Putin's Propaganda Machine Is Meddling With European Elections

Russian speakers protest in Leipzig on Jan. 11.

Supporters of the Far Right PEGIDA movement protest in Leipzig on Jan. 11.

Photographer: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images
  • Russia starting to `weaponize' European elections: Forbrig
  • EU forms task force to counter `active propaganda campaign'

It was the kind of crime that sears the soul, the gang rape of a 13-year-old ethnic Russian girl by a trio of immigrants in Germany.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

The first reports galvanized the Russian diaspora, bringing tens of thousands into the streets to protest Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy.

Trouble is, the attack never happened. It was just a teenager’s tall tale, police quickly concluded.

German officials say the controversy -- known as the “Lisa Affair” -- was ginned up by President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine to undermine Merkel in the run up to last month’s regional elections, which resulted in stinging losses for her party. The worry now in Berlin, Brussels and beyond is that with Britain poised for a historic referendum on European Union membership and national votes in France and Germany next year, Putin will intensify efforts to divide the 28-member bloc.

“Russia is starting to weaponize electoral processes in Europe,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin. “The Lisa Affair was a real eye-opener.”

Kremlin Reach 

The mobilization in Germany shows a reach by the Kremlin into the political workings of Europe’s largest economy that goes far beyond the frequent policy hazings meted out by its English-language media arms, RT television and the Sputnik news service.

Putin’s longtime foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, broke with diplomatic convention in late January to accuse Germany of a cover-up in the Lisa Affair. That outraged Merkel’s government, prompted Lavrov’s counterpart to issue a rare personal rebuke and led the chancellery to order the BND spy agency to probe the Kremlin’s role in the scandal, the officials in Berlin said.

Germany already has a special unit tasked with countering Russian disinformation and it works on the assumption that Putin’s goal is to topple EU-friendly governments and replace them with pro-Russia parties, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, according to the officials.

Funding Le Pen

In France, this support is financial. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front has received funding from a Russian lender and is seeking 25 million euros from others to bankroll its 2017 presidential campaign.

Le Pen, Putin’s most prominent political supporter in western Europe, is currently polling second and though her party failed to win a single region in December elections, it received 6.8 million votes, the most ever.

That shows the continent is moving toward a political realignment more favorable to the Kremlin, according to Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian multimillionaire whose former employees played major roles in Ukraine’s rebellion and who now advocates for closer ties with Europe’s far right.

“This is the start of the end of the system,” Malofeev said in Moscow. 

Brexit, Nexit

The next major arena for Russian meddling is the U.K., which will hold a referendum in June on whether to stay in the EU. And with the vote too close to call, the Russian embassy in London took the unusual step of questioning the competence of its host nation’s elected leader.

After Prime Minister David Cameron defended membership in the bloc by noting it allowed Britain to lead Europe’s response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, the embassy shot back via Twitter, saying dragging Russia into the Brexit debate suggested Cameron “cannot win the argument on its merits.”

A major Brexit cheerleader is Sputnik, which warned recently that Britain would suffer mass sex attacks like the ones in Cologne that preceded the Lisa Affair if it doesn’t leave the EU, citing Nigel Farage, a Putin admirer who heads the U.K. Independence Party.

The Kremlin mouthpiece took a similar tack in the Netherlands, where voters rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine. Sputnik hailed the defeat as a step toward “Nexit,” in a story based on one interview with a regional Dutch reporter.

Soviet Berlin

Putin’s “active propaganda campaign” prompted Britain, Denmark, Lithuania and Estonia to urge the EU to take more robust countermeasures, resulting in the creation of the East StratCom Task Force, which views the Lisa operation as punishment for Merkel’s success in uniting Europe on sanctions, a diplomat close to the group said.

The Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry have said that Russia’s only interest in the affair is in protecting the rights of ethnic Russians abroad. A lawyer for Lisa’s family didn’t respond to requests for comment.

By all accounts, Lisa, whose family is from the former Soviet quarter of Berlin, disappeared Jan. 11 and resurfaced 30 hours later. The Kremlin’s main broadcaster, Channel One, which is viewed by many of Germany’s 4 million Russian speakers, said she told her parents she’d been abducted and raped on her way to school by three foreigners. But investigators later determined she’d spent the night with a male friend because of problems at school.

By that time, the political damage to Merkel had been done.

The ‘Spark’ 

“All it took was a spark for things to spill over,” said Heinrich Groth, the chairman of a lobby group for Russian Germans who helped organize the January protests that were attended by about 30,000 people.

Groth said that he’s already been approached about joining forces with Pegida, an anti-immigrant movement that has drawn thousands to its rallies since it emerged last year, and that his views are similar to those of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany, or AfD. The arrival of more than 1 million refugees and the attacks in Cologne and other cities on New Year’s Eve have helped push Merkel’s approval rating to its lowest level in more than four years.

“Europe is making a rightward turn,” Dmitry Abzalov, who runs a consultancy in Moscow that advises the Kremlin on opposition groups in Europe. “And Merkel has shown herself to be weak on the migration issue.”

An official in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union said almost all of the ruling coalition’s Russian-German voters have defected to AfD, which also appears to be getting funds from Russia, according to Alina Polyakova at the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. AfD, while still relatively small, posted its best showing yet in three state elections last month.

AfD spokesman Christian Lueth said by e-mail that his party “adheres strictly” to Germany’s political-financing law and takes no money from abroad.

But such assurances do little to assuage suspicions of Putin’s intentions among the country’s leadership.

Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag for the CDU/CSU alliance, said Putin may try to cloak his activities, but it’s clear he’d rather see a fractured Europe than a united one -- and the road to this goal runs through Berlin.

“The underlying logic is that when you discredit Chancellor Merkel and Germany, you also weaken Europe,” Hardt said.

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