Impact of Russian Disin­for­ma­tion in Germany

Foto: GEOpol­i­tics

Since the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, Russian propa­ganda in the West and in Germany has taken on a different dimension. It is aimed at under­mining Western democracy, stirring up fear and weakening support for Ukraine. An article by Khatia Kikalishvili for GEOpolitics.

It is no secret that disin­for­ma­tion and foreign infor­ma­tion manip­u­la­tion and inter­fer­ence (FIMI) pose long-term threats to liberal democ­ra­cies. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, Russian propa­ganda in the West and in Germany has taken on a different dimension. It aims to undermine Western democracy, stir up fear, and weaken the support for Ukraine.

There is no question that an insti­tu­tional defense mechanism against propa­ganda should be strength­ened to boost the resilience of societies and the state. Unfor­tu­nately, in the past, the dangers of Russian propa­ganda have not been taken seriously enough in Germany, both among the popu­la­tion and in politics. This article describes the main instru­ments of Russian propa­ganda in Germany, their impact on society and politics, and the strate­gies Berlin is pursuing to combat disin­for­ma­tion and FIMI.

Means and Methods of Russian Propa­ganda in Germany

Russian propa­ganda has various methods and instru­ments to influence public opinion in Germany. Russian propa­ganda has been system­at­i­cally pursued in Germany, partic­u­larly since the start of the war of aggres­sion against Ukraine.

Russia relies on a complex network of state or state-controlled actors to spread disin­for­ma­tion, including the German-language Russian state media, official diplo­matic and Kremlin-affil­i­ated social media accounts, political orga­ni­za­tions, cultural asso­ci­a­tions, oligarchs, foun­da­tions, and think tanks. The narra­tives and disin­for­ma­tion mainly focus on alle­ga­tions, stereo­types, texts, and videos with content in line with Russia’s propa­ganda message box, which aims to convince, scare, and alarm the German public.

The Russian state’s foreign tele­vi­sion channel, Russia Today (RT), has proven to be a partic­u­larly successful player since the start of the Russian invasion in 2014. In March 2022, the European Union decided to ban RT across Europe for distorting facts and attempts at desta­bi­liza­tion. Never­the­less, the broad­caster can still be accessed as RT DE provided its users with detailed infor­ma­tion on how to circum­vent the restric­tions. In February 2023, the online content was available on six pages with different URLs. Interview guests and guest authors who regularly published on RT DE can still be found on “alter­na­tive media,” such as the YouTube channel InfraRot Medien — Sicht ins Dunkel and the blog Anti-Spiegel, as well as Alina Lipp’s Neues aus Russland. All of these actors are Putin supporters who justify the war in Ukraine.

Crisis topics are also trendy: refugees, energy, and inflation. The German govern­ment is noto­ri­ously portrayed as incom­pe­tent, and a lot of attention is given to anti-NATO and anti-American narra­tives. According to the study conducted in 2022, almost one in five people surveyed in Germany agreed with the statement that the Russian war of aggres­sion was a reaction by Russia to a provo­ca­tion by NATO, while 21% partially agreed. In total, almost 40% of those surveyed agreed with the Russian version either fully or partially.

Another influ­en­tial instru­ment of Russian propa­ganda in Germany is “fake accounts,” which delib­er­ately spread false infor­ma­tion about Ukraine and attempt to influence domestic politics. Fake links often use the logos of German and inter­na­tional online magazines (Spiegel, Welt, Bild, and Daily Mail) while spreading pro-Russian propa­ganda. With such coor­di­nated influence campaigns, Russia is attempting to manip­u­late German society’s opinion and influence political decisions in the Kremlin’s interests.

In January 2024, the German Foreign Ministry uncovered a massive Russian campaign of lies on the X platform. In September 2023, a tweet was allegedly spread by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock that “the war in Ukraine will be over in three months.” It is estimated that over 50,000 fake accounts and one million tweets in the German language are used by Russian propa­ganda channels to manip­u­late public opinion. There is also evidence of the use of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. With the European elections and three state elections in eastern Germany coming up, where the pro-Putin and right-wing populist party Alter­na­tive for Germany (AfD) is expected to receive a signif­i­cant number of votes (according to the latest polls, around 30%), there is a high risk that Russia could intervene in the election campaigns to distort the electoral results.

German Domestic Politics and Russian Propaganda

Russian propa­ganda often relies on open letters, petitions, and calls for peace nego­ti­a­tions between Ukraine and Russia, which the West allegedly prevents. The left-wing politi­cian Sahra Wagenknecht often uses the distorted state­ments of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or Western politi­cians, which are usually taken out of context and prolif­er­ated by Russian propa­ganda media. Wagenknecht has repeat­edly claimed that the Ukrainian president is against peace nego­ti­a­tions and publicly advocated stopping all arms exports to Ukraine to push it to the nego­ti­a­tion table. Her party — Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance – Reason and Justice, founded in January 2024, already has 6% nation­wide, which indicates that it could be elected to the Bundestag in 2025 and the European Parlia­ment in June 2024. The European elections manifesto of Wagenknecht’s party rejects Ukraine’s accession to the EU and empha­sizes that the war in Ukraine is a bloody proxy war between NATO and Russia.

The Manifesto for Peace in Ukraine, written by Wagenknecht and supported by one of the leaders of the right-wing populist AfD, also advocates for suspending military support to Ukraine. On 25 February 2023, the manifesto drew over 13,000 persons near the Bran­den­burg Gate, causing intense debates in the German media and political spectrum. Such mani­festos and similar under­tak­ings are success­fully used by the alter­na­tive press against Ukraine and the West to scare the popu­la­tion with the possi­bility of a nuclear war with Russia. It is clear that anti-Western narra­tives and the message that the West is to blame for the war, spear­headed by the Russian propa­ganda machine, are finding fertile ground among the radical right and left elec­torate in Germany.

