Russian Hackers Can’t Beat German Democracy
Of course the Kremlin is going to try to hack Germany’s upcoming election. But it’s not going to succeed.
Less than two months remain before Germans go to the polls in a general election. On the surface, this has been as regular an election season as can be: Parties have assembled their programs and teams, candidates have been out campaigning, and politics have mostly revolved around the classic issues: taxes, social benefits, public investment. Yet hanging over this appearance of normalcy is the question of when and how Russia will inject itself into the upcoming ballot.
After apparent interference in the U.S. and French elections, there can be little doubt that the Kremlin will also attempt to sway the vote in Germany. Indeed, the German interior minister recently issued a public warning about potential Russian cyberattacks and disinformation ahead of the elections. While it remains unclear what the Kremlin has in store, chances are that it will try — and that German democracy will weather the onslaught.
It is blatantly obvious why Russia should take aim at the German elections. The country has been key in shaping the surprisingly principled European response (and the broader Western one, in coordination with the United States) to Russian aggression and revisionism. When Moscow annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbass, Berlin sided with Ukraine, threw its weight behind sanctions against Russia, and has since rallied Europe to sustain this mix of punishment for the aggressor and support for the victim. When Russia stepped up its intimidation of the EU and NATO’s easternmost members, Germany answered by joining an air policing mission over the Baltic states, dispatching Bundeswehr troops and equipment, and leading the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania. The resoluteness of this German response, and its effect of uniting Europe in opposition to Russian actions, has long been a nuisance for the Kremlin.
Russian resentment runs particularly high against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Politically, she has taken the lead among Europeans on the Russia challenge, checked pro-Russian voices in German business and politics, and pushed for the Minsk agreements aimed at ending the war in Ukraine. These accords, while unsuccessful in bringing about peace, form the basis for continued European and U.S. sanctions against Russia. More personally, Russian President Vladimir Putin must feel that, among the many world leaders he has met, often outsmarted, and sometimes just outwaited, the German chancellor is his only true match. Not only has she resisted charm and intimidation, but she is on track to win her fourth term of office.
For both reasons, the Russian leader cannot but wish for Merkel’s downfall. Ideally, Putin would see her unseated by Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament and her Social Democrat challenger. Realistically, however, the strongman in the Kremlin must acknowledge that Merkel’s defeat is near impossible, given her commanding lead — up to 18 percent in current polls. This does not mean, however, that Moscow won’t seek to maximally weaken the chancellor, so as to tarnish her legitimacy and to complicate the coalition building needed to install her next government.
These are strong motivating factors for Russia, and they meet with ample opportunity in Germany. Observers have pointed out various vulnerabilities: There is the allure that Russia has for major German corporations, especially its automotive, energy, and engineering giants. Major political parties on the left, such as the Social Democrats and the Left party (Die Linke), have traditionally had pro-Russian sympathies, dating back to the former’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s and rooted in the post-communist legacy of the latter; more recently, on the far-right, the Alternative for Germany party has made its Russian affinity clear. A community of some 3 million Russian speakers resides in Germany, many of whom rely on Kremlin-controlled media for information. Useful idiots of the Kremlin form a sizable network that advocates for Russian positions via civil society, think tanks, lobby groups, and traditional and social media. Germany’s cybersecurity remains deficient, as a series of attacks on, and data leaks from, government and parliament servers has shown.
Moscow propaganda has already successfully tapped controversy on issues including refugees, same-sex marriage, terrorism, and defense. There remains, on top of all this, considerable anti-Americanism among some segments of German society, which leaves them vulnerable to influence by Russia, a country that positions itself as leading the charge against the superpower.
Russia certainly feels emboldened by its recent operations to influence Western elections. Where it succeeded, as in the United States, it has managed to wreak havoc across entire political systems. Meanwhile where it failed, as in France, Russia has had no political or other price to pay. This experience cannot but tilt the Kremlin’s cost-benefit analysis in favor of meddling. Moscow certainly takes pride in its tried-and-tested toolkit for such operations. Its sophistication, expertise, technology, networks, and stealth have given Russia an edge over the democracies that have found themselves under attack. This asymmetry applies not least to Germany, where government institutions, the intelligence community, and the media alike have previously struggled to face up to the Russian challenge.
Against this background, the pending Russian operation to influence the upcoming German elections almost seems predictable. Indeed, it is quite likely that such an operation has been underway for some time and will make itself felt in due course. Over the last two years, German intelligence has reported a series of Russian cyberattacks on government infrastructure. Some of these were successfully blocked. Others, such as an intrusion of German parliament servers, resulted in the theft of massive amounts of data. Expectations in Berlin are that this information will be revealed in the run-up to the September elections.
