With the European elections only three weeks away, the Kremlin and its media are once again ramping up their attempts to influence the political debate in Germany and exploit the situation for their benefit.
As in previous election campaigns, Kremlin media undertake the difficult task of portraying Putin’s Russia as a “good neighbor” of Germany while simultaneously exacerbating the country’s political and social tensions. The current German political landscape, with six main parties representing opposing views in the German Bundestag, provides a suitable framework by which the Kremlin can sow division and polarize the debate.
As earlier, parties on the extremes of the ideological spectrum are the Kremlin’s “natural allies.” These parties are useful for the Kremlin’s pre-election propaganda campaign in their support for an inwardly focused German foreign policy and their antipathy for the European Union.
The headline of an article published by RT Deutsch said that “the EU is sick and dying,” quoting Sahra Wagenknecht of the far-left party Die Linke. After the arrest of Julian Assange in London, Sputnik Deutschland and RT Deutsch both quoted Wagenknecht saying that the EU should ensure Assange’s liberation.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the partially right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its anti-EU demagogy remain a popular focus of Kremlin media in Germany. The Russian state-owned video news agency Ruptly published several videos promoting the AfD: one showcasing the looming political pact between AfD and Lega of Italy, and another titled “AfD Kicks Off EU Election Campaign by Declaring War on Brussels Technocrats.”
Russian media in Germany also try to shield their preferred party from scandals. After the revelation by Der Spiegel and others that an AfD member of parliament was “absolutely controlled” by Moscow, Kremlin media began a campaign to discredit both Der Spiegel and the story itself. RT Deutsch suggested that a “much more interesting question” would be who controls Der Spiegel and their objectives in making such accusations. Another RT Deutsch article diverted attention by suggesting a parallel between the Der Spiegel story and links between French politicians and the United States.
To complement its boosting of hardline parties, the Kremlin works to weaken those mainstream parties that it considers unfavorable for Moscow’s interests. Germany’s ruling coalition, comprised of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), is a frequent target. Apart from promoting like-minded politicians in the AfD and Die Linke and their messaging against Germany and the EU, Kremlin media also seek to further divide traditionally robust political parties and alliances.
By identifying and exacerbating divisions in the mainstream parties, Moscow hopes to pull the Social Democrats, who are currently moving further to the left after losing millions of voters over the past decade, closer to the Kremlin. A more Kremlin-friendly SPD might destabilize the current German government, which is struggling to keep unified both Germany’s and the whole EU’s position on Crimea-related Russian sanctions.
The Kremlin’s efforts benefit from the Social Democrats’ seeming unwillingness, or inability, to recognize this tactic. As has happened before, the party is unwittingly multiplying the Kremlin’s favored narratives. RT Deutsch landed a scoop when it aired in mid-April an exclusive interview with the SPD’s leading candidate for the EU elections, the federal justice minister Katarina Barley. Barley’s interview with the Russian outlet sparked a major outcry among all the pro-EU parties in the Bundestag as well as the German media landscape.
In her interview, Barley repeated the Kremlin myth that Nord Stream 2 is a “private venture” and claimed that Germany has “a close relationship” with its “partner” Russia. RT Deutsch also played on the increasing anti-Americanism in Barley’s party, evident in SPD’s fairly negative portrayal of US president Donald Trump on its EU election campaign posters. Asked about the EU’s enemies, Barley equivocated and did not name Russia or any particular country. RT Deutsch, however, displayed the SPD poster of Trump next to her head, answering the question for the audience.
Kremlin media then used the uproar over Barley’s interview to portray Germany as a country that does not respect freedom of speech. RT’s English language service, for example, claimed that “Barley was not attacked for anything she said” but rather because she talked to RT Deutsch. In reality, critics of the interview did base their rebukes on her comments as well as her appearance on RT Deutsch. Kremlin media, including Sputnik Deutschland, managed to milk the exclusive interview for several days.
Russian state media outlets continue their efforts to gain access to Kremlin-critical parties in the Bundestag, namely CDU/CSU, Die Grünen, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). Their success thus far has been limited, likely because many of these parties and their representatives have a clear understanding of Putin’s intentions. German politicians increasingly perceive any contact with the Kremlin’s quasi-media as damaging for their reputation.
Hence, Kremlin-owned news organizations frequently criticize these parties. They have, for instance, described chancellor Angela Merkel as “tired” of the EU elections and have also distorted SPD criticism of her meeting with then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko as support for the ultra-right in Ukraine.
Similarly, RT Deutsch labeled members of the FDP “neoliberals” in the apartment rent dispute (which is currently one of the most heated election topics in Germany), and discredited the Green Party’s ecological goals as “climate craze.”
All in all, the Kremlin’s approach in the current campaign does not differ significantly from past major elections in Germany. Its media outlets have merely adapted their campaign to Germany’s current affairs and issues. Putin’s pseudo-media know that AfD and Die Linke are on their side, try to exploit the SPD’s “peace with Russia” desire, and attempt to discredit the CDU/CSU, FDP, and Die Grünen for their positions on any Kremlin-related questions. Thus, the Kremlin’s information ecosystem in Germany has found a modus operandi which aims to further divide the German political landscape and public, one that mirrors the grander strategy that the Kremlin pursues in all of Europe.
Julian Röpcke is a foreign desk journalist in the German daily BILD. He frequently writes about and speaks at international conferences on the topic of Russian disinformation campaigns in Germany.