by Alexander Kohler
Let’s just hypothetically assume that upon attacking Ukraine, it would be essential for Russia to also become active outside Ukraine in pursuance of its geopolitical goals. And in turn to influence the proceedings in Ukraine by its outside activities. In December 2021, my co-author Schoresh Davoodi and I already described Putin’s hybrid toolbox for this.
The use of the military component is, after all, only the most obvious element of the conflict. However, there are a number of other measures that are hardly noticed by the public. The fear in Germany that it could become a party to the war by supporting Ukraine is fulled from several sides, especially among protagonists in Germany who are loyal to Russia. For example, deliveries of heavy weapons such as Leopard and Marder tanks to Ukraine are prevented with the strange argumentation that this would make Germany a party to the war. Since it is perfectly okay under international law to deliver weapons to the victim of a war of aggression, and since Germany has already delivered – without issues encountered – howitzers and other equipment, the argumentation is of course and obviously completely wrong. However, spreading such shallow arguments and narratives are also part of Russia’s strategy; they are simply repeated often enough until they stick. At the same time, Germany has been a main target of Russia for a long time and is attacked in various terms. If one has not been dealing with geopolitics previously, one may ask how and why such a peaceful country as Germany should be attacked, and why there’s no extensive news about it.
Why would Germany be a prime target of a hybrid Russian attack?
Let’s just summarise why Germany would be a prime target of a hybrid Russian attack, and then discuss possible tools and approaches fthat Russia could employ. Let’s acknowledge that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin has been incessantly working towards the goal of a reinvigorated Russia of the old size as a superpower. As a teenage street brawler, he learned early that when confronting a group of opponents, it is important to pick out the strongest and target him, because the others will accept defeat alongside their strongest afterwards. So why Germany:
- Germany is the largest economy in the European Union and has a prominent position within Europe – and thus influences its neighbours. One of Russia’s objectives is to divide the EU and NATO along the “divide and rule” principle. Following the street brawler principle, this naturally means targeting Germany according to the “fight the biggest” principle. This was further developed in the course of his career.
- The EU’s logistics hub is Germany – simply because of its central location. Via the Elbe river and the connection between the Rhine and the Danube as well as railway and highway connections. Also, Germany hosts both civil and military aviation hubs. Thus, Germany is of immense importance for the transportation of material and personnel to Eastern European countries. At the same time, Germany hosts NATO facilities and bases of allies. The readiness of this infrastructure was assessed for example in the NATO exercise Defender Europe 2021.
- * Economically, Germany has been, and is closely linked to Russia. This connection has been continuiusly expanding driven by the political aim of “change through trade.” A strong German dependence in gas, coal and other raw materials, for example, is obvious. How this dependence can be used as a weapon became visible to the general public as early as mid-2021. Germany is seen as the main money pump for the Putin system, which relies particularly on raw materials exports. Of course, this dependence – unlike that of Russia-affiliated stooges – is not just one-sided for Germany. For its own part, Russia is extremely dependent on Germany in the areas of mechanical engineering, energy technology, transportation (especially rail technology) and high-tech. It is extremely important for Russia that the necessary goods to exercise its imperial ambitions continue to flow into the country.
- * Of course, Germany is also a worthwhile target due to its possibilities to influence decisions within EU and NATO, including its options to block decisions. After all, Russia’s goal is to sow disagreement in the EU ane NATO so that it can, on the one hand, rise to its former greatness and, on the other hand, expand its influence over the whole of Europe. Of course, already smaller gains are of considerable use for Russia. Germany could for example hinder arms aids for Ukraine. A blockade and delay policy on the part of Germany would certainly be in Russia’s interest. Covertly influencing and hindering bureaucrating procedures of decision-making bodies would already be a gain. So what could Russia wish for on the part of Germany? After the end of the Cold War, German military equipment was sold on a massive scale to allied states. This included West German equipment such as Leopard tanks, as well as NVA equipment such as MIG tanks of Soviet design and other equipment. However, large parts of the armaments from Germany used in Europe now fall under an end-use clause. If the current owners of the material want to pass it on to another country, Germany has a right to veto. This would hypothetically lend itself to active blockade, since the approval of the Federal Security Council (German: “Bundessicherheitsrat”)- chaired by the German chancellor – is required for any transfer of these armaments. Undoubtedly, it would be brilliant from a Russian perspective if Germany could at least delay arms transfers. Such support could also be well camouflaged, because working openly pro – Putin – and thus against German, Ukrainian, NATO and EU interests – is of course unlikely to go down well with the public. So what one could do: Internally, one could stage a great drama to make the other partners – i.e. all possible suppliers – not to deliver anything. In public, one could then claim that “We will of course only deliver in coordination with others” or “No solo efforts” as an argument for why you don’t want to deliver anything yourself – you obviously should not admit publicly that you have virtually forced your partners to hold back, of course. If you then have to deliver because others are also delivering, it would also be a possibility to deliver systems for which suddenly no more spare parts or ammunition are available. Or you simply supply very special systems like the Iris-T, which are hardly available in large numbers. But the weapons that Ukraine wants and for which it already has a trade agreement with the German industry (for example, decommissioned Leopard 1) are blocked.
