Ever since the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Western capitals have been alarmed at Russia’s hybrid warfare campaigns. That these activities are not limited to the U.S. domestic scene was raised by U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who has alerted Washington’s French and German allies of Moscow’s overt and covert interference in elections in their countries.
Germany in particular had already been confronted with this phenomenon even before November 2016. As the crucial player in the EU and due to its specific relationship with Moscow, Berlin is notably vulnerable to Russia’s tactics. Given this preeminent status, Germany should respond to Russian hybrid warfare in a number of ways, both domestically and internationally.
A Daily Concern
Since 2014 and the outbreak of the crises in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Germany has repeatedly fallen victim to Russia’s manipulation attempts. Berlin is principally concerned with the new methods and strategies of interference that it has been facing.
The incident most prominently etched in the German government’s memory is the so-called Lisa case. In January 2016, reports circulated on social media that a thirteen-year-old Russian-German girl named Lisa had been missing for thirty hours and had allegedly been raped by three refugees. Thanks to investigations by the German police, the allegations were quickly debunked: the girl had been with a friend and had not been raped. However, Russian domestic and foreign media immediately took up the story and insisted it was accurate. As a consequence, groups from Germany’s Russian minority and right-wing sympathizers organized joint demonstrations in front of the Federal Chancellery in Berlin. The incident reached its peak when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the German authorities of a politically motivated cover-up of the story.
Beyond this infamous disinformation operation, the German Bundestag experienced several cyberattacks by Russian hackers in 2015 and 2016. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that dealing with such attacks of Russian origin had become a “daily task.” Furthermore, Germany’s domestic intelligence service has warned German policymakers of Russia’s attempts to influence the parliamentary election in September 2017. These concerns were echoed by Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service.
Russia’s hybrid warfare is not limited to cyberattacks and disinformation operations but also includes economic pressure and blackmail, the use of proxies, and the exploitation of minorities in target countries. All of these tactics have been identified in the German context. Because hybrid warfare comprises an overarching tool kit, a defense strategy to fight this kind of warfare is a major challenge. To fight those tactics, national authorities must ask themselves why they have been targeted, what their vulnerabilities are, and how they can mitigate them.
Berlin’s Response to the Ukraine Crisis
At the heart of Russia’s interest in confronting Germany is the latter’s leading role in the European context. Berlin was the main initiator of EU sanctions against Moscow in response to its March 2014 annexation of Crimea. Additionally, the German government, in close coordination with France, represents the Western part of the Normandy format, the main group of negotiators working to resolve the Ukrainian conflict. (The format also includes Russia and Ukraine.) Shortly after the outbreak of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, Merkel spearheaded talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hence, the Kremlin has a natural interest in influencing the other side of the negotiating table, so that Germany is induced to be more favorable toward Russia’s intentions during the talks.
The confrontation between the two states is reflected first and foremost in Germany’s contributions to NATO’s posture in Eastern Europe against potential Russian aggression. Despite its underfinanced Bundeswehr, Berlin has shown a robust response to the changing security environment in Europe triggered by the Ukraine crisis. It played a leading role in the setup of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, NATO’s spearhead force to confront a possible Russian hybrid attack on a member state’s soil. The commitment culminated in the German armed forces’ placement to lead a multinational battle group in Lithuania under NATO’s enhanced forward presence initiative. As a response, Russia is actively trying to dilute the German public’s support for these operations.
A Clash of Narratives
Besides these practical reasons why Russia has a strong interest in influencing Germany’s internal debate, there is an emerging clash of narratives between the two actors. Amid the rise of often pro-Russian populists in the West, Germany’s population in the main appears to have resisted the siren of nationalism. Considering the UK’s Brexit vote, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the National Front’s growing foothold in French politics, the New York Times even called Merkel “the liberal West’s last defender.” Germany’s insistence on promoting the European idea is another indication of this refusal to adopt an inward-looking approach.
This worldview contrasts strongly with Russia’s illiberal democratic model, which Moscow strives to spread to the West while using populist parties on the Right as its willing accessories. The Kremlin’s support for extremist parties like the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy, the Freedom Party of Austria, or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has helped produce a network of antiliberal and antiglobalization parties across Europe, all sympathetic to the Kremlin’s concept of more authoritarian democracy, even if these populist parties are not identical. Germany and Russia represent a battle of ideas, so the latter has an interest in denigrating the credibility and views of the former.
