The bottom line of Kremlin’s strategy in Germany is pushing Germany’s soft spots by spreading disinformation to support AfD and luring its key public figures (mainly from the SPD) yields more fruit than only going hard directly against widely respected Angela Merkel. German Social Democrats are more than willing to copy-paste Russia’s messaging, as are Die Linke or the AfD.
Putin’s main goals in Germany:
- Slowly break Berlin’s policy on sanctions and support for Ukraine, stop Germany from adopting an EU-wide proactive resistance policy against Russian aggression beyond current level of sanctions: by supporting AfD Moscow can increace the chances for another grand coalition which would be a big win for Russia, since Merkel would have to compromise with SPD on Russia policy.
- Put Germany at odds with USA, using latent and widely spread anti-Americanism as a natural springboard, while threat awareness on Russia among German population is still largely limited as IRI poll shows.
- Push through Nord Stream 2 as a way of clear side-lining the interests of Germany’s allies in Eastern Europe, to cash in and to increase Berlin’s dependency on Russian energies
There are two interconnected games which Russia plays:
- There is a long-term strategy to disrupt Western democracies, exploit their internal problems, support local extremists and any pro-Kremlin forces on the ground, so a principled response (such as Merkel’s one) to Putin’s occupation of Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova is harder to pull through.
- Moscow plays are short-term campaigns on a tactical level. It means supporting individual Kremlin-preferred politicians or choices by attacking their opponents with various hostile means – such support was awarded to Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, “Leave” vote in the Brexit referendum, or “NO” vote in the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. If such a politician wins or gains a significant position, Putin celebrates because the other option is seen as more dangerous from Moscow’s perspective, namely the conquest and subsequent oppression of Russia’s neighbours, no matter that they are sovereign countries.
German political class on Russia
- Due to Angela Merkel’s principled position, Germany is the key political architect and holder of European sanctions against Russia. That’s why she is the prime target of Putin’s hostile actions, and she is brutally demonised by the Russian puppet media.
- Outside of the Merkel’s CDU, every major party wants to soften Germany’s position to Russia. Merkel’s close partner – conservative CSU keeps its rhetoric to “business-first”, no matter what violations of international law or simple civilizational decency Russia produces.
- A potential coalition member – the centre-right liberal FDP has seen its leader has publicly flirted with taking Russian illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea off the foreign policy focus. Another potential coalition partner of Angela Merkel – the Greens – have strong anti-Putin messaging, while some of its wings like to ride the widely spread anti-American sentiments which are a major factor in the German political establishment and help Moscow massively.
- On the far left, Moscow finds its always reliable ally in post-communist but still Soviet-like Die Linke. Their agenda is clear – bash the West and the USA for basically anything plus always relativize atrocities committed by the Kremlin. They have little chances on joining the government, but their members are used as useful idiots for fake observation missions for supporting Russian foreign policy goals, such as AfD representatives are.
- On the far right, the Alternative for Germany whose funding remains unclear plays the role of open advocates for Russia, putting appeasement actions towards it as its major foreign policy priority. The pro-Kremlin bots are pushing up support for AfD, as Oxford University research shows. There is no wonder why those two parties are the two obvious suspects to be called the Kremlin’s Trojan Horses. Both these proxies for Russian foreign policy objectives are vocal, have real political presence at the level of German federal states, but so far have limited influence on the German state and European policy. They are the agenda-drivers for the Kremlin, but cannot directly influence the policies Moscow cares about the most. Fortunately for Putin, there is one major entity which does.
- The key platform are the Social Democrats (SPD). There are various possible roots for the SPD’s appeasement or submissive policy towards Putin. It might be the phantom pain of Ostpolitik, a feeling that SPD has nothing to really contribute on in foreign policy outside of differing with CDU on Russia. It might be the schroederization effect, where some leaders might see the former Chancellor’s path for lucrative Russian business deals as a potential way to go for themselves. It’s jaw-dropping that Schröder’s work for Putin’s interests didn’t matter to SPD so much that he got a hero welcome to its last party convention. It actually took the self-proclaimed Putin’s friend to accept another position within Russia’s state-linked companies for the wave of criticism to start in the German press. Schröder isn’t the only Putin-friendly former SPD boss. Matthias Platzeck also serves in the broader Kremlin-linked network, presiding over “Deutsch-Russisches-Forum”, frequently talking to Russian propaganda mouthpiece Sputnik or befriending with former KGB officer and Putin’s inner circle oligarch Vladimir Jakunin who now runs his pro-Putin influence network directly from Berlin. It’s not only about former leaders, the current ones are using similar policy lines. Social Democratic senior figures have been the political advocates for Nord Stream 2, basically teaming up with Putin against Germany’s allies and partners in Eastern Europe. SPD leadership has called for the U. S nuclear umbrella to be withdrawn from Germany, called for “phasing-out” the sanctions (such as CSU does all the time), opposed any additional sanctions on Russia’s atrocities in Syria, or said that NATO reassurance exercises in Poland were “warmongering”.
Which key pro-Kremlin narratives have been used?
- The refugee crisis (featured with statements like “The arrival of refugees in Germany was planned by the US with the intention of changing the German mentality and converting Germans into liberals and cosmopolitans”);
- The alleged resurgence of fascism: claims include “The aim of the German contribution to NATO’s presence in the Baltic countries is to be able to attack Leningrad” (sic!) or “the German government is supporting neo-Nazism in Ukraine”;
- The absence of freedom of speech in Germany;
- Mistreatment of children.
Realistic best case scenario for Russia
- If SPD was to join CDU in the next government coalition, it would be the best-case scenario for Moscow. Angela Merkel would have to compromise and be significantly softer on Russia, so the real coalition of countries concerned with Russian aggression would have a principled backer in her, but it’s likely that Berlin wouldn’t become the leading force behind efforts to push back against Russia’s subversion of European democracies. Moreover, the short-term Kremlin’s project in Germany is Nord Stream 2, where SPD and people linked to it are its key proponents in Europe. Because this geopolitical and influence tool is so important for SPD as it has invested enormous political capital in it, Merkel wouldn’t probably try to block it as it would be politically too expensive for her.
- It is evident that the main instrument of Moscow’s influence in Germany is luring specific politicians and public figures who already possess Kremlin-friendly views and hold a grudge against the United States, anti-Americanism being one major trait of the current SPD leadership.
Jakub Janda is the Head of the Kremlin Watch Program at the Prague-based European Values Think-Tank, he consults for governments on how to counter hostile foreign influence operations.