German security officials have warned that Russia may try to interfere in Germany’s parliamentary election next year amid claims that Moscow meddled in this month’s US presidential poll.
Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic BfV intelligence agency, expressed concern that the Kremlin was seeking “to influence public opinion and decision-making processes” in Germany.
His warning echoes comments by Chancellor Angela Merkel who said last week that there were signs of internet-based attacks and misinformation campaigns coming from Russia which could “play a role in the [German] election campaign”.
Berlin’s worries are shared in other EU states, notably France, which holds a presidential election next year.
European government officials fear that Europe could be more vulnerable to interference than the US because of its wider political and economic connections to Russia; significant Russian minorities in some countries including Germany; and support from President Vladimir Putin for some rightwing populist parties in Europe.
In an interview with Reuters, Mr Maassen cited the high-profile case last year of a 13-year-old ethnic Russian girl from Berlin who Russian media said was kidnapped and raped by migrants. Police found no evidence of an assault. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Germany of hushing up the incident, prompting Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his German counterpart, to criticise Moscow for “politicising” the affair.
“This could happen again next year and we are alarmed,” said Mr Maassen. “We have the impression that this is part of a hybrid threat that seeks to influence public opinion and decision-making processes.”
German politicians see a range of dangers, including the hacking of emails and websites, media manipulation, backing for anti-government demonstrations and political support for Russia-friendly populist parties.
Marieluise Beck, a Green parliamentarian and Russia expert, said this month: “The fact that Russia has meddled in the US election must be a warning for Germany too.”
Already this year Mr Maassen has blamed a May 2015 cyber attack on the Bundestag on Russian groups managed by the Russian secret services. He said that, while most cyber attacks involved spying, “the Russian intelligence services are also showing a readiness for sabotage”. Russian officials have rejected claims that they were behind the Bundestag cyber attack.
Officials are also concerned about possible Russian efforts to influence opinion among Germany’s 5m Russian-speakers, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The biggest of these immigrant groups — the 2.5m so-called Russian-Germans, whose ancestors were originally German settlers in Russia — have often backed the AfD, the growing rightwing populist party, in disproportionate numbers in regional elections.
Analysts suggest various reasons for this support, including concerns about immigration that also drives other AfD voters. But some analysts blame the negative reports of Germany’s refugee influx presented in Russian media.
In the US, intelligence officials warned in the run-up to the presidential election of a campaign to undermine the credibility of the vote that they believed was backed by the Russian government. They blamed Moscow for backing the hacking of Democratic party emails and their publication on the internet. Russian officials denied any such effort.