In 2015, the Bundestag was hacked and 16 gigabytes of information were stolen. German security blamed the Russian hacker group Fancy Bear. By hearsay, Fancy Bear has been involved in several attacks in the last few years, including actions against the U.S. and WADA. The group is said to be connected to the Russian government. But what do they use the stolen data for? So far, they have not released any of this information. But the Germans fear that this information could be used to influence the result of the campaign prior to the Bundestag election this fall. The election will take place on September 24. Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière said at a recent press conference that he is prepared for Russian attempts to interfere in the election result, as we saw during the elections in the U.S. and France. “It can happen,” he said, “and I am actually expecting the stolen information to be made public in the next few weeks.” Experts expect that Germany will become the next target for Russian hacker attacks and interference for several reasons. First, Germany is crucial for political stability in the EU. Germany has one of the biggest economies in Europe. Germany played a leading role in sanctions against Russia.
Putin would prefer another Chancellor
The press conference was held to present the annual report of the German security organ Verfassungsschutz (BfV, literally: Protection of the Constitution). “My personal opinion is that Putin would be more satisfied with another Chancellor,” Hans Georg Maassen, the chief of BfV said. Later that day, he was interviewed on TV channel ZDF, where he disclosed why Russians try to hack political institutions: they are looking for information about attitudes towards EU sanctions and economics. Another possible objective is to find information that can be used to blackmail or tarnish certain politicians. At the same time, Maassen gave assurances that the election process itself cannot be hacked. The voting machines that are used on election day are not connected to the Internet.
Protection against hackers
Germany has a national IT security institution, established in 2011. The Army has also got their own cyber force in April of this year. The staff included 260 IT specialists from the start. Today this unit includes 13,500 soldiers and civil employees, along with the traditional branches: ground forces, air forces and the navy. According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, cyber force is not only intended to protect Germany against future hacker attacks, but to wage “active defense,” i.e., conduct their own cyber attacks. But what about more subtle ways of political influence: propaganda, disinformation, bonds between the Kremlin and ultra-left or ultra-right political parties? One of the biggest concerns for Germany is Russian influence on the Russian-German minority of 2.4 million people. This influence occurs in particular via Russian national television.
Disinformation is more important
The Russians also operate a TV channel in German, RT Deutsch. News portals Sputnik and Newsfront are also parts of the game. The main problem is not what’s published there, but how it is transmitted other places. “So-called ‘brain hacking,’ i.e., indirect impact and disinformation are more important. Technology can be developed,” Gwendolyn Sasse said. She is the science head of the Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). The center was established last year. It is fully financed by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (receiving 2.5 million euros of support annually) and its mere existence gives a notion of how important relations with Russia and Eastern Europe have become recently. Since the Cold War, academic competence in this field has declined.
Not just Soviet propaganda
“It is difficult to overcome Russian influence because we make the facile assumption that it is Putin, the Russian government or some secret institutions that pull the strings. But it is more complicated than that. Sometimes things get controversial and out of control. Some of the impact comes from business or criminal structures. Therefore, it’s not just good old Soviet propaganda we are dealing with,” Sasse says. At the same time, she recommends not to overestimate Russia. “It looks bigger than it actually is. I mean, it is hard to believe that Russians really think about their preference for chancellor. Rather, they are ready to undermine our feeling of stability and our confidence,” says Sasse.
Putin’s people in the heart of Berlin
When the think tank Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC) was established in Berlin for a year ago, it caused a negative reaction because a pro-Putin organization was allowed to spread its influence in the capital of Germany. The leader and founder of the think tank is the prosperous Vladimir Yakunin, an intimate friend of Putin and chief of the Russian railway until 2015. DOC is located in central Berlin on Französische Strasse, very close to Gendarmenmarkt. It occupies the same building as the glamourous French mall Galerie Lafayette. That’s worth more than money can buy. Yakunin has spent 25 million euros of his own fortune on this project. Armenian businessman Ruben Vardanyan is also a member of board and investor in DOC. Press secretary of the organization Agnieszka Rzepka denies that DOC has any relation to the Russian government or Putin. DOC is absolutely independent when it comes to ideology and is beyond common categories, she told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
Johan Galtung in expert group
In addition to 17-18 regular staffers in the office, DOC has an expert panel. One of the experts is controversial Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung. Another expert, Thomas Fasbender, agreed to speak to Aftenposten. DOC has no official opinion on how Russia could interfere with the election. Fasbender did business in Moscow in many years, but has now returned to Germany and is as an independent consultant. He does not think that Russia will try to influence the election and does not see any reasons why Russia would try to provoke tumult and destabilize Germany. On the other hand, he points out that both the West and Russia are interested in creating an external enemy. “A stable Europe is better for Russia than an unstable one,” he says. But if Putin wants a stable Europe, why doesn’t he stay out of Ukraine? “That’s another matter, and here we have two distinct stories. Both sides live in their own bubbles.” How vulnerable is Germany? “I don’t think Germany is so susceptible to Russian influence, aside from the margins,” Sasse believes. Compared to the U.S., Germany has little social differentiation. In addition, “everybody” watches national television and shares the same version of reality. The war in Ukraine has strengthened skepticism towards the Kremlin. Of course, that attitude can swing. In a recent report, think tank ECFR gives an overview of all the political parties in European national parliaments and the European Parliament, trying to figure out how great Russia’s impact is. Germany is said to be relatively safe, but it has a weak spot: only one party in the Bundestag, the left-wing Die Linke, is categorized as anti-Western at the moment. But, after the election, another anti-Western party, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), might come in. According to the report, the presence of two anti-Western parties could undermine the centrist political course. Evidence that it is already happening is CSU, CDU’s sister party in Bavaria. CSU leader Horst Seehofer has been nurturing a friendship with Putin and visited Moscow several times. CSU is AfD’s closest rival and competes with them for voters.
This is how Germany defends itself
But, even if Germany protects itself from hacker attacks, how will it tackle propaganda and disinformation? Does it have a general strategy? According to the Interior Ministry press center, it actually does not. Because something like this could be considered encroaching on freedom of press. Including media with messages they don’t like. “Of course, we could send out a tweet or a communique if everything goes completely wrong,” a helpful employee told me, and added with a chuckle, “There was a rumor this winter that Interior Ministry was going to launch a special fact check service. But that was fake news.”
Facts: The Bundestag election in Germany will be held on September 24, 2017, to elect members of the 19th Bundestag. The Bundestag will consist of at least 598 members, but more members may appear because of additional and leveling seats. After the 2013 election, the Bundestag had 631 members. The Bundestag is elected for a four-year term.