Another important factor is Merkel’s relationship with Putin and her commitment to the transatlantic idea. The Russian president, who was stationed in East Germany as a KGB foreign intelligence officer and is fluent in German, has always had a special connection to Germany. His affinity is most strikingly illustrated by his friendship with Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who now chairs the board of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline project owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Yet, when Merkel took office in 2005, a marked change occurred. Similar to Putin in Germany, she is quite familiar with Russia, because she spent part of her university days in Moscow and speaks Russian. However, having also lived for almost thirty-five years in socialist East Germany, she has always been attracted by the Western model of democracy. Given that background, Putin has had to deal with a German chancellor who is cautious about a close bond with the Kremlin and is an outspoken transatlanticist.
This change in the personal component of German-Russian relations is perhaps another reason why Berlin has come into Putin’s crosshairs. This motivation is also suspected by Hans-Georg Maaßen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, who voiced the opinion that Putin would prefer another chancellor than Merkel.
Germany’s Vulnerabilities From a Russian Perspective
Societal Fault Lines
The Kremlin seeks to exploit pro-Russian sentiments in German society, such as the German-Russian minority, which numbers approximately 3 million and constitutes a considerable vote base. This minority can be roughly split into three different groups: ethnic Russian immigrants; so-called Russlanddeutsche (Germans of Russia), who are descendants of Germans who emigrated to the Soviet Union and immigrated back to Germany after the fall of the Iron Curtain; and Russian Jews.
Members of the second group are especially prone to Russian influence, because some of them feel isolated from mainstream German society and politics. This sentiment surfaced during the Lisa case, when the International Convention of Russian-Germans spearheaded demonstrations. The movement’s chairman, Heinrich Groth, has close contacts to circles around the Kremlin and claims, for instance, that the German authorities do not “protect Russian families.”
Russia’s potential for societal leverage vis-à-vis Germany does not stop there. Unlike the Turkish government, which can rely only on German Turks who lean toward Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Moscow can co-opt Germans with no Russian origin. Since the time of the former German Democratic Republic, East Germans have had close cultural and political ties to Russia, resulting in a more positive stance toward Putin’s polices. For example, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center in 2015, “eastern Germans (40%) are twice as likely as western Germans (19%) to have confidence in Putin” and have a less favorable view of NATO.
Furthermore, even though a large part of mainstream society disagrees with Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the German public tends to maintain a balanced attitude toward Moscow. This position emanates not only from the country’s historical guilt toward Russia due to World War II but also from the practices of Ostpolitik, Germany’s policy of détente toward Moscow in the 1970s.
Therefore, many Germans still entertain the idea of an in-between role of outreach toward Russia and good relations with the West. The most profound expression of that view was made by 60 German personalities, including former president Roman Herzog and Schröder, in December 2014, when they published an open letter entitled “Another War in Europe? Not in Our Name!,” which called for a European policy of détente toward Russia. This vision is reflected in the division in the German population between a pro-U.S. camp and a more neutral group that is friendlier toward Moscow and whose views the Kremlin can instrumentalize in its public diplomacy. In a survey of eight NATO states published by the Pew Research Center in May 2017, Germans were the least supportive of defending their allies against a potential Russian aggression.
Against this backdrop, the Kremlin has a favorable position in Germany compared with other countries: it can count on the support of certain segments of society and has the potential to influence the mainstream by referring to the two states’ common history.
With a globally oriented economy, Germany has a strong interest in maintaining and expanding good commercial relations with major partners like Russia. Even though Russia was only the sixteenth-biggest country to which Germany exported in 2016, trade relations between the two countries have grown in recent years.
Therefore, it was not surprising that some German interest groups and companies lobbied against continuing the EU sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. In June 2017, the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations demanded an end to the sanctions, because the measures had led to heavy losses for the German economy. The same stance was adopted by Matthias Platzeck, the chairman of the German-Russian Forum, which seeks to foster bilateral business ties. German companies like Siemens or Volkswagen have stated that the growing wedge between Europe and Russia will harm their business relations severely.
Yet, a bigger potential vulnerability is in the energy sector. Like other countries in Europe, Germany relies on Russian oil and gas supplies. In 2014, Germany’s oil and gas imports from Russia amounted to 36 and 35 percent respectively of total imports. In the same year, an internal risk analysis by the German Federal Ministry of Economy stated that if there were a Russian gas boycott, the German government would have to declare an energy emergency within a few months, with huge damage for the domestic industrial sector. There are even estimates that by 2025, Germany’s dependence on Russian gas will increase to more than 50 percent of total gas imports. It is hardly a surprise that calls for Germany’s energy diversification have become louder and louder. However, large energy companies like E.ON, RWE, and BASF’s Wintershall have considerable influence and prefer to continue their energy partnerships with Russia for business reasons.