Possibilities of Influencing Germany in the Russian interest
How can Russia, for example, actively use the described possibilities in its own interests in pursuance of its strategic goals, for example in Ukraine? Hybrid warfare offers a wide range of instruments that often do not even make the enemy aware that he is being attacked. It is always best when the target does not even notice what is happening.
Let us therefore return to the possible tools for exerting influence, specifically in relation to Germany. From the Russian perspective, cognitive warfare is a perfect tool to exert on Germany. Since the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union – including the sovjet German Democratic Republic (GDR) – has made massive attempts to influence the (West) German society. The GDR had the German-speaking personnel to engage in its western-German counterpart. Due to the occupation status, and in order to ensure the unconditional loyalty of the population for security reasons, care was also taken in the GDR in schools, universities and the public in general to anchor the imperial legitimacy of the Soviet Union in people’s minds. At the same time, the Soviet victims of World War II were deeply anchored in the consciousness of former GDR citizens. Later, this role of the Soviet Union was taken over exclusively by Russia. Successor states of the Soviet Union, some of which that suffered even more under Germany – such as Ukraine, which paid an immense blood toll during World War II – are thus not present in the public consciousness. One can certainly imagine how Manuela Schwesig, the current Prime Minister of the north-eastern German (and former GDR-) state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, was particularly influenced by the Soviet Union and Russia during her school days at the Seelow Heights Gymnasium with a view to a World War II battle memorial. Of course, since the 1990s there has also been massive immigration to Germany from former Sovjet Union states including Russia. Here too, one can of course attempt to exert influence via state-affiliated media such as Russia Today and a wide range of propaganda channels targeting these emigrated people.
In West Germany, on the other hand, the GDR, Soviet Union and later Russia tried to exert influence primarily through left-wing movements, trade unions, terrorist groups such as the RAF or social movements such as the peace movement or the anti-nuclear movement, or even through political parties. The influence on public opinion in the 70s and 80s is of course evident in the resistance against the NATO Double-Track Decision, which also led to the fall of the then-chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Another important goal is and was of course to create an anti-American mood and to establish the Soviet Union as a natural antipole in the public opinion. Whereby of course it also helps that no power, big or small, is completely harmless and of course offers points of attack. We see the effects today in the typical argumentation style “but the Americans …”. Here, of course, the self-critical and imaginative products of the American film and media industry are often used to establish an argumentive base. Also legends about bio-labs or super-soldiers often exploit the imaginative foundations of the Western film industry to capture conspiracy theorists who have created their own tin-foil-hat conspiracy world. However, to limit oneself to only one political direction when there could be other easily exploitable roots that can be easily infiltrated would of course be negligent from the Russian point of view. Germany offers perfect conditions here: After all, one can theoretically make use of right-wing political parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), activist organisations from various areas, and many other participants of the public debate. The main goal is that it cracks, divides and disintegrates. The Germany of today simply offers a perfect breeding ground. Those who can set narratives and control the security policy debates win.
From Russia’s point of view, it is of course also important to gain influence on narratives or topics relevant to security policy. It would make sense to exert influence over academics in the field of peace and conflict research. In the area of history, Putin has, after all, given himself the title of a historian and thus wanted to create the intellectual basis for the eradication of Ukraine. It is therefore important to establish well-known experts on Russia-related topics or in military and geopolitical analysis in order to create a Russia-friendly image in the public and to use it especially in times of crisis such as the invasion of Ukraine. Of course, excesses of the kind we see among some German intellectuals, analysts, and consultants with an entrenched potomkin-like image of Russia would be very much in Russia’s favour.
