The attack came in the form of a Saturday evening newscast from Moscow. It would take days before the German government realized what was happening, but by that time the damage was already done. Germany’s sizable Russian-speaking community — made up largely of migrants from the former Soviet Union — was up in arms about a report that refugees from the Middle East had gang-raped a 13-year-old Russian girl in Berlin — and that the local police was covering up the crime.
Until recently, Germany had largely been spared the wrath of Russia’s state propaganda machine. Germans, in their eagerness to be conscientious world citizens and reliable business partners, were seen in the Kremlin as allies to coddle and co-opt. That view changed abruptly in 2014, when Angela Merkel led the drive for European Union sanctions to punish Russia for its war against Ukraine. Now, as the German chancellor flounders domestically because of her open-door refugee policy, she has made herself vulnerable to attack. “I’ve never seen so much glee from the Russians as during Germany’s refugee crisis,” said a diplomat in Berlin.
On Jan. 16, Russia’s state-run Channel One led the 9 o’clock evening news with a shocking report from Berlin. “Evidence has emerged that migrants in Germany have started raping children,” presenter Yekaterina Andreyeva said in the intro. That evidence came in the form of testimony by the “Aunt Marina” of a teenage girl, identified as Lisa, who claimed she had been abducted on her way to school and raped by migrants for more than a day. More proof that Germany is going to hell in a hand basket was a blurry video of a supposed recent arrival who bragged about raping a “virgin” with five other men. (Germany’s Bild newspaper later reported that the video had appeared on YouTube more than six years ago.)
Lisa’s relatives told Channel One that the police was refusing to find the perpetrators. The Berlin police was unavailable for comment over the weekend. Frightened neighbors, mostly members of the Russian diaspora in Germany, gathered for a “spontaneous” protest in the Marzahn district in eastern Berlin, Channel One reported. One woman tearfully recounted how her 14-year-old child was terrified of passing a refugee shelter on the way to school. It later turned out that the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party had organized the protest.
Coming just weeks after widespread sexual assaults by migrants in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, Lisa’s story was incendiary — and spread like wildfire through social media. The Berlin police finally addressed the case in a press release posted on Facebook. While the girl had indeed been reported as missing, the police said, she had not been abducted or raped.
Yet to those who believe that German authorities have lost control over the country, the police statement sounded like a cover-up. The following weekend, Russian speakers held rallies across Germany. In Berlin, 700 protesters, backed by the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA, gathered in front of the Federal Chancery holding smiley-face balloons with their mouths taped over and signs reading “Our children are in danger.”
What should have been a case for family counselors and detectives blew up into a diplomatic scandal. As Lisa holds both German and Russian citizenship, the Kremlin entered the fray. In late January the Russian embassy in Berlin sent an “aggressive” protest note to the German Foreign Office demanding a full investigation, according to Der Spiegel. Then Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought up “our girl Lisa” in his annual press conference in Moscow. “I really hope that the migration problems won’t lead to an attempt to whitewash reality with political correctness for domestic political reasons,” Lavrov said. “That wouldn’t be right.”
The German government could no longer ignore that it was the target of a full-on propaganda attack, including very public trolling by the Russian foreign minister. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, denounced the “political instrumentalization” of the case. Even Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister who never tires of “dialogue” with the Kremlin, lost his patience, saying there was no justification for using a 13-year-old girl for “political propaganda.”
In the meantime, the Berlin police were getting to the bottom of what happened to Lisa in the 30 hours she had gone missing. Her accounts of the supposed kidnapping were contradictory, and a medical examination showed that she had been neither raped nor beaten. The trail finally led to the apartment of a 19-year-old German acquaintance, where Lisa had temporarily hidden from her parents because of problems at school. What confused the story was the discovery by investigators that long before her disappearance, the girl had in fact had sexual contact with two men, both of Turkish origin, and neither a refugee. State prosecutors have since opened an investigation into child molestation.
The truth doesn’t matter, because it’s already mission accomplished for the Kremlin. By mentioning the case of Lisa publicly, Lavrov pulled off a common trick in Russia’s self-declared “information war” against its enemies: a government official picks up on a report in state media, leading to its legitimation and further dissemination. Fake news is essentially laundered and enters the public consciousness as fact.
Two years ago, it was hard for people in the West to imagine how Russian state media used half-truths and blatant lies to distort the pro-EU Maidan protest in Kiev into a fascist conspiracy. When Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia and a provisional government took power, the Kremlin news channels spread reports of armed gangs of Ukrainian nationalists terrorizing Russian speakers in southeastern Ukraine. Having been inculcated for months about the threat of Ukrainian revanchism, large parts of the Russian-speaking population were genuinely scared — and supported an intervention by Russia on their behalf. Viewers at home and abroad had been well primed for the coming conflict. The news was fake; the fear was real.
