Much has been written in recent weeks regarding the readiness of Western democracies to fight disinformation in the “information war” led by the Russian intelligence services.
While it is true that disinformation and active measures remain disciplines in which Russian services still excel, their goal, especially in Germany, would have been more difficult to achieve had the other side not revealed to be not only unprofessional but also downright clumsy. It begs the question: Was this a coincidence?
The years during Gerhard Schröder‘s chancellorship, Angela Merkel’s predecessor, were a blessing for the Russian services. Experts such as Edward Lucas allege that although espionage indeed occurred, the Schroeder administration had a tendency to cover up breaches, handling Russian operations on German territory in a very accommodating manner – if at all. Indeed, the usual level of industrial espionage aside, no major disruption of German-Russian relations was registered between 1999 and 2005.
Since 2005, however, not only industrial espionage has been skyrocketing, but the last five reports of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, show that Russian Federation intelligence has significantly raised its level of activity in all areas on German soil.
As we now know, another entity which had been following closely the impact of Russian activities has been US counter-intelligence.
US counter-intelligence (CI) has a long history of monitoring Soviet and later Russian activities in Germany. Such monitoring can be viewed as helicopter-parenting at best and as necessary micromanagement at worst.
The case of the arrest of Georges Trofimoff, the highest ranking US military intelligence officer ever convicted of treason, demonstrates Germany’s relevance in this context. It also explains the interest – indeed, absolute necessity – for US counterintelligence to monitor Russian activities on German territory. Trofimoff had been recruited by a clergyman, a hierarch of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in Bavaria. Although tipped off by their American counterparts in 1994, German authorities were impeded by legal restrictions. They were unable to tackle the case efficiently against either Trofimoff or his handler, Bishop Irenaeus. Russian defector Oleg Kalugin helped the US investigation which eventually led to the arrest of Trofimoff in 2000.
Given the evidence they had apparently gathered during the Schroeder years, it appeared clear to US CI specialists that Russian intelligence was leading a relentless effort in terms of political warfare and that this effort would continue during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration. In a battle for hearts and minds, the Kremlin made a frenetic quest for potential new assets in Germany in the last decade, and it is highly likely that a reassessment of German vulnerability ensued.
To make things worse, the Russian services periodically scored painfully-remarkable results in reactivating former KGB allies and infiltrating them into sensitive political areas.
There was no secret recipe for the success of Russian operations. They were conducted according to Soviet old-school textbooks and took advantage of the sudden abundance of bi-lateral initiatives, cultural exchanges and “new-face conferences” as recruiting grounds. So they came as no surprise to CI experts.
A top discipline of Russian handlers is spotting preferably narcissistic personalities, ideally with an exploitable potential for split loyalties. And their results in Germany have been quite astounding, not only when it comes to the collection of information but also enabling agents of influence. The invasion of Ukraine has clearly shown how multipliers have been carefully selected not only to defend the Kremlin perspective but, alternatively, to attack its “enemies,” steering or fueling debates. This has also taken institutionalized form.
Associations have been created and existing ones co-opted to optimize the efficiency of the Kremlin penetration of all key areas of German civil society. These bodies can then come forward, deliberately silencing critical voices in their ranks while introducing convenient narratives into the debate as required by the Kremlin agenda. Specific narratives were later to be picked up by the press creating recurring topics. During the latest Russian intervention in Ukraine, a wide range of such narratives were introduced in this fashion by entities deliberately serving Russian disinformation goals.
False stories such as the alleged organized persecution of Russian minorities in Ukraine and the “coup” against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were promoted. But there were also two especially significant issues for German sensitivities: there were claims that “Nazis” were behind Maidan and Jews were being persecuted by the new government. Recently, in a troubling synchronicity with press releases from the Russian Foreign Ministry, Matthias Platzeck, the head of the German-Russian Forum, openly pleaded the case for the Russian occupation of Crimea, only to retract it shortly after his attempt backfired. He was supported by Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, a prominent TV journalist and former Moscow correspondent, who even argued using word-for-word Kremlin narratives that the Crimean case constituted de jure “not an annexation.”
