Anticipating a Putin Attack

August 30, 2017

Can the Kremlin influence Germany’s upcoming elections: full translation of the Die Welt article with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s commentary. 

There are still four weeks to go until the German presidential elections.  The security services are nervous: will Putin attempt to influence the election?  Observers are saying that in any case he has long had the capacity to do so.

The minister who writes one thing by email and then something very different in public.  A deputy did something he’d rather no-one knew about.  Some details, in particular those pertaining to someone’s personal character which should not end up in unfamiliar hands.  Hackers – possibly of Russian origin – have attacked the Bundestag numerous times, breaking into the personal email accounts of individual deputies.  The situation is mysterious: it’s four weeks before the Bundestag elections and everyone knows that agents of Vladimir Putin are in possession of sensitive information.  But no-one knows how they are going to use this so-called ‘kompromat’, or whether they will do anything at all.

Nervousness is growing in the security services.  Will Vladimir Putin try once again to influence the outcome of the elections — just as, according to Western secret services, he has already done in the US and France.  What chances does Russia have to do this? Will there be fresh cyber attacks, or maybe the deliberate deception of the public?  Nobody knows.

The president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution told Die Welt that “We are working on the knowledge that Russia is capable of beginning a disinformation campaign in connection with the Bundestag elections.  The question is whether this is really a part of the Kremlin’s agenda.”  It’s possible that it’s not in their interests right now to complicate relations with Germany.

One man in London is following the Kremlin’s motives very carefully.  It was a summer’s day and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sat in the conference room, while rain fell outside the window.  The 54-year-old had already spent a long time living abroad, and his views on the autocratic regime, in comparison with how it was when he was living in Russia, have become more analytical.

As an oil magnate he was also a part of the system, until the time when he entered a dispute with Putin in front of the television cameras.  That conflict cost him ten years of his life.  After his release in December 2013, Khodorkovsky returned to his first principles and revived Open Russia.  Now behind that name there is a think-tank which, among many other things, is studying the aggressive side of Russia’s foreign policy.

Khodorkovsky wants to know what Putin is capable of.  The interior of Open Russia’s offices – furnished with wooden panels and a fireplace – is designed in a typically English style.  Guests are offered a number of different types of tea.  The host, on the contrary, does not have anything in common with a cold British gentleman.  Khodorkovsky has a lively gaze from behind his rimless glasses, and dons an open denim shirt while he drinks mineral water from the bottle.

His organisation Open Russia invests a considerable amount of attention in German-Russian relations, and the reasons for this are, perhaps, biographical.  Khodorkovsky says that he has a lot to thank the Federal Republic for.  The late German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher managed to secure Khodorkovsky’s release through a series of secret negotiations.  Once Khodorkovsky had left the prison colony, he flew by private jet to Germany where he spent his first days of freedom.

Khodorkovsky has been living abroad for nearly four years.  Regardless of his experience, he is again and again surprised by the boldness with which Moscow attempts to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.  Especially in the internal affairs of Germany – the economic and political centre of the European Union.

This is precisely the point of the research that his organisation Open Russia is conducting, and the results confirm Khodorkovsky’s worries.  The work of Dmitry Khmelnitsky, a historian living in Berlin, is soon to be released in Russian.  The book is about activities which can hardly be deemed “classical agent work”.

The author covers the hidden structures that the Kremlin is using in order to spread its views across Germany.  In addition, the associations, firms and events mentioned in the study clearly serve sometimes to muddy the waters and arouse a sense of insecurity among the population.  The correct term for this is ‘misinformation’.

The true champion of this field was the USSR.  The KGB  — and its branch in the German Democratic Republic, the “Stasi” — took “active measures” in this area.  Agents secretly supplied false or falsified ‘news’ to western editorial offices in order to sow discord between political parties, discredit politicians or to strengthen friendly ties.  Questionable operations were approved by the then Politburo.  It really was a serious task.

The century of information technology and social media provides completely new opportunities.  The research funded by Khodorkovsky is studying the suspicion that “sleeper” agents might be active in Germany; that is people who can be “activated” during crisis periods to instigate disorder.

Among other things, the author discovered that many former Russian intelligence officers hold important posts in local martial arts schools.  It’s incredible – throughout German-speaking countries there are more than 63 such schools.  Some of their emblems are even remarkably similar to the emblems of the Russian secret service.  The study carefully lists the names, addresses and web pages of these organisations.

Khodorkovsky’s conclusion is the following: “I am surprised by the efforts the Kremlin is undertaking in Germany.”  The German Secret Services have also come to similar conclusion.

The first thing that really scared the German public was the “Lisa Affair” of January 2016.  13-year-old Lisa from a family of Russian-Germans living in Berlin was allegedly kidnapped and raped by three migrants.  For Russian state media this instance served as evidence of the failure of Merkel’s government in dealing with the refugee crisis.

