In the wake of the September 2017 German elections, many observers have been puzzled by the seeming absence of Russian interference in such a high-stakes European race. A representative New York Times headline posed the question most directly: “Why no Russian meddling”?
In 2015 and 2016, Russian activity in Germany had followed the same toolkit applied in the United States and France: cyberattacks, hacks, and the spread of fake news through the active use of bots, trolls, and pro-Russian TV channels. There was a cyberattack on German government computers and websites, a hacking attack of the Bundestag, and an attempt to compromise servers belonging to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. All of those attacks were attributed to Russian actors, but by early 2017, these same actors appeared to have scaled down their activity. No Russian hackers (or their intermediaries) ever released the documents collected from the hacks, and by some accounts, pro-Russian bots exerted only a minor impact on the German election. Gemma Pörzgen, a German journalist who has published extensively on Russian propaganda efforts, warned against overestimating the Kremlin’s role in the recent German election, arguing that the facts pointing at Russia’s meddling are scarce.
Several theories have been created to explain this seeming inaction. According to one version, Russia calculated that the radical right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) had no real shot of winning the election, unlike Marine Le Pen in France or Donald Trump in the United States. Thus provoking a possible retaliation from Merkel’s side as result of an active interference was simply not worth the risks.
But there is another view taking hold among some scholars: that the Kremlin simply chose a subtler approach this time, by directly targeting the Russian-speaking diaspora in Germany rather than the electorate as a whole. Stefan Meister, a Russia expert from the German Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that the Kremlin chose a tactically clever strategy to spread a targeted pro-AfD and anti-Merkel message across the Russian-speaking population. The German political scientist Hannes Adomeit has likewise noted that the AfD specially targeted ex-Soviet Germans and their descendants who returned to Germany after 1990. The Kremlin may have calculated that these groups are just as disgruntled as former East Germans, but for cultural reasons would be much easier to get to. And given language barriers and the group’s comparative cohesiveness within German society, the very fact of their courting could be harder to track.
It is no secret that the AfD has been cultivating ties with Moscow. The relationship goes back to at least 2015, when the AfD deputy chief Alexander Gauland traveled to St Petersburg on a trip paid for by the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, funded by the pro-Putin oligarch Konstantin Malofeev (who has served as an unofficial Kremlin envoy to European right-wing parties). During the trip, Gauland met with several members of the Duma, along with the anti-Western ideologist Alexander Dugin. Other AfD links with the Kremlin have since emerged, including the participation of the AfD senior politician, Marcus Pretzell, as a guest of honor at a conference in Crimea, AfD’s cooperation with the Kremlin’s youth movements, and trips of AfD representatives as observers to the separatist regions of Ukraine. In February 2017, another AfD leader, Frauke Petry, traveled to Moscow to meet members of the Russian parliament, including the chamber’s speaker and ex-deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin. The AfD leaders have repeatedly offered to lift the anti-Russia sanctions and improve relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
During this election cycle, the active phase of Russia’s pro-AfD campaign began around mid-May 2017. According to Anton Shekhovtsov, a scholar of the European radical right at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, that time frame saw a major upsurge of pro-AfD hashtags on Twitter, and pro-AfD and anti-Merkel content on RT and Sputnik Deutschland. A Russian bot network based in Nizhny Novgorod promoted the AfD. Pro-Kremlin German bots shared articles and hashtags supporting the party, promoting the content of Sputnik and RT and pro-AfD sites such as Journalistenwatch and Philosophia-Perennis. And at least some of the onslaught of anti-Merkel content on Twitter came from bot accounts and trolls that previously backed Donald Trump in the 2016 US election.
That was all standard fare. The really interesting aspect of the strategy involved direct outreach to the Russian-speaking diaspora. A recent study by London’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue turned up a clear pattern of mutually reinforcing messages between the AfD and Kremlin-linked media in both German and Russian languages, beginning in June 2017. And more than any other German party, the AfD stood out for its Russian language strategy, publishing Russian-language ads on German streets and on Russian social media.*
Russian state TV channels, which about half of Russian-speaking Germans still watch, played a particularly important role. Most Russian supermarkets in Germany sell cable TV packages offering access to the satellite versions of Russian TV channels (such as Rossiya-1, RTR Planet, and the Russian version of Euronews). The Russian satellite TV channel Rossiya-1 provided positive coverage of the AfD, emphasized the mistreatment of Russians in Germany, and even broadcast AfD campaign ads. AfD representatives appeared on popular Russian state TV news programs to support the Kremlin’s negative narratives about Europe and the “immigration chaos” caused by Merkel.
