Lawmaker Waldemar Herdt with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has no qualms spending money out of his own pocket to attend an economic conference this week in the Crimean Peninsula — though doing so ignores official German policy and is considered an illegal act by the Ukrainian government.
"I'm not required to follow the opinion of the government," he told DW. "If I can exert some influence, then perhaps I can eventually bring these people to the table and try to moderate."
But as a member of an opposition party under fire in Germany for its ties to Russia, that's extremely unlikely, analysts told DW.
Such trips do, however, strengthen the AfD's ability to tap into pro-Russian sentiment in Germany — a populist formula mainstream political parties in Germany are keen to replicate with critical elections on the horizon.
A violation of sovereignty
Earlier this month, the Ukrainian embassy in Berlin notified the German Foreign Office of 22 individuals — including five AfD lawmakers and two with the socialist Left Party — with plans to attend a two-day economic forum in Crimea beginning April 18 without permission from Ukrainian authorities.
"The federal government follows a policy of actively not recognizing the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation," a spokesperson for the German Foreign Office told DW in a statement. "The Foreign Office made known to lawmakers the position of the federal government and the reaction of the Ukrainian side to possible travel plans."
Christian Lüth, the AfD faction's spokesperson in parliament, confirmed that members of his party had planned a trip to the disputed region, though Herdt was the only named lawmaker who confirmed his itinerary, according to dpa. The other four AfD members, as well as the two Left Party lawmakers, named in the letter denied their desire to attend the conference, dpa reported.
Since Moscow's meddling in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and its subsequent annexation of Crimea, Kyiv considers any trips to the peninsula via Russia a violation of its sovereignty, punishable by fines and travel bans.
But such moves "hardly deter" those with deep-seated, pro-Russian views from traveling to Crimea, said Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told DW. And the German government rarely stands in the way of lawmakers' private travel plans.
"They're not a stakeholder and they have no influence on government policies," Gressel said, referring to the AfD.
Russia's annexation of Crimea served as a both a turning point in its isolation from the West, as well as the AfD's cultivation of Russian-born German voters, who make up almost 4% of the country's population.
High-profile party members began traveling to the region thereafter, either on their own dime or at the invitation of Russian foundations. In the run-up to 2017's federal elections, would-be lawmakers campaigned in both German and Russian on a platform that favored rapprochement with Moscow.
"The AfD seeks to get close to authoritarian regimes, including Russia," Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament representing the German Green Party, told DW. "During the last elections, I observed firsthand how the AfD targeted this group of [Russian-German] voters."
In 2017,the AfD secured 12.6% of the national vote, making it the nation's third-largest party in parliament. But it polled as high as 37% in some enclaves where Russian-Germans constitute a near-majority of voters, according to government figures.
Experts say, however, that the phenomenon is most prominent in so-called "social bubbles" of Russian-speaking Germans burdened by the same cultural stereotypes. Researchers from Duisburg-Essen University found in their recent Immigrant German Election Study (IMGES).
Read more: Are Russian Germans the backbone of the populist AfD?
Even so, the AfD has doubled down on its pro-Russian stance. Last year, five AfD lawmakers visited the economic forum in Crimea, despite condemnation by other political parties and the media. High-level Kremlin officials even markedAfD lawmaker Markus Frohnmaier, who had visited Russia and Crimea on multiple occasions, as having the potential to be "completely controlled" by the Russian government, according to a recent investigation by German and international media.
Herdt chalks up such controversies to "Russophobia."
"I'm 100% sure that if Frohnmaier had done exactly the same in the US, he'd be a hero," he said.
Gressel told DW it's not unusual for the AfD to fall back on such comparisons, even though Russia's activities in Crimea and its attempts to influence elections in other states is "a breach of international law incomparable to anything the West has ever done."
But with mainstream political forces in Germany struggling for relevancy ahead of European and regional elections in eastern Germany, the AfD's successful electoral tactics are starting to rub off.
Two members of Die Linke were also implicated in the Ukrainian government's letter to the Foreign Office last week. Meanwhile, German Minister of Justice Katarina Barley, the lead candidate for the center-left Social Democrats in May's European elections, gave an exclusive interview to RT last week. Widely considered a propaganda arm of Russian President Vladimir Putin, German politicians, the media and political commentators were quick to pounce.
"I'm starting to observe a competition for these voters between the AfD and the Left Party, and even some Social Democrats," Harms told DW.
The broadcaster's headline on the 7-minute interview quoted Barley as saying, "We're fostering a close relationship with Russia," even though the minister was quick to condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea later in the interview and bolster the German government's stance on the conflict.
That she gave the interview in the first place, combined with the fact that euroskeptic forces are increasingly challenging the status quo in Brussels and the AfD is poised to potentially lead governments in three eastern German states this fall, are enough data points to show that a trend is taking form among Germany's mainstream political parties, said Gressel.
"The AfD is an opposition, anti-system party, but they have increasing power in setting the domestic agenda and driving other parties into populist positions," he said.