Ger­man in­tel ex­pects Rus­sia to in­ter­fere in elec­tions

Fake news to hit trust in democ­racy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - 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 Krem­lin-backed 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 Rus­sian­lan­guage 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 Rus­sianGer­man 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 Rus­sianGer­mans 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 Pol­icy.com. “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 postWorld 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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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