Anti-immigrant demonstrations, such as those by PEGIDA in Dresden or similar movements in other German cities are nothing unusual for Germans these days. And it is not unusual that such demonstrators would praise the Russian president Vladimir Putin as a role-model of an authoritarian leader who would defend Christianity and not bow to US imperialism. But such ideas were limited to the fantasies of the German far right. But in January 2016, the situation is different. Now Germany faces hybrid Russian interference in its domestic politics, particularly targeted at harming the current government and Chancellor Merkel in particular.
It started with the Russian Channel 1 reporting that a girl of Russian decent was abducted and gang-raped by Muslim refugees in Germany. This report was soon contradicted by the German policewho asserted that the girl was not raped (although sex with a minor is still a criminal offense) and that the men in question weren’t refugees. This didn’t stop Russian state media from painting a bleak picture of German domestic situation, portraying a country sliding into anarchy because of the uncontrolled influx of criminal and/or terrorist migrants. Russian propaganda made extensive use of content created by right-wing extremist and neo-Nazi groups to reinforce the picture of a Germany falling apart. The propaganda reached its peak when a rumour was started that 400 Russians had stormed a refugee-home to take their security into their own hands. Of course this incident was pure fiction. But it resonated both in Russia and with the German far right.
Then, on Sunday 24 January, smaller demonstrations started against the government and Merkel in particular, demanding “protection” against sexual assaults. While the banners worn were all in perfect German, hardly any German was spoken on the demonstration. The group that organised them, the “International Congress of the Russo-Germans” (Internationaler Kongress der Russlanddeutschen) was previously unknown and had nothing to do with any of the long established organisations of the Germans of Russian descent. The sudden appearance of organisation out of nowhere interested only in political mobilisation bears significant similarities to the Russian hybrid campaign in the Donbas in 2014.
On 26 January Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov added his opinion to the case, accusing Germany of obfuscating the investigation for political reasons. This leaves little doubt that the Kremlin is intentionally mobilising the Russian diaspora to reinforce divisionin Germany. He went further still by declaring that the protection of Russian citizens in Germany is a matter of concern for Russian foreign policy. The same excuse was used to justify Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.
After reports of widespread sexual assault against women in different German cities on New Year’s Eve, the domestic debate is indeed tense. The fact that the police was not aware of the scale of the incidents until media reports appeared made many Germans distrustful of the established institutions. Russia is now trying to reinforce this dissatisfaction and distrust to harm the German government and particularly Merkel. As the German tries to keep up European support for Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia, it came into the crosshairs of the Russian propaganda machine. And the refugee crisis resents plenty of opportunities to retaliate.
But is it just propaganda? The demonstrations reveal cooperation not only between the Russian propaganda machine, the PEGIDA movements and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), but also connections to very extremist activists including the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). Is Russia starting to organise and finance the right-wing German opposition? In Austria, Russian sponsorship and support for right-wing extremists is long established. In Germany, the lack of a stable counterpart and a different political culture made such a policy difficult. Up until now Russia has relied on their post-Communist allies Die Linke and the Russophile wing of the Social Democrats. But as the AfD climbs in the polls, the tables now turn. Russia may now aspire to a much deeper influence in German politics, and ideologically affiliated allies seem to be the preferred partners over the business elites of the old Schröderian days.
But the Russian attempts to destabilise Germany might easily backfire.
First, anti-fascism is still deeply rooted in German political culture. This may make it more difficult for Russia to tap up serious politicians, as Russian propaganda becomes more xenophobic and links with the extremist right become more obvious.
Second, while the post-Communist party Die Linke is still unconditionally pro-Russian, the chances of this party entering a governing coalition shrink. Its proximity to the Kremlin is alienating other leftist parties (the Greens or the Social Democrats) and making a leftist coalition bloc with them less likely. As Die Linke’s anti-Americanism, anti-Europeanism, and chauvinism (directed against non-Russian eastern European peoples) becomes increasingly similar to the right-wing parties, the increasing Russian influence is uniting the German mainstream parties in their desire to resist this influx. As a result, the German Greens are more supportive of Merkel than some wings of her own party.
Rather than destabilising Germany, Russian interference may instead embolden German politicians who want to uphold the sanctions against Russia, until Russia implements the Minsk agreement. It will drive German officials look more closely at non-recognition policies regarding Crimea. And last but not least, it will strengthen German public opinion in favour of supporting efforts to protect NATO allies from Russian interference once they have had first-hand experience what the Kremlin’s hybrid foreign policy looks like. This doesn’t mean Russian interference will stop: it will not be the first, nor is it likely to be the last, self-defeating policy the Kremlin embarks on.