The propaganda strategies used by Russia in Germany are the same as those used in France and the United States of America. To put it in a broad sense, it has been discovered that in the period of 2015-2016 the following tools were utilized by Russia: hacks, cyber attacks and the dissemination of fake news through the active use of trolls, bots and pro-Kremlin TV channels. It is crucial to underscore that a large-scale cyber attack on German government computers and websites occurred, as well as a hacking attack on the Bundestag and an attempt to infiltrate Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union’s servers. In 2016, the Lisa Scandal was one of the most well-known Russian propaganda stories. Russia cooked up a narrative about a 13-year-old Russian-German girl being kidnapped and raped by migrants .The Russian media rapidly disseminated her fraudulent charges, and Russian bots and trolls furthered this narrative by accusing German government of concealing the issue. Despite being condemned and denied by German officials, the scandal managed to rally a sizable portion of Germany’s Russian-speaking populace. As pro-Kremlin media circulated the Lisa narrative, a series of rallies against Merkel’s migrant policies were organized in 60 German towns. It is important to add that many rallies were even attended by AfD officials. This scandal has helped the AfD to gain many votes. For instance, the AfD obtained disproportionally high results in the Baden-Württemberg, which is home to a large number of Russian speakers, as well as in several German municipalities.
It is important to note that in comparison to France and the United States, Russia appeared to be less engaged during the 2017 elections. This may be explained by a number of logical factors, the most important of which being that, unlike Marine Le Pen in France or Donald Trump in the United States, the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) had no realistic possibility of winning the election. The second most important reason is that the Kremlin took a more covert strategy this time, explicitly targeting just the Russian-speaking diaspora in Germany rather than the whole electorate. Russia targeted the Russian-speaking populace with a pro-AfD and anti-Merkel message. There is no solid proof that the AfD receives Kremlin funding, but it is also no secret that the AfD has ties to Russia. The leaders of the AfD met with pro-Putin Russian oligarchs,the members of Duma, anti-Western ideologist Dugin, and even traveled to Crimea and other separatist parts of Ukraine. When the AfD launched its campaign in May 2017, Sputnik Deutschland and RT increased their criticism of Angela Merkel and distributed pro-AfD information. It has been revealed that the AfD was supported by a Russian bot network located in Nizhny Novgorod. Pro-Kremlin German bots posted pro-AfD articles boosting the material of Sputnik and RT, as well as some pro-AfD sites. At least part of the anti-Merkel posts on Twitter was generated by bot accounts and trolls who previously supported Donald Trump in the 2016 US election.
Russian state television networks, which are still watched by almost half of Russian-speaking Germans, played a crucial role. Rossiya-1 – a Russian satellite television program, gave the AfD good publicity, stressed the maltreatment of Russians in Germany, and even ran AfD campaign advertising. Representatives of the AfD went on prominent Russian state television news shows to bolster the Kremlin’s negative narratives about Europe and Merkel’s “immigration catastrophe.”
It is crucial to underscore that, according to certain research, the far right in Germany is more prone than other groups to trust false news reports if they support their beliefs. They’re also more inclined to read and spread material from Russian websites. For them, the most sensitive issues are immigration, European stability, and terrorism.
Furthermore, Russian social networks like VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.ru, also played a crucial role. Multiple themed groups for Russian-speaking Germans were hosted on these networks, reflecting their pro-AfD, pro-Russian, and pro-Putin allegiances. These networks disseminate targeted propaganda, which frequently consists of hilarious memes and anti-refugee stories from Russian language news outlets.
Generally speaking, RT Deutsch and Sputnik assert to offer the German public “an alternate source of information, beyond the mainstream,”. “Our purpose is to show the opposite side of the story as well as reveal media deception,” RT Deutsch states on its website.
RT Deutsch tries to portray Germany in a bad light: Angela Merkel is purportedly a puppet of the United States, they also portray the chancellor as an adversary of true Germans, a Russophobe, and a Cold War defender. Moreover, according to RT Deutsch, the democracy is flawed, and the mainstream media is corrupted. Existing societal misgivings, such as Euro skepticism, unhappiness with the media, or anti-American attitudes, are skillfully exploited. The goal is to exacerbate even more current tensions, particularly over immigration concerns, and thereby split society. Russia tries to strengthen its positions through these actions.
RT Deutsch attempts to promote Russia’s president and German political parties with favorable attitudes toward Russia and Putin, such as the AfD and the left parties. There is no doubt that every media channel should be free in a democratic state , but Russia strives to utilize this fundamental feature of democratic system in order to damage democratic states such as Germany by deceiving and manipulating the free German people in order to accomplish its own political interests.
To concentrate on recent occurrences, some studies found that the Russian media played the crucial role to spread the fears in the German public during the pandemic , for example, RT Deutsch is repeatedly questioning the effectiveness of Western vaccines and claims that they cause harmful side effects.
Russia used a familiar two-pronged approach to meddling in the German political system during the recent general elections, similar to what it has done in the 2017 elections: first, to openly promote propaganda and false information about democratic processes in order to sow doubt among voters.
Second, Russia has been officially charged by Germany of seeking to influence its general election through a wave of cyber-attacks. The German Foreign Ministry stated that it has “reliable evidence” that hackers working for Russia’s GRU military intelligence organization attempted to acquire login information from federal and state legislators. This is most likely done to mislead voters by publishing bogus messages from politicians’ accounts in the run-up to the country’s federal election in September.
The Kremlin-backed media is likewise adopted a dual approach of helping AfD while targeting especially the Green Party, particularly its leader, Annalena Baerbock, whose anti-Russian attitude puts the Kremlin’s interests in jeopardy.
When Annalena Baerbock, the Chancellor candidate of the Green Party , declared that she wished to obstruct the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Europe and stated that Germany should increase pressure on Russia over its military buildup along the Ukrainian border, Russia made her the primary propaganda target. The attack has included bogus photographs purporting to show her naked, with a Russian model’s physique represented and an image showing her standing close to billionaire financier George Soros, which has been used to allege she is part of a global Jewish conspiracy.
To summarize, Russia actively employs propagandist tactics in various nations to attain its own political goals. Germany, as the richest and most powerful European state, is, of course, Russia’s target. To confuse the German people and generate divisiveness, Russia employs various means such as trolls, bots, false news, Kremlin TV stations, and hacking. It is clear that Russia recognizes that it cannot have a significant impact on the whole public, but it continues to pursue a clandestine policy of meddling in German politics through influencing Russian speakers. The AfD earned electoral success and entry into parliament with the help of Russian propaganda techniques. Russia also helps other parties that oppose the ruling establishments in order to undermine the democratic system and tarnish the reputations of prominent German leaders.
The article was published in the framework of Jan Karski Program for Young Georgian Leaders 2021.
The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Council, Embassy of the Republic of Poland to Tbilisi or Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.