Dr Stefan Meister is Head of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
Russian interference has been much less than expected but yet obvious throughout the German election campaign. Russian foreign media have criticized Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, promoted conspiracy theories and fake news, and provided populists with a platform to attack mainstream politicians. They have also been trying to increase anti-US feeling, always an undercurrent of German opinion. In the last weeks, Russian tools of influence have been used to promote the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). The party is on the only one with an election campaign also run in the Russian language, and it boasts strong support among Russian-Germans.
Though the Russian meddling appears unlikely to prevent another victory for Angela Merkel on Sunday, it will still have made a non-negligible contribution to Moscow’s long-term aim to destabilise the European Union. This should serve as a warning: Europe’s open, pluralistic societies are vulnerable, and Russian media and manipulators will take full advantage of their weaknesses. Europeans thus need to examine the roots of the Russian campaign, and take action.
First, what has Russia achieved?
Russian strategists appear to have understood that Germany is stable and that they have limited influence. But they can count their support for the AfD. It is likely to become the third-largest party in the Bundestag, marking the biggest electoral success for a far-right party in post-war Germany. This will give it a platform from which to poison public discourse over the long term by promoting scepticism towards the media and mainstream politicians and parties – not to mention islamophobia.
Europe’s open, pluralistic societies are vulnerable, and Russian media and manipulators will take full advantage of their weaknesses
Targeting Germany also has the potential to weaken the strongest member of the European Union during a period of transformation. This could weaken the credibility of EU institutions and leaders and give Russia a better bargaining position on Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West. One of the AfD’s few foreign policies is to abolish these sanctions, making the party a natural ally of Moscow as well as a means to disrupt the German political consensus.
However, Russia’s influence depends more on what we think it can do to us than on the concrete results of its actions. Possibly linked to fears over the potential consequences of worsening relations, 83 percent of Germans are now against the new sanctions decided by the US congress, according to pollster Forsa.
Finally, the campaign was also designed for a domestic audience. If Russians believe the EU has failed, and that western Europe is overrun by migrants and targeted by terrorists, they will be all the more grateful to President Vladimir Putin for providing stability. That perception will get him off to a good start in next year’s presidential election, which might be held amid an economic crisis.
It is important for Europe to respond.
Firstly, we should handle the Russian disinformation and support for populists with severity but without panicking. We also need to invest in independent and investigative media. This is crucial in the fight against disinformation and credibility loss. We should remember that media is not only a business but crucial to the very functioning of democracy.
Russia’s influence depends more on what we think it can do to us than on the concrete results of its actions
More importantly, the West needs to deal with its own challenges. The EU lost domestic support and international influence during its sovereign debt crisis, fuelling populism. And the election of Donald Trump as US president was the result of populism, and is now eroding that country’s international credibility.
Populism was not initially created by Moscow, but is instead the result of western societies’ struggles to adapt to the economics of globalisation and digitalisation. If we solve our own problems, we give Russian actors less room to meddle into our societies.
IMAGE CREDIT: Palinchak/Bigstock