Clearly, the emergence of certain topics is not a mere coincidence and the convergence of narratives with the Kremlin is in no way fortuitous. How these mechanisms function has been explained by Yuri Bezmenov who had a long career of recruiting agents of influence and multipliers before he defected to Canada in 1970. That these techniques remain in place was confirmed by another defector, the late Sergey Tretyakov, who used to not only recruit but also handle several organizations and networks of agents of influence while posted as a diplomat in New York. Incidentally, Tretyakov also explained already in 2008 in his book titled Comrade J. how he used to send groups of young “activists” to libraries throughout the US to write online commentaries favorable to the Kremlin.
Veteran US experts and teachers in the field of both information warfare and Russian affairs –such as John Lenczowski, Todd Leventhal or Paul Goble — immediately recognize the signature of Russian disinformation in the political arena, media, business or academia. They unanimously note that Western reaction to Russian information warfare has been dangerously weak. They have also been sounding the alarm in the last decade, underlining the lack of adequate countermeasures in the US and in Europe.
As Lenczowski has pointed out, analyzing the Western decline of the ability to counter Kremlin propaganda, if the Russians won’t forget the lessons of Sun Tzu, is it wise for us to do so?
While the US still potentially has more than enough expertise and resources at its disposal to counter the Kremlin’s aggressive propaganda, for reasons difficult to fathom, it has been reluctant to fully use them. Germany, by contrast, seems to have no such expertise or resources.
One of the reasons advanced by German counterintelligence specialists is the lack of scholarship. After the end of the cold war, the relevance of Russian and Eastern European studies decreased. Furthermore, German authorities dropped their guard and focused on Middle Eastern studies after 9/11. Middle East experts rather than Russia and Eastern-Europe specialists were recruited.
Yet this explanation misses the point in Germany’s case. Indeed, sufficient Russia and Eastern Europe experts have been trained in the last fifteen years; it’s just that they have been systematically scouted by organizations in which the Russian government has been heavily involved, right under the nose of the German authorities. Alexander Rahr, a former adviser to the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs who has been accused of having disturbingly close relations to the Kremlin, had a special interest in the “new generation” during his time at the German Council on Foreign Affairs (DGAP). Only recently, he was involved in almost every relevant German-Russian event, including for young professionals.
A Well-Tilled Field
The latest developments in the war against Ukraine fell on fertile ground in terms of the info-war in Germany. As we have seen, Russia had been engaging in co-option of German elites in politics, academia, media, business and culture for the last ten years with stunning success. Almost in every area, networks of support for Russian interests have garnered sensational results.
But if the Kremlin could rely on a steady group of helpers, it had also spotted its main opponent: the shrinking species of strong advocates of genuine transatlantic ties who were horrified by the talk of German equidistance between Russia and the US. These “last of the Mohicans” would soon be replaced by a new generation which the Kremlin decided to court. The new brand of self-declared fervent Atlanticists ended up becoming one of the most decisive pawns on the chessboard of Russian operations in Germany. It is no coincidence that Russian deep-cover agent Andreas Anschlag made a point of joining Atlanticist organizations and had completed a thorough social mapping, keeping contacts with dozens of multipliers.
A New Generation Indeed
Once again, old-school Soviet know-how worked perfectly. In this campaign, the valorization of assets was key. After they were scouted, the narcissism of these new players was cultivated. They have been showered with lavish invitations and honors in an unprecedented flying circus of conferences with Kremlin representatives in praise of German-Russian cooperation. Some gathering sponsored by German businesses displayed participants’ lists that read like a “Who’s Who” of Russian intelligence services, as a former CI officer noted. Even semi-official political talks were held between the young Christian Democrats (the CDU, Merkel’s party) and Putin’s youth organization Nashi (“Ours”). It suddenly put this class of a “new generation of leaders” in the position of “preferred interlocutors,” dubbed by the Kremlin as less “dogmatic,” more able to build bridges and address a “common security architecture, from Lisbon to Vladivostok” as the Kremlin appeasement narrative goes. In 2008, three months after the Russian invasion of Georgia, German Atlanticists organized a general assembly with an event at the embassy of the Russian Federation in Berlin, among other venues. Discussions were moderated by none other than Alexander Rahr. Incredibly, in 2011, the German chapter of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Organization held part of their yearly assembly at the Russian embassy.
