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Russian spy agencies have their eye on Germany

Mathias Bölinger / ccFebruary 2, 2016

Russian secret services are said to have been responsible for a cyber attack on the German parliament last year. There are a whole series of indications that Kremlin strategists have their sights set on Germany.

Symbolbild Cyberangriff auf den Bundestag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

It's just half a sentence: a quote from a "senior security agent," in which he confirms to the news magazine Der Spiegel that attacks last year on servers and computers belonging to the German Bundestag were "clearly attributable to a Russian military intelligence service."

No official confirmation of this can be obtained. The administrative office of the Bundestag says it is "not an investigating authority and can therefore not say anything about the background to this." The Federal Office for Information Security is also not prepared to make a statement. A spokesman said that it dealt with the technical aspects of IT security, not the origin of these attacks.

"Fits with the hybrid strategy"

It doesn't come as a surprise. In May 2015, technicians in the Bundestag administration realized that some of the Bundestag's computers were infected with malware. In August the entire network had to be shut down; in the interim, hackers had infected the system so extensively that the technicians assumed only a total reboot could solve the problems.

It seems that even now no one knows what data was accessed, or to what extent. Suspicions were raised early on that the attacks were not the work of hobby hackers, but were probably coordinated by a foreign secret service. Hans-Georg Maassen, the president of the German intelligence service - responsible for counterespionage - expressed fears to this effect as early as September. Also in September, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière expressed this suspicion at a conference of computer security experts.

If it is confirmed that Russian agencies are behind the attacks, it would fit with the picture of Russian secret services increasingly turning their attention on Germany. "It fits with the Russian hybrid strategy," says the foreign policy expert of the conservative union parties in the German parliament.

The term refers to Russia's methods in Ukraine, where Russia tried to assert its interests through a mixture of military means, covert support for armed groups, and media campaigns, aimed particularly at the Russian-speaking minority. Cem Özdemir, the chairman of the opposition Green party, believes Russia has "an obvious interest in destabilizing the European Union."

Screenshot cyber-berkut.org/
The hack attack, attributed to Russian intelligence services, paralyzed the Bundestag's IT systemImage: www.cyber-berkut.org

For some time now Russia has been active in Germany, not only through its secret services, but also with propaganda campaigns. Russia is trying to spread its worldview via its own media. Controlled comments on social media and in the comment forums of news websites are also part of this strategy. In addition, Moscow maintains relationships with right-wing populist and right-wing extremist parties.

Propaganda war over 'our girls'

In recent weeks, another dimension has been added to the mix. Russian state media have given a lot of airtime to the refugee crisis in Germany. The reporting of an alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl of Russian origin by Arabic-speaking men formed part of the picture. Although the police announced early on that they believed the story to be a fabrication - something investigators also concluded late last week - Russian media reported on it extensively, accusing the German authorities of hushing up the incident. For some time now Russian media have been painting a picture of Europe as a continent gone soft, and in decline.

What's new, though, is that some Germans of Russian origin are being mobilized by the reporting. A group called "International Convention of Russian Germans" organized demonstrations in various cities against Angela Merkel's asylum policy, and the right-wing extremist NPD group also took part in the protests. A week ago, several hundred people took to the streets in Berlin and elsewhere. Given that more than four million Germans have roots in the former Soviet Union, that's not a large number.

The new element was the accompanying noises from Moscow. A few days after the protests, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov got involved. He complained to his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warning the German authorities not to give a "politically-correct whitewash" to the supposed crime, "for any domestic political reasons." In doing so, he referred to the 13-year-old as "our girl."