maybe Moscow’s strat­egy is just to make it ap­pear as if Rus­sia is strong and has in­flu­ence,” he said. “If it ap­pears to have the abil­ity to med­dle in elec­tions, it makes them ap­pear pow­er­ful. Maybe that’s the strat­egy at a mo­ment when Rus­sia it­self, in re­al­ity, is un­sta­ble.”

“For us, it was shock­ing be­cause Rus­sians in Ger­many are re­ally quiet and calm and are just not known for par­tic­i­pat­ing in pol­i­tics. It was very sym­bolic. The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment wanted to see the protests spi­ral and go to Bran­den­burg Gate or to the Bun­destag, so that it would make bet­ter pic­tures to spread around the in­ter­na­tional me­dia.” — Dmitri Gei­del, coun­cil mem­ber in the Marzahn-Hellers­dorf district of East Ber­lin


Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is un­likely to see Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel lose power, but elec­tion shenani­gans are aimed at the demo­cratic process.

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