German election mystery: Where’s Russia?
CHANCELLOR Angela Merkel’s summons to Germany’s top cabinet ministers and senior military and intelligence officials for a meeting of the Federal Security Council signaled trouble. Such gatherings are rare, typically occurring only when the country faces a grave threat like a terrorist attack.
There was just one item on the agenda that day last spring: how to protect Germany’s upcoming parliamentary elections from Russian cyber attacks. At the time, it seemed almost inevitable that Germany would suffer the same fate as France and the United States, where, officials say, the Kremlin attempted to alter the results of presidential elections with “fake news” and spear phishing attacks.
But on the eve of Sunday’s elections, the Russians have done something few expected: they have largely disappeared. The trolls who spread distorted and falsified information before earlier elections have failed to make much of a splash here. The websites of the campaigns and major news media outlets are operating like normal.
Germans, according to Sandro Gaycken, the director of the Digital Society Institute in Berlin, which has been monitoring for Russian meddling, are “almost disappointed that nothing is happening.”
“We don’t see any verified attacks,” he said. “We’re not really expecting any Russian interference.”
In some respects, experts say, German elections are insulated from outside interference in ways those in the United States are not. The country’s politics are not as polarized as they are in the United States, where partisan enmity provided fertile ground for Russian efforts to sow confusion with distorted and falsified information amplified by Russian-controlled Twitter bots and Facebook accounts.
In a move that would seem unimaginable in the United States, the campaigns for the major political parties entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” this year not to exploit any information that might be leaked as a result of a cyber attack.
Germans also still largely trust their mainstream, traditional news media sources and, unlike Americans, tend to be wary of information disseminated on Facebook and Twitter.
Officials warn that there is still a chance that some 16 gigabytes of sensitive information stolen two years ago by Kremlin-backed hackers from Germany’s Parliament, the Bundestag, could surface, much like emails taken from the campaign of Emanuel Macron were dumped days before the election in France.
In January, someone registered two websites, btleaks.info and btleaks.org, which reminiscent of the DCLeaks website that served as a repository for documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee last year. Staffers from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency have been assigned to check those websites hourly.
But few think the information if leaked would make much difference at this point. The latest polls show Ms. Merkel in a comfortable lead ahead of her chief rivals, making it likely that she will secure a fourth term as chancellor.
So why has Russia held back?
After failing to defeat Mr. Macron or so far obtain any positive dividends from its support of the Trump campaign, it is possible, experts say, that the Kremlin has decided to rethink its approach.
Russian influence operations, or active measures as they are known, tend to work only if no one is expecting them. Unlike the Obama administration, which chose to remain silent about Russia’s meddling for months before the election last November, German officials cannot seem to stop talking about the threat.
Weeks after the election of President Trump, Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, warned of cyber attacks aimed at “delegitimizing the democratic process” in Germany. Ms. Merkel herself has issued similar warnings.
“It makes absolutely no sense to conduct cyber ops because everyone is waiting for it,” Dr. Gaycken said. “It would almost make more sense for the C.I.A. to leak fake news to make it seem like the Russians did it.”
— NY Times