The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Vladimir Putin isn’t worried about the outcome of the German election

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, fourth from right, speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, center in St. Petersburg in April 2014. (AFP/Getty Images)

German journalist Boris Reitschuster, a frequent commentator on Russian-German affairs, is the author of “Putins Verdeckter Krieg” (Putin’s Hidden War).

Given Russia’s previous efforts to influence votes in Europe and the United States, many observers expected a similar fate to befall Germany’s national election, which is set for Sept. 24. In particular, a cyber attack two years ago on the computer network of the German Parliament, the Bundestag, left experts waiting for the next shoe to drop. Surely, they reasoned, the attackers would have harvested plenty of “kompromat” they could use to muddy the waters of the campaign.

Yet so far that hasn’t happened — at least not on the expected scale.

The reality, however, is that Putin may not have felt the need to unleash his full propaganda arsenal (especially if doing so too obviously might trigger a voter backlash). Why? Quite simply because — in contrast with his efforts in Washington and Paris — Putin has already largely achieved his political goals in Berlin. The Russian corruption of German elites is well advanced.

As one recent study shows, three of Germany’s main political parties — the Social Democrats, the Left Party, and the right-populist Alternative for Germany — all have close contacts with Moscow. Martin Schulz, the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, calls for the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany — even though Putin has stationed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania, which is well in range of Berlin.

And he’s hardly alone. The party’s upper ranks are still filled with proteges of former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, notorious for his closeness to the Russians. Schroeder has a close association with Russia and Gazprom, its natural gas monopoly, going back many years. In 2002, when he was still chancellor, he forgave the Russian state 7.1 billion euros of debt, and in the final weeks of his term, he granted Gazprom a loan guarantee worth more billions. As if that weren’t enough, Schroeder recently accepted a nomination as an independent director of Rosneft, the state-controlled oil conglomerate — even though it’s one of the Russian companies affected by European Union sanctions imposed after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

Leaders of the German intelligence community complain that the country has become a playground for Russian skulduggery. The government recently placed an intelligence report on Russian disinformation under lock and key — presumably because the findings were too alarming.

The key to Putin’s political influence is simple: it’s all about energy. Germany’s powerful economy needs a lot of it, and that translates into a heavy reliance on Russian oil and natural gas.

Exhibit A: Nord Stream, the natural gas pipeline that leads under the Baltic Sea straight from Russia to Germany. The pipeline has made Germany even more dependent on Russian petroleum, even as the rest of the European Union has been working to diversify its energy supplies. Schroeder chairs the board of Nord Stream 2, a project to double the capacity of the first part of the pipeline. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently defended it against U.S. criticism.

Merkel was once one of Putin’s loudest critics; now she has quieted down considerably. Her position is so strong that Putin can hardly prevent her reelection. On the other hand, the chancellor will almost certainly have to accept one of the Putin-friendly parties as a coalition partner.

When it was recently revealed that the German industrial giant Siemens had supplied turbines to occupied Crimea in flagrant breach of the sanctions, the German media barely reacted. The same goes for Deutsche Bank’s ignominious record of laundering money from Russia. Both cases became public thanks to pressure from the United States — not the Germans. Behind the scenes in Brussels, Berlin is strongly opposed to expanding the E.U.’s fight against Russian propaganda.

Bavaria’s Prime Minister Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is one of the most powerful supporters of the abolition of sanctions. In his hometown in Ingolstadt, the Gunvor Group, which was then controlled by the Putin confidant Gennady Timchenko, saved hundreds of jobs by taking over a bankrupt refinery.

The media shows a marked reluctance to address such topics. Russia, for its part, has ceased major propaganda attacks since Merkel visited Putin in Sochi, Russia, in May 2017. Nor has Berlin been putting up any resistance to Moscow’s recent energy expansion in Germany.

Putin, in short, has effectively won his fight for major influence in Germany. He has succeeded in driving a wedge between Germany and the United States and in weakening ties among the members of the EU. (Needless to say, Washington and Brussels probably bear even more responsibility for the mess than Putin does.)

So why should the Kremlin dare to expose itself by openly interfering in the election campaign? Nonetheless, the Russians are still working quietly in the background. Moscow’s cyberwarriors have been supporting far-right groups and anti-immigration propaganda — an excellent way of destabilizing the German political scene. The 3 to 4 million Russian-speaking immigrants from the former U.S.S.R. offer a ready audience. After the elections, Putin will continue to use his networks to expand his influence, destabilize democracy and alienate Germany from the United States.

It’s high time for Washington to wake up. The transatlantic partnership, which has been the guarantor of peace, democracy and prosperity for the past seven decades, is now at risk.