If Angela Merkel wins reelection to her post as German Chancellor next year, she will tie Helmut Kohl’s record as the longest-serving democratically elected German leader in the post-war period. If Vladimir Putin’s Russia can help it, she will fall short of her objective.
The 2013 revelations exposed by Edward Snowden regarding the National Security Administration’s efforts to listen in not just on America’s adversaries but its allies was particularly controversial in Germany. The discovery that American officials had accessed the diplomatic communications of Berlin officials forced Merkel to scale back cooperation with the United States. In 2015, revelations that the German intelligence services (BND) were also spying on Germany’s European allies and sharing that information with the United States compelled Merkel to sever some of Berlin’s intelligence sharing agreements with Washington entirely.
American intelligence-gathering activities are, to say the least, a touchy subject in Germany. That’s why a trove of recently released WikiLeaks documents pilfered from the German government is such a big deal.
“The collection contains early agreements between the BND and the NSA and internal processes at the BND, but also more recent details on the close collaboration between the two agencies,” WikiLeaks announced this week. The documents released relate to a German inquiry into the BND scandal and include information on which private American firms were operating in Germany’s intelligence sector.
WikiLeaks, a clearinghouse for Russian intelligence, is still basking in its successes in undermining the Democratic Party’s political prospects. Hackers with what the FBI believes are links to Russian military intelligence infiltrated the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and a variety of other Democratic organs—information which conspicuously found its way into the public via Julian Assange’s hacktivist organization.
WikiLeaks isn’t the only group at arm’s length from Russia that is destabilizing the political situation in Germany. A refugee crisis emanating from the perpetual conflict in Syria (a conflict in which Russia is an active combatant) is also a source of internal political tensions. For reasons which may yet come to be seen by posterity as a historic blunder, albeit one embarked upon with the best of intentions, Merkel’s decision to welcome and attempt to integrate displaced Middle Easterners has discredited center-right governance among many center-right voters. While some of the anti-refugee backlash is genuine and organic, that may not be so for all of it.
As The Atlantic’s Mike Lofgren detailed the multifarious ways in which slick media efforts to mainstream and legitimize extremist and xenophobic political movements thought are popping up all over Germany. One such publication, which used to agitate from the far left has transformed itself into what he describes as the Breitbart.com of Germany, even goes so far produce hagiographical profiles of Donald Trump. Since the crisis in Ukraine, German security officials believe Russia has been stoking existing tensions, supporting shadowy political organizations, and disseminating misinformation–all to destabilize Germany and bring down Merkel’s government.
“According to Igor Eidman, a sociologist and cousin of the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Putin’s policy objective in Germany is clear,” Lofgren wrote. “The country is the keystone of Europe, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is by default the principal figure holding Europe together as a political entity.” Moscow’s objective is to shatter the European compact and to compel Western Europe to reject the consensus conceded to even by Soviet officials in the last days of the Cold War, that the United States is a European power. If that is the goal, Angel Merkel has to go.
The effect of Russian destabilization efforts in the United States has perhaps been overstated, particularly by those who are in the market for a scapegoat. The impact of Moscow’s provocations may never be quantifiable. It is, however, just as unsubstantiated to suggest that Donald Trump owes his presidency to Russia as it is to contend Moscow’s espionage and disinformation campaign had no impact whatsoever on American voters. Similarly, it would be folly to pretend as though Merkel, a longtime thorn in Vladimir Putin’s side, isn’t in his crosshairs.