There are only nine weeks to go until Germany elects a new Parliament on Sept. 24, and with it, the next chancellor. Right now our eyes are on Angela Merkel, the incumbent, and Martin Schulz, her left-wing challenger. But we’re also watching another player in the campaign, one who has been suspiciously quiet so far: Russia.
It’s long been assumed that Russian hackers would attack Germany’s elections, just as they attacked those of its two closest allies, the United States and France. And it wouldn’t be the first time that Germany got hacked: In May 2015 hackers stole data from 16 members of the Bundestag, or Parliament, including Mrs. Merkel, who holds a seat there.
German intelligence services attributed the attack to Fancy Bear, a group of hackers that was also behind the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the “La République en Marche” movement of President Emmanuel Macron of France. Fancy Bear is widely believed to be an arm of Russian state intelligence agencies.
But will the stolen material actually materialize as “kompromat”? It’s likely. But will it matter? Probably not.
For one thing, while Russia’s leaders hold no affection for Mrs. Merkel, the Kremlin has little to gain from meddling with the German vote. In France, a right-wing candidate with strong anti-European Union positions made it to the final round. And in the United States — well, you know that story. In Germany’s system of proportional representation, however, coalition governments are the rule. If hackers released information that pushed the vote by a few percentage points more or less, not much would happen. Designed after World War II to immunize the country against totalitarianism, Germany’s political system now also serves as a firewall against information warfare.
From the Russian point of view, the differences between the two major parties, the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Christian Democrats, are marginal anyway. True, some Social Democrats favor détente toward Russia, and leading Social Democrats have been critical of increasing military spending on NATO. But the party is strongly pro-European and pro-NATO. And in any event, Mrs. Merkel has a dominant 15-percentage-point lead.
Trying to strengthen Germany’s right-wing populists, like in France, does not seem very promising either: The Alternative for Germany, the leading far-right party, is too small to matter on its own, and no mainstream party is willing to join it in a coalition.
Moreover, in Germany, most people still read a high-quality local newspaper or watch the main evening news on public television. In January 2016, Russian media outlets based in Germany spread false information about a Russian-German minor who had allegedly been abducted and raped by three men of Arab origin.
The case is often cited as an example of how Russian information warfare may work in Germany — but actually, from the Russian point of view, it was a failure. The public mood couldn’t have been more favorable: The campaign was run shortly after the public had to absorb the news of numerous sexual assaults committed by primarily North African men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Yet because the mainstream news media is strong and widely respected, the fake news didn’t get very far. (And the costs to Russia were high: The foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, supported the disinformation campaign, which further soured Russian-German relations.)
Another German advantage in the age of information warfare is our utterly unglamorous but practically scandal-free political class. True, in 1999 it emerged that the Christian Democrats had accepted millions in illegal funds and hidden the money in secret accounts; more recently, a member of the Bundestag was found to be a crystal-meth abuser, and another had downloaded pictures of naked minors on his laptop. But that’s about it. To most Germans, politicians are boring straight arrows — which is how we want them.
This doesn’t mean Russia won’t try something. It seems to be in the hackers’ DNA to go after high-profile elections these days, especially when they involve leaders who have taken strong stands against Vladimir Putin. Even if it just made the election tighter, a hack that somehow embarrassed Mrs. Merkel might be worth the risk.
After all, a core part of Mr. Putin’s foreign policy is to “expose and ridicule the West’s inconsistency and hypocrisy,” as the Russian scholars Alexei Miller and Fyodor Lukyanov wrote in a report to the Robert Bosch Foundation in Berlin in July. Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German fellow with the Brookings Institution, put it this way in testimony before the United States Senate Intelligence Committee: “For Putin, humbling Merkel would be a victory for him across Europe, and the West.”
So even if it may seem useless and costly to render the German elections a Russian target, it is by no means unlikely. Germany is only now beginning to bolster its cyberdefenses in anticipation, and the Bundestag has just passed legislation to tackle fake news in social media.
The best countermeasure, however, is not technical and legal innovation, but the preservation of Germany’s sound political culture. If we can manage that, let the bear, fancy or not, do his worst. We will shrug it off.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.