In a similar fashion a story in Russian was spread across social networks which reported that Muslim men were preparing a mass-rape of German women on Valentine’s Day 2016.  There was talk of so-called ‘sex-jihad’, and that the police were incapable of protecting the women.

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution classed this as a classic case of misinformation, much like the “Lisa Affair”, which even attracted the attention of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  He openly accused the German authorities of covering it up.  It surfaced soon afterwards that the girl had lied.  But it was too late: Moscow’s reaction had already caused protests in Germany against Merkel.

“The Lisa Affair was a turning point,” says Stefan Meister, an expert on Eastern Europe from the German Foreign Policy Society.  Chancellor Merkel then gave the task of finding out whether the Kremlin was behind the disinformation campaign to the German Federal Intelligence Service and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.  Although the results are now ready, they are being kept in secret.  Meister does not understand the government’s secrecy on this matter, even if, according to the report, there is no clear evidence.  “Such a report should be made public”, he said,  and only then will it be possible “to draw adequate conclusions from the information that has been gathered”.

Khodorkovsky speaks openly about what he thinks of the Kremlin, and as he does so a smile appears on his face.  It is the smile of a person who has been banished from the court, and who now can – and wants – to judge how absurd their spectacle is from the outside.  He summarises this drama in a metaphor: Russia is like an organism tormented by a parasite, a worm.  The organism continues to live, but its function is to be useful to the parasite.  “The parasite is the mafia system which we call the Kremlin, and it consists of around 100 people.  And the head of the parasite is, of course, the presidential administration.”

Russia experts from the German security services do not express themselves quite as figuratively.  According to them, the picture of the world of the political elite can be described by the word “retro” – the Kremlin administration is still primarily made up of people who still cling on to the Soviet Union.  Like Putin, many were members of the secret services.  This explains why the Kremlin itself is coordinating disinformation campaigns and does not rely heavily on the organs of the security services.  For example, some of these activities are completely outsourced to oligarchs who want to prove their loyalty to Putin’s power system.

One of them is Putin’s confidant and former president of the Russian national railways organisation, Vladimir Yakunin, who owns two or three foundations which exist on much more than simply private funds.  Yakunin founded a research institute in Berlin called “Dialogue of Civilisations”, an organisation very much in favour of the Russian government.  One of the founders has said that at the institution’s opening that its goal is to “fight for the head”.  What this fight actually looks like is evident in the biography of Yakunin himself.  He has more than 20 years experience in the security service, and during Soviet times he studied at the high school of the all-powerful KGB.

As was revealed by the head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, it is almost impossible to find indisputable evidence in court that Russia stands behind the cyber attacks on the Bundestag.  “But we consider this very likely.  The espionage activities of the Russian security service are still intense.”  According to security agencies, an important role in this activity is played by the Russian embassy in Berlin.  It is from here that agents operate on orders from Moscow telling them to conduct political and economic intelligence work in Germany.


The scholar and Russian connoisseur Karl Schlegel is less interested in what is happening in the Kremlin.  He believes that the 3.4-4 million German citizens with Russian roots are particularly vulnerable to Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.  Imperceptible to most, a “parallel world” has formed in society which no-one has yet explored.  People who have been repatriated, who are often not perceived as real Germans by most, consider themselves to be representatives of the true Germany.  At the same time their loyalty to democratic values is weakly expressed.  It’s rare that you see a critical stance on Putin.  “If someone can influence the Bundestag elections in a serious way, then it is this group,” says Schlegel.  Certain sentiments are stirred up by members of the security services, who have a good sense of what to use as fuel.

In the boardroom of Khodorkovsky’s office in London, everything revolves around the question of whether anything else will happen on the eve of the Bundestag elections?  Khodorkovsky counts on his fingers the various opportunities for destabilising the country: disinformation, corruption, provocation, killing and terrorism.  How far the Kremlin is willing to delve into German internal affairs cannot be predicted.  He believes that the best days have passed for Russia’s largest security organ, the FSB, with its 350,000 employees.  Khodorkovsky personally does not fear the organisation.

He is more afraid of the parasite eating away at Russian society: approximately 100 people who have obtained almost total control of the country’s bureaucratic structures, including the security services.  What the dynamics will be, and what kind of forces will collide amongst them, is difficult to predict – as well as at what point the Putin era will end, and what will come after it.

What does this mean for the Bundestag elections? Will nothing happen at all in the end? Khodorkovsky shrugs his shoulders.  However, in one thing he is sure: “If something does happen, they won’t immediately blame Putin.  Once again they’ll simply say that it was ‘the Russians’.”  From Khodorkovsky it’s clear that this is what angers him the most.

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