To achieve a lasting effect on a society, it is of course important to establish the ideological foundations in all areas, for decades – in education, politics, the military, diplomacy, the secret services, the economy and the media. To reap the fruits of this effort after decades, the intensively influenced personnel must, after all, control key positions in society. It should be noted here that after reunification, Germany suddenly changed from a frontline state to – for the German leaders – a world surrounded by friends in terms of security policy. So they concluded they were in a position to dismantle measures against infiltration. Unfortunately, Russia took a different view and massively increased the resources for the secret services after 1990, or better, the Russian services secured additional inflows of money from organised crime and economic ventures. If one were to proceed strategically here, one would naturally come up with the idea of using the former GDR structure and qualified personnel from Stasi and other organisations in Russia’s favour. Of course, it would also be favourable to Russia if Germany had closed an eye on previous wrongdoings among GDR-structures – for the sake of reconciliating the German society upon reunification and the fall of communism so that some old structures would still harbour potential to exploit today. Although Navalny’s video focuses on Putin’s system in Russia and his palace, there are very interesting pieces of information at the beginning of this video where one can at least guess some of Putin’s networks in Germany. Germany thus offers optimal conditions for elements of hybrid warfare.
How to weaken the German defense?
So how can one use this potential for a hybrid attack? Of course, it would be optimal if, after the fall of communism, for the sake of reconciliation, one had not looked too closely and had spread the mantle of silence over the existing structures known to, or controlled by Moscow. Deep Stasi structures and existing compromat would certainly offer a lot of potential; and Russia would certainly not be so malicious to actually (ab)use the potential. You’d have to be a Cold Warrior to even assume such a thing. One must build bridges across Eastern Europe to Russia, and one must not let break off the connection to Russia. Further opportunities for influence are, of course, money from the Russian state, from state-owned enterprises or from oligarchs who are under Putin’s control in Russia. This illustrious circle of oligarchs, also known as Putin’s purse within Russia, has been made absolutely compliant with Putin’s interests over the last decades, by mafia-like methods. Who’s not compliant can face various problems, one falls easily from a window, from yachts, or finds death while attending shamanistic ceremonies.
Let’s just assume that during the euphoria after the fall of communism, those responsible would have thought they were in a teletubby-land of security policy and would have pursued a policy of scaling down all security measures against Russia – not only military measures, but also in the area of internal security. At the same time, Russia would have increased its resources and also taken over some of the structures of the GDR services. What would that mean for our security? Here, of course, one must also consider the long-term strategy of creating an environment suitable for exerting influence. What would happen if defenses against Russian activities were curtailed? Of course, the following comes to mind: Didn’t Chancellor Schröder in 2004 reduce the ability of the German Federal Intelligence Service (German: “Bundesnachrichtendienst“) to defend the country against Russian activities? e The responsibility for the intelligence services lies within the Chancellor’s Office. Wasn’t a certain Federal Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (now Federal President of Germany) responsible for the services as head of the Chancellery between 1999 and 2005? Interestingly, it was only from 2017 that defensive measures were slowly rebuilt. Of course, it would be inviting for other services to exploit this natural weakness. But of course Russia would not do something so maliciously, those responsible for the decision apparently thought. An absolute drama. In good faith you maintain the relation with Russia, and then you are so brazenly betrayed. One is certainly inconsolable and cannot remember one’s own part in the previous relationship maintenance.
Of course, in order to create such a paradise-like environment for exerting influence, one would have to exert massive influence on German politics. Let us now take a look at the influence on political parties and other organisations such as social movements. If one were so bold and wanted to use our democratic structures for one’s own interests, how would one proceed? Assuming that one had actually been active here for decades, had set narratives and had already helped to shape ideological foundations. Possibilities for legally influencing parties have increased over the past decades, also known as lobbying. A peace-loving state like Russia, led by a former KGB agent (apparently a charitable organization), which is only waging a war of aggression against Ukraine for humanitarian reasons, would of course never use something like lobbying? Or, what a terrible suspicion, lobbyism by Russia afilliated protagonists, how awful. Lobbyism has now reached enormous proportions. In Brussels alone, there are an estimated 25,000 lobbyists. For Germany, there are ca. 5,000 active lobbyists. Of course, the possibilities of lobbying are immense for state actors as well, the regulations are vague, the distinction from corruption is hardly feasible, and prosecution is not very pronounced due to various hurdles – only very rarely is there such an intensive crackdown as the Belgian authorities recently exercised in the case of a social-democratic vice president of the EU-parliament.
