The media storm surrounding a fake story about a Russian-German girl, who had reportedly been raped by Arab migrants, was a wake up call for German political elites earlier this year. For the first time, they clearly saw the links between Russian domestic and foreign media campaigns against Germany and Russian politics at the highest level. The German government promptly advised the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in coordination with the Foreign Office to check Russian sources of manipulation of German public opinion.
Germany‘s leading role in the Ukraine crisis, Angela Merkel's consequent position on sanctions against Russia and her leadership in Europe make the German government a core target of Russian disinformation.
The “Lisa case“ also shows not only the failure of Germany's partnership for modernisation with Russia but also the dysfunctionality of Russia's attempts to use personal ties and informal networks to influence German decision-making and policy when it comes to the current crisis and, in particular, the person of Chancellor Merkel. While the German government remains strongly committed to keeping channels for dialogue open, we see a complete loss of trust in relations which will be very hard to rebuild in the forseeable future.
Areas of Russian influence
Because of its close social, political and economic interweavement with Russia, Germany is a special case in relations with Moscow. Over the past 25 years, the goal of German elites was always to build up trust via networks and to support "change through interweavement with Russia" at all levels.
Under Putin's leadership these ties have increasingly been used in the opposite direction, aimed at influencing both bilateral relations and Germany's Russia policy in Europe. As a result we observe many non-transparent networks of relations which are partly linked to economic interests. This became visible in energy projects like Nord Stream, where former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is chairman of its supervisory board, as well as in former Stasi networks at Gazprom Germania.
The Russian leadership has actively promoted informal and non-transparent networks, exchanges and selection of participants in institutions and circles initated by Germany, such as the German-Russian Forum. As a result, the cooperative approach of the German side, opened channels for the Russian leadership to influence German politics and public. Until the Ukraine crisis, there was a lack of understanding among German decision-makers about the nature and goals of Putin‘s system of power, including the basics for a counter strategy. Despite all the offers of dialogue with Russia, this is now changing.
The role of the German government in the Ukraine crisis has led to an increase in Russian activities in the country and the activation of existing networks. Russian media and politics use and promote anti-EU, anti-US and anti-establishment groups to influence the mood of German society.
We observe three areas of Russian influence: first, Russian foreign media like RT and Sputnik; second, growing links with German populist parties on the right and left margins of the political spectrum; third, the use of its network of former politicians and institutions for dialogue to try to shape German decision-making on Russia in the current discussion on sanctions.
Russian foreign media
Russian media operating in Germany are the media platform Sputnik including the newsagency RIA Novosti, the German speaking radio programme "Voice of Russia", the TV Channel RT via Ruptly TV and the German speaking branch RT Deutsch.
RT Deutsch produces the TV show "the missing part" which aims to show a different picture of events to that in German mainstream media. According to their website, the main goal is to "build up a counter-public as well as show media manipulation" in the German public discourse. RT Deutsch, for instance, broadcasts live coverage of the demonstrations of the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA. Russian foreign media cooperate with system-critical journalists, pseudo experts and conspiracy media like Compact. They give a platform to rightwing populist party representatives of Alternative for Germany (AfD) or representatives of the leftwing parliamentarian party "Die Linke" who promote the lifting of sanctions or arguments about Ukraine known from Russian disinformation campaigns.
These Russian media are not successful in reaching the broader German public, they are rather a niche product for special social groups. Nevertheless, it is important to note that they are increasingly linked with websites of right and leftwing networks, that they give platforms to representatives from populist parties and that they use social media and these connections to bring their content into the public sphere and the mainstream media. Of course, all these Russian foreign channels widely reported on the “Lisa case“.
Over decades, the Social Democratic partie (SPD) played a central role in the conceptualisation of Germany's Russia and Eastern Europe policy. The partnership for modernisation is based on the traditional social democratic concept of "change through interweavement" first with the Soviet Union and, after 1991, with the Russian Federation. The annexation of Crimea, the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 and the war in eastern Ukraine have become a reality check for Germany's Russia policy.
