Fears are growing in Berlin of a Russian-led cyber campaign against the leader of Germany’s Green party after she pledged to block a gas pipeline project between Russia and Europe.
Annalena Baerbock, who is running to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor in September’s election, has been targeted in recent days by an increasingly vicious campaign across social media.
The onslaught has included fake images purporting to show her naked, in which the body depicted is that of a Russian model, and a photograph of her standing next to the billionaire financier George Soros that has been used to claim she is part of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy of which the far right believe he is the mastermind.
Cem Özdemir, a former Green party leader and now its foreign policy expert, said he was not surprised at the campaign, which he and others, including German security experts, see as Kremlin-backed.
“In order to prevent the Greens from entering the government no means are beyond the Kremlin,” Özdemir told German media. “I can only advise all democrats not to participate in Putin’s dirty campaign. The German parliament will be chosen in Germany, not in Moscow, Ankara or Beijing.”
The Greens have seen their support surge to a new high over the past year, and in particular since the announcement last month that Baerbock would be the party’s lead candidate.
She said soon after her candidacy was made public that Germany had to increase pressure on Russia over its military buildup at the Ukrainian border, and that political support for Nord Stream 2, a second German-Russian gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea which is near completion, should be withdrawn.
Fierce opposition towards the Greens has long existed in far-right and right-wing populist circles in Germany, but has increased since Baerbock was propelled into the limelight. Supporters of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and groups opposing the government’s anti-coronavirus measures have readily participated in the campaign against her.
Attila Hildmann, a vegan cook and one of the protest movement’s main voices, accused Baerbock in a recent post on the instant messaging service Telegram of preparing to forcibly vaccinate Germans “at regular intervals”, of being a puppet of Merkel and Soros, and of being part of the so-called “great reset” conspiracy, according to which a power grab is taking place under the guise of the pandemic.
Cyber experts say the existing animosity makes it easy for foreign agents to stir trouble from behind the scenes. The tabloid newspaper Bild said security experts, including Nato specialists, believed “Moscow has pressed the anti-Baerbock button”.
German sensitivity towards the likelihood of Russian interference is considerable after several high-profile hack attacks. Scores of German MPs and activists were targeted earlier this year via phishing emails believed to be part of a campaign known as “Ghostwriter”, which is thought to be linked to Russia’s military intelligence service GRU. Russian agents are also believed to have been behind an online attack on a crucial leadership meeting by the Christian Democratic Union this year that was cut off mid-stream.
A 2015 hack on the Bundestag’s computer network paralysed parliamentary proceedings for several days and was used to acquire sensitive data which was later used in an attempt to destabilise the political system in the run-up to the federal elections of 2017.
An investigation by German intelligence authorities concluded agents from the GRU had carried out the attack. Moscow denied the allegations. Merkel told the German parliament last year she had been “pained” by the attack, which made it hard to build a trusting relationship with Moscow.
Also fresh in Germans’ memory is the 2019 murder of a former Chechen insurgent in the Kleiner Tiergarten park in Berlin, which German intelligence believes was a contract killing carried out on behalf of the Russian state. The murder led to sanctions against Russian diplomats.
The exiled Russian oligarch and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky on Monday claimed before a European parliament committee he had evidence that Russia was attempting to agitate German politics.
Khodorkovsky, who spent eight years in a Russian prison on fraud and embezzlement charges that most observers believed were politically motivated, said the Kremlin’s campaign against Europe marked a “new phase of the cold war” and “it is Germany above all, which is in the sights of Russian attacks”.
His pro-democracy NGO the Dossier Centre, which is based in London, has made a 60-page report of its findings – which lists every known attack to have been carried out on European soil by Russian agents, hackers and secret service sidekicks – available to members of the committee via a high-security website.
Merkel has been deeply criticised for making her energiewende, the planned transition to a low-carbon, nuclear-free economy, dependent on Nord Stream 2, which is seen as a pet project of Putin.
Pressure on Merkel to withdraw from the gas pipeline project, even from within her own party, has increased amid abhorrence at the treatment of the Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who is being held in a prison camp since returning to Russia in January from Germany, where doctors treated him for nerve agent poisoning.
Baerbock’s pledge to withdraw from Nord Stream 2 should she win the chancellorship has earned her both praise and criticism.
Özdemir said what he saw as a Kremlin-backed campaign could be a direct result of her opposition to the project. “We are clearly standing on the side of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny and position ourselves very clearly against Nord Stream 2. That is not to Putin’s liking,” he said.
Gerd Schindler, the former boss of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, has been quoted as saying that an attempt by the Kremlin to agitate against the Greens “would fit into the existing picture”.