This new generation provided good services not only as networkers but also, deliberately or not – which is perhaps even more worrisome – as propagandists. In the debate about the Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Georgia prior to the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008, German “Atlanticists” such as Jan Techau, formerly of the NATO Defence College, openly and prolifically defended the Russian position, warning against Georgian membership. After the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008, he reiterated the same position. In another context, he recently criticized a favorite Kremlin target, the Baltic countries, as having an “unhealthy obsession about Russia” while praising Central-Eastern Europe, a region he – by his own admission as a NATO specialist – did not know until recently. These singular lobbying activities – always wrapped in pseudo Atlanticist fervor – must have made Dmitry Trenin, now his colleague at the Carnegie Moscow Center and equally known for his remarkable political ubiquity (and also for his interesting military background), profoundly envious.
Carlo Masala is another German Atlanticist, a former NATO Defence College scholar, and currently a professor at the University of the Armed Forces in Munich. Masala is a regular guest of German Russian events as a non-Russia specialist; recently he declared NATO maneuvers in Ukraine were “absurd.” He also pleaded, without openly sharing them of course, for more understanding for the positions of Russia, a country that “in the last 20 years has seen NATO advancing towards its borders” and questioned whether Obama would really want to risk the nuclear destruction of New York City to save Tallinn.
Contributors with former NATO affiliation but with no specific Russia expertise such as Masala were not only heard giving clumsy interviews to German media, leaving the impression that the newcomers of the Alliance were somewhat second-class allies; they also appeared, like Jan Techau, on Voice of Russia and Russia Today (RT.com) at the height of the Snowden affair. Needless to say, none of these people managed to score points in these debates and interviews. Even so, the Russian propaganda organs welcomed these occasions as proof that these propaganda channels were really “objective media sources “which gave “everyone,” even those who disagree, a sufficient platform. A stamp of respectability, courtesy of the German Atlanticists.
What concretely defines this new type of revisited Atlanticism is the complete lack of expertise on Russia and the systematic ignorance of anything remotely related to historical contingencies, let alone political timing. How else would you explain that some of these occasional bedfellows of the Kremlin traveled to an obscure trilateral conference in Moscow in 2013 with highly questionable Russian participation to discuss how to engage Russia, two weeks after the first massive raids against NGOs had seen activists being arrested?
The German Atlanticists’ reflex of hiding behind the school of realism as an alibi for their position on Russia (or lack thereof) is quite astounding. They organize soul-searching sessions, waxing eloquent about divergent interests. They will explain to you how Ukraine is not of vital interest to Europe, let alone to the US. They also never fail to underline how the West allegedly bears responsibility for Russia’s reaction both in Georgia and Ukraine. The crux of the narrative consists in construing a mutual-beneficial dependency in the West’s relations with Russia while accepting the notion of a Russian sphere of influence or as recently, in advocating “patience” one week after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. Adding insult to injury – and this apparently explains it all – they like to cite the sacrosanct gospel of John Mearsheimer. This makes Paul Goble – who knows a thing or two about political realism and was himself a student of Morgenthau in Chicago – cringe: “Morgenthau would argue exactly the opposite! Marek Chodakiewicz agrees with his colleague and calls these narratives: “a canard repeated by generations of agents of influence and useful idiots in Western academia and now it apparently resurfaces in Mearsheimer’s fairy tale.”