That said, compared with other European states like Bulgaria or Slovakia, Germany’s dependence on Russian energy imports is not dramatic. Still, diversification cannot happen overnight. Shortly after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, concerns in the German media were expressed that Putin could turn these gas and oil imports into energy weapons. In that context, German lawmakers, EU member states, and the European Commission have voiced growing public criticism of the continuation of the Nord Stream 2 project, which aims to expand a gas pipeline that runs from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. The concern is that this project has an adverse effect on the EU’s goal to diversify its energy sources.
To effectively exploit political vulnerabilities, an attacker will aim to decry the credibility of a government and aid opposition groups that lobby for the attacker’s interests. In the German context, Russia has recognized that the refugee crisis that began in 2015 is the Achilles’ heel of Merkel’s chancellorship. The crisis has become the main ongoing theme on Germany’s political scene and has split society into two roughly equal camps. Russian disinformation operations have highlighted alleged or real misbehavior by refugees or have spread the image of an overburdened government failing to cope with the refugee influx.
When it comes to support for proxies, Russia maintains a strategy of simultaneously backing political parties on the Far Right and Far Left all over Europe. Moscow can appeal to the Left due to its Soviet history and anti-imperialist stance and to the Right because of its strong nationalist-conservative values system.
This is also evident in the German case. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) has adopted a pro-Russian stance and even questioned Germany’s NATO membership. Several high-ranking AfD members have attended conferences organized by the Russian government or featuring figures close to the Kremlin. Interestingly, with its pro-Putin approach, the party also tries to lure voters from the German-Russian minority. Other right-wing groups like the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) pursue a similarly pro-Russian stance by criticizing Germany’s alignment with NATO.
Germany’s Left party, too, has a comparably Russia-friendly position, even if the organizational connections with Russia are not as close as those between the AfD and pro-Russian groups. Some Left lawmakers have demanded the lifting of the EU sanctions against Moscow and appear on German television talk shows claiming that NATO has encircled Russia through its expansionist policies.
In other words, the common bond between the Kremlin and the German Far Left is reflected not in any cultural convergence or nationalist ideas, as exists between Moscow and Germany’s Far Right, but in an antagonism toward U.S. prevalence in the international system. That the connecting factors exploited by the Kremlin are at loggerheads—for example, the anti-immigrant attitudes of the Right are rejected by the Left—has so far, ironically, not harmed Russia’s two-track strategy.
Together, the AfD and the Left currently represent approximately 20 percent of the German electorate in opinion polls and thus have considerable leverage. With this in mind, the Kremlin is aware that it can count on internal help in Germany for its attempts at interference.
Media Freedom and Cyberattacks
When it comes to hybrid warfare campaigns, democracies are at a disadvantage because of factors that create a structural asymmetry favoring authoritarian states. One of these factors is freedom of the press. Whereas authoritarian states suppress unpleasant media outlets, democracies allow media coverage in a pluralist and independent fashion. This asymmetry is comprehensively exploited by state-affiliated Russian media outlets like RT or Sputnik in Germany. Russia’s advantage stems from diminishing trust in German media over recent years. According to a survey conducted in December 2014, 63 percent of respondents did not believe the German media’s coverage of the Ukraine conflict.
Since 2014, a German-language version of RT, RT Deutsch, has been aired in Germany via YouTube and has featured so-called experts and politicians from the German Far Left and Far Right. The channel spurs conspiracy theories, including a narrative that Germany is under the tutelage of the United States and NATO. In December 2016, for instance, RT Deutsch reported that “the U.S. would deploy 2,000 tanks on German soil.” In fact, the United States moved only 87 tanks through Germany to deploy them in Poland and the Baltic states. RT Deutsch is accused of spreading fake news, as alleged by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
The infamous Russian social-media trolls are also active in Germany. Merkel’s Instagram account was bombarded with abuse from thousands of Russian trolls just days after she set up her profile in June 2015.