Now let’s assume Russia would try something similar and – as U.S. intelligence services indeed reported – has invested about 300 million in political parties and candidates in more than two dozen countries since 2014 in order to influence politics there. That would be a critical issue. Of course, oligarchs (Putin’s purse) or Russian state-owned corporations, such as those in the natural gas sector, would give additional opportunities and funds for influence.
How the oligarch system enables influence in Europe is well visible in London – also affectionately called “Londongrad”. Because it was popular as a place to live with oligarchs under Putin’s control, Russia would have a foot in the door to influence Brexit and other political proceedings. In Great Britain, however, people are capable of learning from their mistakes and do not allow their security policy to be dictated by Russia, as is evident from the example of Ukraine. Germany has not reached this level so far, and in this respect is better suited as a target for Russian influence attempts. Over the past decades, the illustrious circle of oligarchs has been made absolutely compliant by Putin through mafia-like methods. If you don’t play along, you can get into trouble: you can easily fall out of windows , off yachts, or come to your death during shamanic ceremonies . Putin’s purses were, for example, opened for the construction of Putin’s palace and were allowed to support it financially. Currently, these tamed oligarchs have to open their treasure chests to support arms production. To their frustration, however, this time they are not allowed to enrich themselves from it, as has been the case previously in Putin’s projects.
In particular, Germany’s built-up dependencies in the energy sector would present an interesting leverage for Russia. The Nord Stream 2 drama or the unbelievable security policy decision under the responsible minister Sigmar Gabriel to approve the sales of natural gas storage facilities to Russia were capital mistakes, for instance. Germany’s mistakes in the energy sector, and the consequences for the European community , have been extensively described elsewhere. Their consequences can be easily seen in our cost of living crisis, as well as in the attempts of Putin-friendly parties to gain political capital out of the ongoing extortion in the energy sector. Piquantly, as of mid-2021, the gas storage facilities controlled by Russia were not replenished as usual in preparation for the cold season. Instead, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the gas still available there was pumped in large quantities onto LNG freighters and then brought to the new LNG terminal in Kaliningrad – which was conducted without any protests from environmental groups – in order to be able to guarantee a certain energy independence for the Russian exclave on the shore of the Baltic Sea.
If we now hypothetically assume that there was indeed direct Russian influence exerted in Germany, then it would be strange that there have not yet been any Brussels-style arrests. One would have to get the impression from the outside that the structures in Germany are very extensive – as recently documented by Correctiv.org, for example. Strangely enough, this would also fit with impressions one can get in international discussions on geopolitics. There, Germany is now seen as a corrupt banana republic, and from countries that were previously branded as corrupt by Germany there are voices that openly now say: Well, since you have apparently already overtaken us in terms of corruption when we look at North Steam and the arms deliveries to Ukraine, we no longer need to take your criticism serious. Take care of cleaning up your own mess.
Under the impression of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one could of course theorise that pro-Russian narratives and comments are currently being spread by parties with close ties to Russia. These could possibly also be promoted by the financial flows described above. Coincidentally, the lines of argumentation of the parties DieLinke (left-wing), the AfD (right-wing), and parts of the SPD (social-democratic) are suspiciously similar here. And they also appear to partially support Moscow’s line of arguments, although there are probably some in each party who are actually striving for exactly the same ideas. For the right-wing spectrum, with which especially Dugin is maintaining the relationship, there are interesting findings that Reuters collated.
Let’s also assume that important political multipliers would have gained competitive advantages over their rivals through Russian services and the information and networks they provided. For instance, a hack of the German Federal Parliament “Bundestag” (which occured not long ago) and other activities for harvesting information could – hypothetically – be helpful.
So overall, from certain perspectives, the picture here is extremely frightening. If this were to prove correct, Germany would be isolated among its allies. The damage at the political and economic level would be immense and would not be easy to repair. One would support Russia – whether consciously or unconsciously or both in parts – in a war of aggression and would be partially responsible for many deaths. One would have caused massive damage to the economy and to private households by creating dependencies and a lack of security. The question that needs to be asked: How can we solve this problem, which is so grave that one would have to take very robust measures?