Needless to say, these people gladden the Kremlin operatives and deserve every sign of gratitude they have received from them. If they haven’t, it’s all the more tragic.
The Kremlin Rejoices
The biggest Russian propaganda stunt has undoubtedly been Atlanticism as practiced by Philipp Missfelder, a Christian-Democrat MP, in his short-lived position of transatlantic coordinator of the German government. Missfelder had a long history of troubling convergence of his views with the Kremlin’s. The oddity of his political and geographic wanderings was long ignored in Berlin, although it might have been noted elsewhere. This foreign policy heavy-weight was the rising star of the CDU until his whereabouts were pounced on and spelled out for a German readership by the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a memorable article titled: “Missfelder, the Man Who Wants to Go East”. In the past, Missfelder had never tired of conveying the main elements of language known to any expert on Kremlin diplomacy: appeasement, engagement and defense of mutual business interests. So when former Stasi officer Matthias Warnig, now head of Gazprom Switzerland, and Missfelder, himself no less than a former transatlantic coordinator, celebrated Gerhard Schroeder’s 70th birthday in St. Petersburg with Vladimir Putin, none of these experts could have possibly misread the mocking thank-you note from the Kremlin agitprop department.
This St. Petersburg extravaganza created a huge scandal especially because of another specificity of German Atlanticists, the awkwardness of their actions aside: the total lack of political timing. His visit to Putin occurred just as German OSCE observers were kidnapped by rebels in Ukraine. Philipp Missfelder who had not been tasked with any mission for their release had no plausible professional explanation for the trip. He is still spokesperson for Foreign Affairs for the CDU, Merkel’s party – but no longer transatlantic coordinator.
Looking back on those chapters of Russian operations, longtime US specialists of Russian active measures can clearly see the Russian side rejoicing. The Russian services have not only schooled Germany in terms of disruption but scored high in terms of penetration of key areas in decision- making circles. Even better, they have even fostered a new generation of willing executioners of their propaganda right behind enemy lines. The message is now clear: we are everywhere, watch your back.
The most blatant episode of subversion occurred during the Snowden Operation. This was an occasion to measure the immense know-how of Russian services. The massive disruption caused in US-German relations was a masterpiece in term of deception and active measures. And in good Sun Tzu manner, the Kremlin manipulated the “self-declared” allies of the US into turning on the US.
Bereft of any technological or intelligence knowledge, many alleged German advocates of strong transatlantic ties with the US started whining about having been betrayed and claiming everywhere on social media the US had gone “too far.” They put much energy in discrediting what they should have immediately defended: a better mutual understanding among allies and a necessary cooperation for the benefit of both nations. But they did exactly the opposite.
First, they flip-flopped on PRISM, criticizing a program they did not understand in a context that eluded them completely, then claimed the alleged scandal was a great opportunity for political emancipation, whatever that concept meant. When in a second part of the active measure, the news was leaked that Chancellor Merkel’s phone had been tapped, these Monday-morning quarterbacks actually did everything to exacerbate tensions. So, when new information emerged one year later that made their position ridiculous, eventually unmasking them as incompetent and opportunists, they went …silent.
It was a total victory for the Kremlin, once again, on all levels.
Will the real Atlanticists please stand up?
Long observation of these alleged allies leaves the impression of a disoriented lot with no political compass whatsoever, jumping on the band-wagon when it suits their hardly-defined agenda, and adopting a neutral position otherwise. Scared of taking a stance or even articulating what they really stand for, they are God’s gift to Russian intelligence services. The Kremlin’s experts on disinformation can now celebrate, mission accomplished.
Especially in times of info-war, it is crucial to be able to mobilize resources, rely on people and organizations which clearly and without hesitation can make the difference between a non-allied and an allied country. These people need the expertise of recognizing agitprop, and active measures, they have to be proactive and address the disinformation of the Kremlin with not only knowledge but determination. Monday-morning quarterbacking and “fair-weather Atlanticists” are of no use.