There are also indications that a new Lisa case was created. In February 2017, trolls, again widely believed to be Russian, attempted to replicate the success of the original affair, this time in Lithuania. The scandal was started by a draft report sent to the speaker of the Lithuanian parliament claiming that German soldiers, who are leading NATO’s new battle group there, had raped a teenager. However, this time, the rumor was quickly revealed as fake news and did not trigger further reactions.
Russian hackers have launched extensive cyberattacks against German authorities like the Bundestag or individual lawmakers. In its newest Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution, published in July 2017, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency warned of more cyberattacks emanating from Russia. Besides potential attempts at meddling in the general election on September 24, 2017, the report stated that Russian cyberattacks (and espionage activities) especially targeted bodies like the Federal Foreign Office, the Federal Ministries of Finance and Economy, the German armed forces, the Federal Chancellery, and German embassies to gain access to information.
How Germany Can Reduce Its Vulnerabilities
Because Germany has special cultural, political, economic, and historical connections with Russia, it also has many vulnerabilities and fault lines that Moscow can exploit in its hybrid warfare campaign. Russian circles could attack Germany in many fields, complicating the setup of a defense strategy. To bolster its resilience, the German government must skillfully find the right tools to reduce each of these vulnerabilities.
In the societal realm, Germany must win back the trust of the Russian minority, for instance through social integration programs. In addition, the German government will probably have to think about emulating allies like the Czech Republic or Sweden that have established centers to fight disinformation campaigns. In this context, Berlin could provide information to the public about certain myths. For instance, Germany should clarify that the Ostpolitik of the 1970s was successful only because the country’s integration into the Western alliance was unshakable.
Regarding its economic and energy vulnerabilities, Berlin has to drive forward the diversification of its energy imports to decrease its dependence on Russian gas. This is a long-term project for Germany, and it remains to be seen how the country will manage its ambitious aim to rely increasingly on renewable sources for its power production.
The new cybercommand launched by the Bundeswehr in April 2017 is a good first step to counter cyberattacks emanating from Russia. The German armed forces have even elevated cyberspace to the new sixth branch of the German military, showing the importance Berlin assigns to this threat.
Furthermore, Germany needs to adopt a mentality of vigilance, because the Russian approach is permanently adapting on the basis of trial and error. Even if Russia does not succeed every time, that is no reason for it to desist. Few people in Germany anticipated that the refugee crisis could ever become a flashpoint for Russian hybrid warfare campaigns. Strategic foresight is essential here. Because vulnerabilities can be found in various domains, one solution could be to establish a cross-governmental task group in which different state agencies can exchange information to increase situational awareness.
Besides these domestic measures that Germany can take, Berlin has a special responsibility for its allies due to its extraordinary position in the European context. Here, Germany can lead by example. If Germans can successfully integrate their country’s Russian minority, Germany has more leverage to suggest to its Baltic allies that the Russian-speaking populations in those countries should no longer fall victim to the Kremlin’s exploitation. Berlin has to act skillfully, though, because its insistence on the Nord Stream 2 project may have the opposite effect of increasing the Baltic states’ vulnerabilities to Russian pressure.
Germany can also raise awareness among its allies about the importance of Russia’s hybrid threats and how important it is to have a comprehensive approach, including internationally. In October 2015, the German government embarked on a first step in that direction by tabling a food-for-thought paper in NATO and the EU to achieve a common understanding of these threats. Germany’s support for the establishment of a European center of excellence for countering hybrid threats in Helsinki is also important in that context.
In addition, Berlin can convey the message to its allies that to fight these hybrid tactics, be they military or nonmilitary, solidarity and coherence among the EU and NATO allies are of prime importance. The Kremlin has an interest in sowing discord among EU member states, because only a united union can maintain sanctions against Russia. The German government could push for more practical cooperation, for instance by promoting more intelligence sharing among EU and NATO states and regular consultations for countries to share their experiences and strategies to counter threats.
A democracy must stick to its principles and cannot use the same tactics as an attacker. It appears that the German government has understood this: German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has said that measures like counterpropaganda do not suit free societies. The government also has to accept that certain opposition groups are in favor of Russia’s way of acting. But Germany’s tools must remain constitutional and democratic—meaning that the government has to increase its efforts at persuasion and not resort to repressive measures, as its authoritarian counterparts do—as well as likely to be effective.
Germany must fight these threats, not only because of the country’s own fate, but also given its responsibility for the whole EU and for the preservation of the European idea. As the most powerful EU member, Germany must be a role model for its peers.
Kaan Sahin was a Mercator fellow on international affairs at Carnegie Europe in spring 2017.