This Week in Info War

Moscow’s new strategy in Berlin

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The Kremlin adopts a more subtle infowar strategy in the German elections

Russian pundits expressed satisfaction at the results of the 24 September federal elections in Germany, which saw a surge in support for the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD)—even though Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc won the largest number of Bundestag seats, taking over 33 percent of the total. The result was the ruling bloc’s smallest share of the vote since the 1940s. Russian senator Alexei Pushkov attributed the result to “a syndrome of fatigue with Merkel.” He pointed to her open-door refugee policy as a major reason for the AfD’s unexpected third-place finish. “Populism lost to common sense in the German election,” stated former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. “It would be good if the new coalition’s policy toward Russia was also pragmatic.”

Many Moscow observers, moreover, praised what they claimed was the Kremlin’s non-interference in the balloting—a strong contrast to the Kremlin’s clumsy involvement in the French presidential elections last spring. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee (and an architect of the Kremlin’s soft-power strategy), wondered why the “imminent Russian interference” theory was “actively promoted by Berlin and other Western capitals during the first stage of the campaign, [then] completely disappeared from the screens in the last couple of months.” According to Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center: “No reports of Russian meddling in the German elections creates a favorable atmosphere for fresh attempts to improve bilateral relations.”

Although Moscow pulled back from overt meddling in the campaign, its state-owned media aggressively pushed the Kremlin’s political agenda. In the weeks leading up to the election, RT featured positive articles on the AfD, especially highlighting its anti-Islam stance. RT also frequently published German nationalist rhetoric claims that migrants were destroying the country’s culture, as well as skepticism about NATO and the European Union. In addition to boosting AFD party positions, RT also often criticized Merkel for failing to stop terrorism. It called her a threat to German identity and security, and stressed her comparatively low poll ratings and that of her party.

Sputnik took a softer approach, one apparently intended to bring Germany and Russia together. While RT generally sought to criticize the status quo, Sputnik made attempts to support it, often emphasizing the allegedly positive relationship between Russia and Germany on topics such as North Korean sanctions, the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Ukraine’s Donbas region and the mutual suffering shared by Germany and Russia during two world wars. Like RT, Sputnik ran many anti-American and anti-NATO messages that suggested Germany’s alliances were actually hurting the country. Sputnik’s infographics as well suggest a cooperative relationship between Merkel and Putin—a stark contrast from the high-energy, vibrant images used by RT. In one instance, Sputnik featured an article by German actor Til Schweiger, who provided anecdotal “evidence’” that American friendship was superficial and that Germany’s one true friend was Russia.

Although bots and online trolls were active during the German election, their influence seems to have been marginal. They tended to repeat and share messages that were already being supported by pro-Kremlin mainstream media and distributed by far-right populist parties. Perhaps the most controversial issue had to do with a selfie Merkel took with a Syrian refugee in 2015. Trolls used the photo to suggest that the refugee, Anas Modamani, was the mastermind behind several recent terrorist attacks, and that Merkel was friendly with Islamic extremists.

What explains this change in the Kremlin’s approach compared to the debacle in France? First, with Russia widely accused of hacking in France—and the United States—overt meddling in the German election so soon after those cases became known could have proven another serious mistake. Sergey Lagodinsky, a lawyer and researcher with a Green Party think tank in Berlin, stated that Germans generally were not expecting a huge amount of digital meddling by Moscow because in the end it did not work in France. “It is just too closely associated with Russia. It would hurt them [Russia].”

Second, Germany had more time to strengthen its resilience. The country not only learned from the U.S. and French cases; it also weathered the “Lisa case” in 2016, which involved the false reporting of a rape committed by a refugee which was picked up and heavily circulated by the Russian media. That case showed the potential for Russian media exploitation.

Finally, with extensive alternative methods advancing its interests inside Germany—through the SPD party, its ties to industry and the historic legacy that still hangs over eastern Germany—the Kremlin may have calculated that it could afford to tread a bit more unobtrusively this time. Since the AfD ran especially strongly in the former East Germany, it is possible that the RT and Sputnik media campaigns were enough to spur voters already sympathetic to the AfD to get out the vote. Moscow’s infowar capability, it appears, is able to learn from its mistakes, adjust and push forward again based on its assessment of Western vulnerabilities.