Despite their limited popularity in his own party, SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has supported the sanctions against Russia. In the past, it tended to be the older generation of the SPD (like the former Chancellors Gerhard Schröder or the recently deceased Helmut Schmidt) who advocated for understanding with Russia. However, in the current public discussion, it was SPD Vice-Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel who argued several times for a gradual abolition of sanctions and publicly supported the extension of the Nord Stream pipeline during meeting with Putin in Moscow in October 2015.
Members of both the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag "Die Linke" and the rightwing populist party AfD have developed links with Russian state institutions. The deputy parliamentary party leader of "Die Linke", Wolfgang Gehrke, traveled together with a party collegue to the separatist region of Donetsk to supply "relief aid" and meet the leaders of the so called "People‘s Republic".
The deputy party speaker of AfD, Alexander Gauland, visited the Russian embassy in November 2014 and supported a regular exchange with the Russian side. The head of AfD‘s youth organization, Markus Frohnmaier, is reported to have participated in a congress of pan-Slavic groups in Belgrade in 2014 and to have had meetings with Robert Schlegel – formerly a leading member of the pro-Putin Youth organisation "Nashi" and now responsible for party contacts abroad for the leading pro-Kremlin party United Russia.
The past 15 years have seen the development of a network of "Russia friendly" experts, journalists and politicians who have been active during the Ukraine crisis. The German-Russian Forum has become a key institution of these networks. It also organises the Petersburg Dialog – a civil society platform founded by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Putin in 2001.
Both institutions are actually directed more towards business interests and elite dialogue, than exchanges among civil society. Former SPD Chairman and Minister-President of Brandenburg Mathias Platzeck has become the Chairman of the German-Russian Forum. He publically espouses Russian positions on the Ukraine crisis, for instance, demanding that the Russian annexation of Crimea be legalised retrospectively as being “acceptable“ for both sides.
Beside the right and leftwing populist networks, several former politicians, economists and journalists spread Russian disinformation arguments in mainstream media. They take part in talk shows in national public TV and give interviews in the main newspapers and have much more effect on opinion-making than Russian foreign media – but they use arguments known from Russian media.
What is new with the Lisa case?
The case of Lisa dominated the headlines and impacted on German public discussion for two weeks in January 2016. The 13 year old Russian-German girl had gone missing for 30 hours and was reported by First Russian TV to have been raped by migrants. The story turned out to be fake (the German police were able to establish that she had been with a friend that night) but was intensively reported in Russian domestic and foreign media, and ended in diplomatic tensions between Germany and Russia.
In the “Lisa case“ we see evidence, for the first time, of several of the different Russian elements of influence that are described in this article working in a coordinated way:
- A journalist from the First Russian TV channel picked up the case of the Russian-German girl and brought it to the main news in Russia;
- Russian foreign media like RT, Sputnik and RT Deutsch reported on the case;
- Social media as well as rightwing groups distributed the information on the internet;
- Demonstrations were organised via Facebook involving representatives of the German-Russian minority (Deutschlandrussen) as well as neo-Nazi groups;
- Russian foreign media in Germany reported from these demonstrations, which brought it to the German mainstream media;
- Finally, at the top political level, Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov made two public statements about his concerns about the inability of the German police and legal system to take such cases seriously because of political correctness.
As a result of the “Lisa case“ and the different Russian activities in the context of the Ukraine conflict, we are seeing a shift in Germany from the dominance of the economy over politics to a dominance of politics over the economy. Russia has become a security risk, the relations are increasingly politicised and securitised.
As media reports after a leak, the new German White Book for security has identified Russia as one out of the country’s main challenges. According to its authors, the Russian leadership is not only questioning the post-Cold War security order in Europe but is also using "hybrid instruments for a targeted blurring of bounderies between war and peace" and "digital communication to influence public opinion" in Germany.