In less than a week, on September 24th, the German public will vote in the country’s general elections – not only to determine who will sit in the country’s parliament, known as the Bundestag, but also who will become – or remain – Chancellor. As the economic and political European heavyweight, Germany has been seen as the anchor for an EU in crisis, making it a prime target for those seeking to undermine European unity and stability. Russia has shown a propensity for taking subtle, and not so subtle, measures to sow confusion and undercut political opponents in the West – most prominently in last year’s U.S. elections that may have helped bring the administration of Donald Trump into power. Russia’s cyber-enabled influence campaigns seek to exacerbate societal divisions by disseminating false narratives and leveraging hack-and-leak tactics that promise compromising and salacious material on critical voices.
The anticipated target of Russian subversion: Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrist Christian Democratic Union. The resoluteness of Merkel – who is seeking her fourth term as Chancellor – against Russian adventurism in Ukraine, Kremlin intimidation of the eastern most NATO members in the Baltics, and her uniting efforts for a Europe resilient against Russian subversion, has likely put her on the radar in Lubyanka, the Russian Federal Security Services’ (FSB) headquarters in Moscow.
Germany, with its influx of Arab migrants fleeing a devastating war in Iraq and Syria, as well as a three million strong Russian-speaking population reliant on Kremlin-controlled media, is vulnerable to such active measures, the Russian term for covert action. And after nearly two decades of American military assertiveness abroad – now exacerbated by a reactionary and bombastic president – there is considerable anti-American sentiment in Germany. Russia, which portrays itself as reining in the United States around the world, is well placed for influence.
With considerable success at weaving misinformation into the narratives of discontent within the United States and little reprisal beyond the shame of failure to accomplish the same in the recent French elections, Russia is likely emboldened to take such action against Germany.
Moscow has already been able to insert itself into controversies regarding sensitive issues such as refugees, same-sex marriage, terrorism, and NATO. The most notorious example being what has become known as the Lisa case, where Russian media outlets began circulating a false story in January 2016 about a 13-year-old Russian-German girl who was reportedly abducted and raped by Arab migrants. After two weeks, German officials debunked the story and directly accused Moscow of engaging in propaganda.