In the view of Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Bremen-based Russian political analyst, Russian social networks like Odnoklassniki and VKontakte also played a key role. These networks hosted multiple themed groups for Russian-speaking Germans, reflective of their pro-AfD, pro-Russian and/or pro-Putin loyalties. While the Germany-wide groups have larger membership (reaching up to 50,000 members), the regional groups are more numerous. These networks spread targeted content, often consisting of amusing “demotivator” memes and anti-refugee articles from Russian language media. This professionally produced content tapped into familiar themes: nostalgia for the USSR, celebration of the Soviet victory in World War II, praise for Putin and a homophobic, anti-Semitic streak that defined itself in opposition to “Western values.” An analysis of one of these groups, “We Live in Germany” (37,000 members) showed that over a half of its videos contained negative stories about migrants. The AfD also used an active Russian language social media strategy, and ran an account on Odnoklassniki and a Facebook page with over a million German-Russian users. One such page, “Russlanddeutsche Fur AFD NRW” contained a mix of AfD adverts and articles by German and Russian media outlets, including clips from Rossiya-1 and articles from Sputnik Deutschland.
Shekhovtsov believes that the Kremlin realized the feasibility of targeting the Russian-speaking diaspora in Germany after the 2016 Lisa scandal, which arose when a 13-year-old Russian-German girl made up a story about being kidnapped and raped by migrants in Berlin. The Russian media spread her false accusations widely, and Russian bots and trolls promoted this message by continuously accusing the Merkel government of covering up the case. Although denounced by German officials, the fake scandal proved able to substantially mobilize the Russian-speaking German population. As pro-Kremlin media actively spread the Lisa story, a series of protests against Merkel’s migration policy were organized on the same day in some 50-60 German towns (per Mitrokhin’s estimates). Interestingly, the organizers also used a relatively clandestine and targeted approach to spread the word. The protests were not publicly announced or indexed on search engines, with word spreading instead via personal invitation through social networks like Odnoklassniki and Facebook, and through encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and closed groups on VKontakte.
All the Lisa protests were run under the same official slogan: “We are against violence.” While the numbers of participants varied dramatically from town to town, in some cases the tally reached into the thousands. Many protests featured AfD representatives, who (in a first for a German political party) made sure to speak to the protestors in Russian.
In general, the AfD strategy of targeting the Russian population seems to have worked. In the 2016 fall regional election, AfD received disproportionally high results in the Baden-Württemberg region (which has a high concentration of Russian speakers): 43 percent in the “Russian” area of Pforzheim, Haidach, and 51.8 percent in the “Russian” area of Wartberg, in the town of Wertheim. Similarly, in 2017 federal election the AfD results were above average in the districts with many Russian Germans, such as Pforzheim and a number of districts in Baden-Württemberg.
Moreover, the Lisa protests seem to have had a direct effect on the AfD vote. Looking at town-by-town results from the state of Baden-Württemberg, Mitrokhin finds that in most cases there is a correlation between the presence of a Lisa protest in early 2016 and a 2017 vote share for AfD exceeding the regional average of 12.7 percent. What’s more, the highest AfD results were achieved only in the towns where Lisa protests occurred.
It is impossible to know precisely how many AfD votes come from Russian-speaking Germans, or indeed, if those votes were influenced primarily by Moscow’s disinformation campaign. Regardless, the raw numbers suggest a potentially powerful constituency. In the 2017 election, roughly 1.5 million German Russians (about half of the total Russian-speaking population) were eligible to vote, representing about 2.5 percent of the 60-million strong German electorate. These voters may not all vote as a single bloc, but there is already some evidence that Russia’s propaganda is having an effect on them. Shekhovtsov, for instance, has noted that the AfD’s popularity surged by about 2 percent following the start of the Kremlin’s pro-AfD campaign in May 2017. Although these numbers may seem low, they may well increase in the future as the Kremlin continues to refine its influence operations, and if the mainstream German parties continue to ignore the second largest linguistic community in Germany. The Kremlin’s continuous investment in its propaganda sources certainly suggests that Moscow believes in the efficacy of its efforts.
Overall, the evidence suggests that pro-Kremlin actors implemented an active and successful influence campaign targeted at Russian-speaking Germans in the 2017 election. But a more systematic and scientific analysis of Russian influence operations is needed—one that uses experimental and survey data to focus on the population groups most susceptible to Russian propaganda, and the impact of the targeted information campaigns on these constituencies.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that AfD was the only major German party to have a Russian language strategy. The CSU ran some parts of its campaign in Russian as well.