By Jan Surotchak
Friday afternoon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will finally sit down for her long-awaited confab with President Trump. Europe-watchers will be on the lookout for reassurance of Trump’s commitment to the transatlantic relationship and firm stance against Russian aggression, including the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign against the Western alliance.
The fact is, Russian President Vladimir Putin fears Angela Merkel. He knows full well that she is the lynchpin holding together the European Union’s shaky consensus on economic sanctions, and that she has held the line in favor of continued cooperation with the United States on NATO and other vital aspects of the post-war Pax Americana. There’s no better illustration of Merkel’s influence than the extensive disinformation campaign that has been waged against the German government and Merkel personally.
Raised in communist East Germany, Merkel understands the authoritarian psychology (and Potemkin village characteristics) of Putin’s regime in a way that many of her European counterparts do not. She has bluntly described the Russian president as someone who “…is afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy.”
That’s why the Kremlin employs its illiberal and corrupt state apparatus to spread “fake news” that corrodes public trust and tips the scale from reasonable criticism of Merkel’s policies towards xenophobic fear. This campaign of manipulation began to gather force in early 2016 with the now infamous “Lisa Case.” The story circulated throughout the Russian and European press that an ethnic Russian teenage girl living in Berlin was raped by a group of Arab migrants, framed to present Merkel as culpable because of her liberal position on immigration.
It turned out that the story was completely fabricated—but that did not stop Russian state media outlets like RT from running the story ad nauseum, dwelling on the most salacious allegations. Even after the Berlin police concluded the case was a hoax, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the German government of a cover-up. While actual cases of sexual assault by migrants have been confirmed and have heightened tensions over immigration policies in countries throughout Europe, the use of invented cases to further exacerbate those arguments has emerged as a favored Kremlin tactic.
More recently, a “Lithuanian Lisa” story surfaced alleging that German soldiers deployed in that country under a NATO flag had raped a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl. The difference this time was that the relevant authorities were familiar with this particular tactic, and were able to trace the story back to sources widely-believed to originate in Russia. As soon as it became clear that this was yet another fabrication, the Lithuanian government, NATO and the German defense ministry quickly refuted the allegations before the story took on a life of its own.
European leaders increasingly understand the need for a united and robust counterweight to these types of campaigns—for instance, through the E.U.’s counter-disinformation apparatus. On the NGO front, initiatives like the Beacon Project (which I oversee) are bringing together political and civil society leaders from across the continent and the pond to devise policies that combat this threat.
But Russian meddling in German politics extends far beyond spreading disinformation. In December 2016, the German media reported that Russia was behind a 2015 hacking of the Bundestag. At the time, Germany was investigating allegations that the U.S. was spying on leading German politicians, including the chancellor. Secret material from that investigation was collected in this cyberattack and given to Wikileaks in a clear attempt to drive a wedge between Berlin and Washington.
This attempt to stoke division and undermine a crucial component of the transatlantic alliance continues unabated. So it is not surprising that both Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution have warned that Moscow will aggressively deploy these tactics in an attempt to influence elections in key European countries this year, including Germany; to foment political dysfunction and undermine democratic institutions; and to weaken U.S.-European cooperation on key issues such as NATO and Russian sanctions.
No matter how much the world seems to have changed in the last few years, the U.S. and Germany continue to have a common interest in the safety, security and economic prosperity of their populations. The economic, political and defense partnerships built between our two countries over the past 60 years are the surest way to protect and enhance our hard-won gains, and defend against geopolitical threats. Merkel’s visit gives Germany and the U.S. the opportunity to once again demonstrate the strength of this alliance as a counterweight against Russian mischief.
Jan Surotchak (@jansurotchak) is regional director of the Europe division at the International Republican Institute. He oversees the Beacon Project, an initiative dedicated to documenting and combatting Russian disinformation in Europe.Top