A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Moscow’s Manipulation Game

Building resilience is the best way to counter Russian attempts to undermine Western democracy.

Russia’s attempts to influence elections in EU countries are part of a larger strategy to destabilize and discredit European politics. That has sparked widespread fear in capitals across Europe. But instead of panicking, EU governments need to learn how to be more resilient.

© REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

It was a case that shocked German politicians across the spectrum: In January 2016, a Russian-born teenager in Berlin reported that she had been raped by three immigrant men. Russian media outlets picked up coverage immediately and the Russian-speaking community in Germany took to the streets in outrage. It escalated to the governmental level when Moscow accused Berlin of trying to sweep serious problems under the rug, and Berlin shot back with a warning against political propaganda. In the end, it turned out that the assault had never taken place.

The “Lisa case” revealed how Germany has underestimated Russia’s ability to influence the information space for far too long. In fact, some German lawmakers still question the existence of Russian disinformation campaigns, despite of what has happened during the US presidential elections and a wealth of comprehensive analysis and information regarding Russian activities in Europe that serve as proof. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, those doubts contribute to growing uncertainty in Germany over the credibility of Western politics and mainstream media – and this is precisely the Kremlin’s goal.

Russia’s efforts to manipulate and influence public opinion are only part of a larger security strategy that emerged from a self-perceived weakness. In the run-up to Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, anti-government protestors took to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg to stage major rallies. As a result, Russian elites felt they were under increasing pressure from Western media, NGOs, and critics. It is important to understand this perception in a larger context. Russian policy makers and security officials realize that they are technologically and militarily weaker than NATO and the United States. They have responded to that sense of imbalance by modernizing the country’s nuclear arsenal (the only area where Moscow is on a level playing field with Washington) and by using elements of coercive soft power and hybrid warfare to compensate for conventional deficiencies. In an address to the Russian parliament, the State Duma, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu confirmed in February that the Russian military has created forces tasked with waging information warfare.

Russia’s leadership realized somewhat late in the game that 21st century warfare could no longer be won with conventional weapons, but rather with a combination of covert and classic military strategies and information manipulation. It has since put this insight into practice with remarkable consequence. For the Kremlin, it is a far more cost-effective and efficient way of waging war, particularly because modern technology assures that disinformation has a far greater impact than it used to during the Soviet era. The information war we see today was tried, tested and refined in Russia, then exported to the post-Soviet space. Now it has been expanded to Europe and beyond as well.

A Public-Private Partnership of Sorts

Russia’s security apparatus built a public-private partnership of sorts with commercial hacking groups and troll factories that allowed them to sharpen a series of powerful tools. Together, Russian security officials and hackers have orchestrated systematic cyber-attacks on European politicians, institutions, and media; they have used platforms like WikiLeaks to disseminate damaging information; they have wielded social media bots and trolls as well as fake news to discredit leading figures, like French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. He personally has been deluged with “fake news” and cyber-attacks stemming from Russia.

In addition, Russian media outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik disseminate conspiracy theories and provide a platform for populist parties like Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) or pundits critical of the West. These outlets do not bother themselves with large audiences or impressive click rates. They focus instead on ensuring that their stories are shared among like-minded groups on social media networks and perceived as fact, strengthening support among their base; some of those stories, however, also spread into the mainstream media. It is still unclear whether these targeted social media campaigns have a real impact on electing leaders like Donald Trump or taking down leaders like Angela Merkel.

What we can indeed learn from the US election campaign, however, is to recognize how cyber-attacks are used to disseminate information to discredit a candidate. During the US campaign, Russian agents were making direct overtures to the Trump team and activating old business contacts at the same time. Russia was systematically growing its informal networks and maneuvering private, economic, and political ties to serve its own interests. It is a strategy that combines a variety of legal and illegal instruments – and one that could be used in Germany’s upcoming federal elections.

Next Stop Germany

Leading up to the September vote, the Kremlin will likely distribute information across various online platforms and Russian media outlets and activate networks and contacts that already exist in Germany. It is also likely to build new networks to influence public and political discourse. In Russia, the boundaries between business and politics, between security and information policy have disappeared both in internal and external policy. That has exposed liberal democracies’ vulnerabilities as a result, making them appear weak and fragile.

It has also led countries like Germany to overestimate Russia’s real abilities to influence elections and public opinion significantly. Putin’s power is perceived to be greater than it really is; Russia has used bluffs and lies to unsettle its opponents in Ukraine, and it is successfully using that same strategy against the European Union.

For the Kremlin, neither Merkel nor her Social-Democrat challenger Martin Schulz would be a favorable choice for German chancellor – but that is not particularly important, either. The Kremlin’s goal is not to change the outcome of the election, but rather to make its opponents believe that it can. This strategy ultimately weakens Western governments and strengthens Russia’s negotiating position on issues like Ukraine or spheres of influence. And it also serves to consolidate Putin’s power at home, distracting Russians from their government’s own corrupt structures.

Exposing Moscow’s Methods

The answer is clear: Germany and Europe as a whole will have to work together to publicly expose Russia’s methods of manipulation. They cannot allow themselves to be unsettled. They must identify and understand Russia’s strengths and weaknesses as well as they do their own. The German government has to counter fearmongering among mainstream and fringe media outlets; it must also counter politicians and institutions that believe in placating Moscow. Those who continue champion appeasement must be made to understand one key point: Putin’s regime will not change, not through compromise nor trade. It will continue to generate and export corrupt structures, infecting any country that has failed to build a robust immune system.

Finland provides an important example of how to successfully stem Russian fake news and manipulation. Earlier than in Germany the Finish government made disinformation a top priority, setting up a central agency – in Finland’s case it is located at the prime minister’s office – to collect all information and coordinate counter-measures rapidly. Thus the agency not only helps coordinating all government bodies responding to fake news stories or cyber- attacks but enables the government to respond quickly to any social media campaigns directed against Finish policy or a particular person.

In Germany, there are a number of government bodies dealing with disinformation, but they lack coordination. The fact that the line between internal and external threats is hard to draw makes it difficult for those bodies to respond while traditional intelligence or security counter-measures no longer apply. In addition to such an agency, investigative journalists, democratic institutions, and civil society groups need to work in harmony to make the Germany’s democracy more resilient.

At the same time, it is important to remember that Russia – a country that has bucked modernization and sustainable development – is not the global power it appears to be. Moscow did not cause the crisis that Western countries find themselves in, it has simply benefited from it. German and EU stakeholders must bear down and do their homework, defending and enforcing liberal values at home and abroad. The same is true for parts of the media always ready to demonize Putin and Russia but neglecting their job of soberly analyzing what Russia can and cannot do. Anything else would only serve to amplify the very campaign of fear and panic that Moscow created.