America and the rest of the world are still struggling to understand what led to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election of 2016. It is almost dangerous—and at the very least, surprising—that the influence of Russian cyberattacks and disinformation are not a major subject within current discussions.
They were reason enough for German chancellor Angela Merkel to announce concern and worries. Germany is already the target of Russian hacker attacks and disinformation.
With a view to the upcoming elections in September 2017, Merkel warned of a possible increase of Russian interference, especially during the election campaigns.
The reason for the recent interest in Germany is most likely linked to the politics of Chancellor Merkel. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Merkel successfully pushed through sanctions against Russia by mutual European agreement.
Russia presumably wants to weaken Merkel’s standing, thereby weakening Germany’s role in the European Union and, as a result, hoping European support for sanctions will crumble and back down. In times of domestic political challenges in Germany and a fundamental crisis of the EU, Russia aims at using this momentum to successfully implement its disinformation.
Why is Russian disinformation frequently successful in targeting Germany?
In its efforts to manipulate German public opinion, Russia has strategically chosen to exert its influence by addressing German vulnerabilities.
The following are eight reasons why Germany is particularly susceptible to Russian disinformation.
- Addressing and triggering already-existent anti-Western resentments
Russian disinformation tries to promote anti-capitalism, nationalism, and anti-Western resentments. Experts conclude Putin’s worldview of the “Decadent West” is broadly shared within parts of German society. Russian propaganda concentrates on the right and left margins of society, knowing the breeding ground for their messages is especially promising there.
- The Russian-German population
There are several million Russian-Germans within Germany. A proportion of them was partly socialized in the former Soviet Union, making them more vulnerable and open to Russian propaganda. The results of one survey were particularly striking: 19 percent indicated they trust German media, whereas 30 percent trust the Russian media. Conditions like these invite Russian intelligence to particularly tailor information for these groups. The right-wing populist party AfD used flyers in Russian during their campaign, targeting those minorities successfully.
- Historical connections and war history
One historical connection is the sense of guilt following the criminally aggressive war against the Soviet Union. Another is gratitude for German reunification as a gift from the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and the narrative of politics toward the East since the 1970s, stating one has to keep the dialogue and the door open. This pattern has anchored itself in many people’s minds, establishing some kind of moral obligation to ensure peaceful relations with the Russian neighbor.
- Germany is wavering between West and East
Germany is in the crucial and important role of being a communicator between the East and West. As powerful as this role is, it can put the country in the horns of a dilemma, making it vulnerable to external forces trying to influence the fragmented public opinion.
- The momentum of the refugee crisis
Germany has taken in most of refugees in Europe. The welcome-culture at the beginning of the crisis slowly faded away, followed by a change in public opinion. The terror attacks in Europe, including those in Germany, made extreme parties and organizations stronger. Russia not only supports these groups financially, but its media (Sputnik and RT are both active in Germany) produce stories putting refugees in a bad light, triggering further rejection of them and thereby, in the end, a rejection of Merkel and her politics.
- Mistrust in public institutions and elites
As many other democracies, Germany is struggling with a part of its society feeling lost and disconnected. Some Germans are tired of traditional politics based on compromise; the politicians and the media are no longer trustworthy—a perception that is used by the Russians. Their disinformation strategy not only provides wrong or misleading information, but in the end aims at causing a general mistrust of media.
- Russian networks of influence
Russia has succeeded in recruiting German politicians for important economic projects, like the Nord Stream pipeline. Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is probably the best known example, being the board chairman of the Russian-German pipeline. He might be the most prominent case, but by far not the only one. Next to these individual cases, Russia has built up a broad influential network through civil society connections, including experts, journalists, and lobby institutions.
- Germany is struggling with its own new narrative
Germany is still in the process of changing its narrative concerning foreign policy and defense leadership. Not only does the narrative need to transform into real policies, but it also needs to gain sufficient public support. In this contested period of change, Germany is especially vulnerable to foreign interference and disinformation campaigns.
Russia will play a prominent role in the campaign for the upcoming federal elections in Germany. This should be a chance, or even an obligation, to address the issues outlined here.
Simon Schütz is a Research Intern at AICGS in Fall 2016. A longer version of this piece originally appeared here.