Following Chan­cellor Olaf Scholz’s public rejection of the delivery of Taurus missiles to Ukraine, the Russian media published a wire­tapped recording of a Webex conver­sa­tion of German military officers. Among other topics, the conver­sa­tion discussed whether Taurus missiles would be tech­ni­cally capable of destroying the bridge built by Russia connecting the Russian mainland with the Crimean Peninsula. They also discussed whether Ukraine could manage the shelling without the involve­ment of the Bundeswehr, for example, in target program­ming. The recording also revealed that there is no green light at the political level for the delivery of the cruise missiles to Ukraine.

It is clear that the Taurus affair demon­strated the Kremlin’s power by showing that the FSB could listen to the German generals and their commu­ni­ca­tion system. The question remains about where else and how deeply the FSB carries out such surveil­lance oper­a­tions in Germany. Further­more, it is certainly no coin­ci­dence that the recording was published a day after Navalny’s funeral and the reve­la­tions about the Wirecard scandal. However, a major goal of this leak was to ensure that Taurus missiles would not be sent to Ukraine.

The Kremlin has thus created an atmos­phere in which the majority of the German popu­la­tion is even more opposed to the delivery of the Taurus missiles to Ukraine; according to recent surveys, 59% of Germans are against it, and only 34% are in favor. In addition, the Taurus affair ensured that the Chan­cellor continued to cate­gor­i­cally rule out the Taurus delivery despite increasing opposing opinions in the governing coalition and the CDU-CSU faction. The affair also rein­forces Chan­cellor Scholz’s fears that the missiles could be fired at targets in Russia without German control and that Germany would thus be drawn into the war. In doing so, he is, above all, signaling mistrust towards his Ukrainian partners. And sowing distrust between Ukraine and Germany is clearly a goal Russian propa­ganda aspires to achieve.

The Taurus affair demon­strated how pro-Russian forces in Germany embraced the Russian narrative that the German military was preparing for a war of aggres­sion against Russia. Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), Dietmar Bartsch (Linke), and Tino Chrupalla (AfD), despite different political platforms, gladly embraced this spin, which orig­i­nated in Moscow from the Russian propa­ganda media. Russian propa­gan­dists, like Dmitrii Kiseliov, threat­ened to retaliate against Germany and hit such targets as the Fehmarn­belt Bridge, the Hohen­zollern Bridge in Cologne, the Rugen Bridge, and the Magdeburg Water Bridge. When German politi­cians start repeating Russian propaganda’s talking points, the disin­for­ma­tion prolif­er­ates and is a lot harder to counter.

Insti­tu­tional Response to Russian Propaganda

Since the beginning of 2022, the German govern­ment has expanded its efforts to combat disin­for­ma­tion at the insti­tu­tional level. The Federal Foreign Office plays an important role in this, focusing on disin­for­ma­tion and FIMI orig­i­nating from foreign states. The Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) coor­di­nates the detection of and defense against hybrid threats, partic­u­larly disin­for­ma­tion, across the depart­ments. The BMI’s activ­i­ties include the Link to Factchecker on the federal government’s website, regular press briefings on the topic, and outreach to the Parlia­ment. The Minister of the Interior presented a strategy against right-wing extremism in February 2024, which, among other things, includes the estab­lish­ment of an early detection unit of the federal govern­ment to identify foreign disin­for­ma­tion campaigns well in advance.

In February 2024, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took a further step against Russian cyber propa­ganda with her French and Polish colleagues, Stéphane Séjourné and Radoslaw Sikorski. The three countries agreed on a joint early warning mechanism against Russian troll attacks. During the European elections, the French govern­ment expects a massive increase in Russian activ­i­ties aimed at disin­for­ma­tion and influ­encing popular opinions in multiple European countries. According to the French Ministry of Defense, we are “only at the beginning of a major wave of fake news.” Given the tense rela­tion­ship between France and Germany over the Taurus issue, the public received the revival of the so-called “Weimar Triangle” positively.

There are encour­aging signs at the state and civil society level, espe­cially after 22 February 2022, that the threat of Russian propa­ganda is taken seriously in Germany. According to March 2024 data, 82% of the German popu­la­tion considers Russia’s attempts to influence politics in Germany with false infor­ma­tion and intel­li­gence activ­i­ties to be very dangerous or dangerous. In addition to creating new strate­gies and coor­di­na­tion centers, increasing attention is paid to education in schools and univer­si­ties aimed at strength­ening media literacy. Prebunking is one of the most successful means of defusing disin­for­ma­tion. It provides an oppor­tu­nity to take proactive action against false infor­ma­tion before it is spread and to sensitize people and strengthen their resilience to propa­ganda content.

Never­the­less, more vigilance and political will from the demo­c­ratic center would be desirable to educate people about the danger of Russian disin­for­ma­tion, objec­tively describe how the Kremlin is endan­gering the European security archi­tec­ture, and explain what it would mean for Germany if Putin won the war in Ukraine.

More courage is now required in politics, civil society, and the media to jointly combat Russia’s hybrid war against the West and with long-term results. The campaign for the 2025 federal elections has already unof­fi­cially begun. The Taurus missile affair and the analysis of Russian propa­ganda during the last two years show that the fear of being dragged into the war affects political decision-making and discourse in Germany. The German public appears just as vulner­able to Russian foreign infor­ma­tion manip­u­la­tion and inter­fer­ence as any other European nation.


The article appeared in GEOpol­i­tics on April 4, 2024.


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