As shown on Russian state TV, the hysteria among Germany’s Russian speakers toward refugees was identical to the panic of Ukraine’s Russian speakers about fascist gangs. The main message of the inflammatory reports from Berlin was that Merkel was finished, Germany was on the decline, and Western liberal democracies were undoing themselves via foolhardy multiculturalism and misplaced tolerance.
It’s no small irony that the principal actors in this apocalyptic view of Europe’s refugee crisis are former migrants themselves. After reunification in 1990, Germany opened its borders to migrants from the former Soviet Union: more than 2 million ethnic Germans and some 215,000 Jews, according to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Integration into German society was not always successful, however, and much of the older generation still gets its news from Russia thanks to satellite channels and the Internet.
For TV viewers in Russia, the plight of Russian speakers in Germany — allegedly victimized by refugees and ignored by the police — fits into the larger narrative of “compatriots” in neighboring countries who are subjected to discrimination and violence. Half a million of these “Russian Germans” are ready to move back to Russia because of the flood of refugees, state news agency RIA Novosti reported last week, citing the leader of an obscure Russian immigrant party in Germany.
Stoking outrage in Germany’s Russian-speaking community is not an end in itself, but a means to exploiting cracks in German society exposed by the refugee crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who served as a KGB agent in Soviet-occupied East Germany and speaks fluent German, believes that Berlin and Moscow can form a strategic axis based on Russian natural resources and German technology. Merkel, in her insistence that Russia do more to bring peace to Ukraine, is getting in the way.
In March 2014, Putin appealed directly to Germans for their support, drawing parallels between the annexation of Crimea and German reunification. Winning over German public opinion became a priority, and the state-owned network RT, formerly known as Russia Today, opened a German channel, RT Deutsch, later that year. The Kremlin was exploiting a growing distrust among Germans toward traditional news outlets, expressed in the far-right PEGIDA protests. A poll conducted in October found that 44 percent of Germans agreed with PEGIDA that mainstream media distorted the news to suit the elites.
Propaganda was only one element in the so-called “hybrid warfare” that Russia directed against Ukraine. Long before the Kremlin deployed “little green men” — Russian troops without insignia — to Crimea, it had used other non-military measures such as playing pipeline politics, buying politicians, and backing fringe parties with radical agendas. Those same measures are being used in Germany and other European countries.
Contrarians on the left and right are enthusiastic about the support from Moscow.
Alexej Dankwardt, a Leipzig city councilman, was kicked out of the Left Party caucus last month after writing on Facebook that he wished Merkel would be toppled in a “German Maidan” and forced to “sprint half-naked to save herself from the angry masses.” Dankwardt, who represents Lisa and her family as a lawyer, has become a frequent commentator on Russian state TV.
In a November 2014 meeting with Alexander Gauland, one of the founders of the far-right Alternative for Germany, Russian diplomats offered “strategic advice” to the upstart, euroskeptic party. Last March, Udo Voigt, a leader of the National Democratic Party, attended a gathering of European rightwing extremist parties in St. Petersburg.
The standard Kremlin response to charges that it’s waging a hybrid war against Europe is that Russia is simply defending itself against similar methods employed by Western powers. In a speech to Russia’s Academy of Military Sciences in January 2013, Chief-of-Staff Valery Gerasimov complained that Russian knowledge of asymmetric warfare was “superficial.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United States in particular, had demonstrated their mastery of non-military campaigns in the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, Gerasimov said.
Such modesty is disingenuous. Disinformation and subversion as weapons of war are as old as catapults and cavalry. The Kremlin’s advantage in the information age is that all of Russia’s major media outlets are under its control, allowing it to hammer its audience with one, unified message. The Kremlin claim that it’s in an “information war” with the West implies that there is vast conspiracy among myriad media in the United States and Europe, public and private, to produce the same lies about Russia.
In fact, Western diplomats are at a loss about how to counter the effects of Kremlin propaganda on Russian speakers in EU countries. In March, the European Union established the East StratCom Task Force “to address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns.” Despite its important-sounding name, the bureaucratic unit has no budget, 10 employees, and barely 4,000 Twitter followers.
A year ago, Germany’s domestic intelligence service warned that Russia was widening its espionage activity in Europe with the goal of destabilizing its neighbors and influencing decision-makers. A cyber-attack on the main server of the German parliament last spring has since been traced back to Russian military intelligence, Der Spiegel reported, quoting a high-ranking security official. There have reportedly been similar attacks on other NATO states and German arms companies.
A legion of useful idiots is ready to do the Kremlin’s bidding. Horst Seehofer, the head of Merkel’s Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, has been haranguing the chancellor for months to tighten her refugee policy. On Wednesday, Seehofer met Putin outside Moscow, where the Bavarian premier expressed his hope that sanctions against Russia would soon be lifted.
Afterwards, Seehofer told journalists it was “classy” of Putin to say he wouldn’t meddle in Germany’s refugee policy. Meanwhile, the Rossiya TV channel trumpeted the “commotion” that the visit had caused back in Berlin.