Russian meddling until the election will foreseeably follow the same multipronged approach seen elsewhere. Its centerpiece will be a campaign to discredit the chancellor and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Hair-raising disinformation will try to fan fears of refugees and terrorism, blaming these problems on policies decided on Merkel’s watch. Narratives that seek to associate the America-friendly German leader with the new U.S. president, deeply unpopular in Germany, will be peddled; documents will be leaked in an attempt to incriminate if not Merkel directly, then other leaders and candidates of her party. This will be complemented by several more targeted efforts: Germany’s Russian speakers will receive their strongest dose of Kremlin propaganda yet, aiming to alienate this traditionally conservative electorate from Merkel’s CDU, its erstwhile party of choice. The parties of the far-left and far-right, united as they are in their anti-establishment, anti-NATO, and anti-U.S. impulses, will receive favorable treatment from Russian state media and troll factories.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, the overall impact of such a concerted Russian effort on the result of the German election is likely to be minimal: A number of factors effectively blunt Moscow’s preferred method of meddling.
First, and perhaps most important, the element of surprise is gone. A year ago, the infamous “Lisa case” — a disinformation and mobilization campaign in early 2016 following the supposed rape of a Russian-German girl by Muslim migrants, which proved to be a lie — provided Germans with the starkest signal yet that they were not immune to direct Russian interference. In the months since, they have watched the Kremlin trying its hand in democratic elections elsewhere. Meanwhile, ever more evidence has come to light of Russian cyberattacks on German media, business, politics, and government. A broad debate has ensued, fueled by frequent warnings from government officials about how to counter destructive Russian meddling in German democracy. In short, German society is by now broadly sensitized, and institutions are somewhat more prepared than they might have been a year ago to face Russian interference.
Second, this growing awareness coincides with a broader evolution in German sentiments toward Russia. Since its attack on Ukraine, Russia has effectively lost the considerable confidence it once commanded among Germans. Some 75 percent of Germans now effectively view Russia with suspicion, which provides some protection against Moscow’s meddling. This effect can be expanded if more covert Russian operations are quickly disclosed and publicized by the German state, media, and civil society.
Third, there is overwhelming support for the political status quo, or a complete absence of what the Germans call Wechselstimmung (loosely translated as a sense that change is needed). This sense is bolstered by a booming economy, renewed confidence in European integration, and fewer headlines about refugees and terrorism. Chancellor Merkel and her conservatives have regained their commanding lead in the ratings, and the majority of Germans wish for her to lead the next government. These political preferences are so entrenched by now that even massive Russian interference, or any other major event, is not likely to fundamentally alter the outcome of the elections.
Fourth, Germany’s multiparty system complicates Russian meddling. Six parties will likely enter the German parliament, or Bundestag, of whom two or three will eventually form a governing coalition. This creates diverse dynamics that the Kremlin cannot manipulate, in contrast with the more predictable bipolar contest of the United States. At most, Russian interference can make the campaign rhetoric more virulent, add complexity to the party landscape, and complicate coalition building. But if decades of German postwar politics are anything to go by, the end result will, nevertheless, be a functioning government. And, judging by her ratings, Merkel will be at the helm.
Finally, German media present an important shield against Russian interference. The country’s public broadcasters, with their balanced, quality reporting, command the trust of an overwhelming majority of Germans. Its private media, whether electronic or print, have not succumbed to the polarization and sensationalism that are often found elsewhere. Together, these traditional outlets still prevail over social media as sources of information for the voting public. This will make it harder for Russian disinformation, the key to Kremlin meddling, to penetrate German discourse. And where it does, years of attacks by Russian propagandists and trolls have made journalists quicker and more adept at responding.
There are good reasons to expect that the Kremlin will fail to substantially impact the elections in Germany. This should inspire confidence in German democracy but must not lead to complacency. Vigilance will be needed over the coming weeks, so as to spot and stifle Russian meddling. Beyond election day, the country must remain alert, as the Kremlin may well question the legitimacy of the ballot, as it was prepared to do in the United States. This would also be in line with long-standing Russian attempts, recorded by German intelligence, to gradually undermine the credibility and stability of the country’s democratic institutions. And in parallel, as has been variously observed, Russia is systematically working to isolate and alienate Germany from its European neighbors.
Germany is likely to retain the upper hand this fall. It’s not a guarantee that Russian meddling will not be more successful in the long run — but it’s reason for good cheer nonetheless.
Photo image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images