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ELECTION

Germany warns Russia it will ‘defend itself’ against targeted disinformation in election year

Germany is expecting to be the target of Russian disinformation in the run-up to elections this year, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Friday, calling such practices "completely unacceptable".

Germany warns Russia it will 'defend itself' against targeted disinformation in election year
Heiko Maas. Photo: DPA/Kay Niefeld

“Targeted influence and disinformation campaigns from the Russian side (…) must stop. And if they do not, we will also defend ourselves against them,” Maas said in comments published by the Deutsche Welle broadcaster.

Asked whether he feared that general elections in Germany in September could be affected by such campaigns, Maas said: “Either way, we are vigilant.”

“I hope that experiences with this in the past will prevent it from happening in the Bundestag election campaign in Germany,” he said.

A report published last week by the European External Action Service (EEAS) named Germany as the top target in Europe for Russian disinformation campaigns and cyber activities.

READ MORE: German man arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia from Reichstag

“No other EU member state is being attacked more violently than Germany,” it said, citing 700 cases of disinformation targeting Germany since 2015 – compared with 300 for France, 170 for Italy and 40 for Spain.

Such operations peaked after Russia accused Germany of pushing through sanctions against the Kremlin during its EU presidency from July to December 2020, the report said.

“We are arming ourselves against this, but of course we expect it to stop,” Maas said, calling such practices “completely unacceptable”.

Ties between Germany and Russia have become increasingly strained in recent months over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has always stressed the importance of keeping dialogue open with President Vladimir Putin, but told parliament last May that she had concrete proof that Russia was targeting her in cyber attacks.

Among the most high-profile attacks laid at Russian hackers’ feet by German intelligence is a cyber assault on the German parliament in 2015.

A US government report last week accused Russia of targeting election infrastructure during the 2020 US vote, though it concluded the campaigns did not compromise any of the results.

The Kremlin dismissed the allegations as “absolutely groundless”.

SEE ALSO: German foreign minister threatens Russia with sanctions over Navalny poisoning

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RUSSIA

Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow

German police arrested a Russian scientist working at an unidentified university, accusing him of spying for Moscow, prosecutors said on Monday, in a case that risks further inflaming bilateral tensions.

Germany arrests Russian scientist for spying for Moscow
Vladimir Putin. Photo: dpa/AP | Patrick Semansky

Federal prosecutors said in a statement that the suspect, identified only as Ilnur N., had been taken into custody on Friday on suspicion of “working for a Russian secret service since early October 2020 at the latest”.

Ilnur N. was employed until the time of his arrest as a research assistant for a natural sciences and technology department at the unnamed German university.

German investigators believe he met at least three times with a member of Russian intelligence between October 2020 and this month. On two occasions he allegedly “passed on information from the university’s domain”.

He is suspected of accepting cash in exchange for his services.

German authorities searched his home and workplace in the course of the arrest.

The suspect appeared before a judge on Saturday who remanded him in custody.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Neither the German nor the Russian government made any immediate comment on the case.

However Moscow is at loggerheads with a number of Western capitals after a Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders and a series of espionage scandals that have resulted in diplomatic expulsions.

Italy this month said it had created a national cybersecurity agency following warnings by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Europe needed to
protect itself from Russian “interference”. 

The move came after an Italian navy captain was caught red-handed by police while selling confidential military documents leaked from his computer to a Russian embassy official.

READ ALSO:

The leaders of nine eastern European nations last month condemned what they termed Russian “aggressive acts” citing operations in Ukraine and “sabotage” allegedly targeted at the Czech Republic.

Several central and eastern European countries have expelled Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague but Russia has branded accusations of its involvement as “absurd” and responded with tit-for-tat expulsions.

The latest espionage case also comes at a time of highly strained relations between Russia and Germany on a number of fronts including the ongoing detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who received treatment in Berlin after a near-fatal poisoning.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has moreover worked to maintain a sanctions regime over Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the scene of ongoing fighting between pro-Russia separatists and local forces.

And Germany has repeatedly accused Russia of cyberattacks on its soil.

The most high-profile incident blamed on Russian hackers to date was a cyberattack in 2015 that completely paralysed the computer network of the Bundestag lower house of parliament, forcing the entire institution offline for days while it was fixed.

German prosecutors in February filed espionage charges against a German man suspected of having passed the floor plans of parliament to Russian secret services in 2017.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last week said Germany was expecting to be the target of Russian disinformation in the run-up to its general election in September, calling it “completely unacceptable”.

Russia denies being behind such activities.

Despite international criticism, Berlin has forged ahead with plans to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, set to double natural gas supplies from Russia to Germany.

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