It’s not as though the relationship between the Russian government and the German far right, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, has ever been a secret. Last year, when the government expelled a group of Russian spies, AfD leader Alexander Gauland protested: Germany could be letting “itself be drawn into a new Cold War by rabble rousers,” he declared. During Germany’s most recent election campaign, Russian state media campaigned openly for AfD. Pro-Russian and Russian-based social media accounts, some real and some automated, repeated AfD’s anti-immigration and anti-European messages, as well.
Nevertheless, there is something different about the investigation — recently produced by the BBC, a German television station, an Italian newspaper and Der Spiegel, a German magazine — into the Russian contacts of one AfD member. Like others in his party, Markus Frohnmaier, a member of the Bundestag (the German parliament), opposes European sanctions against Russia and makes frequent trips to Crimea. But a strategy document obtained by journalists, created before the German elections in 2017 and sent from a former Russian counterintelligence officer to a member of the Kremlin administration, tells an additional story. The document assesses Frohnmaier’s chances, recommends “support” and notes that if he wins, “we will have our own absolutely controlled MP in the Bundestag.” Another document, apparently written on behalf of Frohnmaier’s campaign, openly asks for both “material support” and “media support” from the Kremlin. Frohnmaier claims the document is fake.
A cache of other emails, analyzed in Der Spiegel, places these exchanges in a broader context. They describe a broad range of Russian “foreign-policy activities” in Europe, ranging from the “organization of meetings, vigils and other protest actions in [European Union] countries to the successful support of resolutions in the national parliaments of the EU and to media campaigns.” Not everyone who participated would necessarily have been paid — though in light of the Frohnmaier revelations, it is worth asking whether the members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, Italy’s nationalist League party and others who have traveled to Crimea or maintained links to mercenaries fighting in eastern Ukraine did so with the expectation of receiving something in exchange.
Some of Frohnmaier’s subsequent actions and connections now make more sense, including the strange story of Manuel Ochsenreiter, a far-right commentator who worked in Frohnmaier’s office and was recently named in connection with a firebombing attack on a Hungarian cultural center in western Ukraine. The attack was allegedly designed to exacerbate Hungarian-Ukrainian relations, just as the two countries were arguing over the language rights of the small Hungarian minority in the west of Ukraine. The story had been seized on by Viktor Orban, the authoritarian Hungarian leader who has deep Russian ties of his own, as an excuse to make difficulties for Ukraine in various NATO and E.U. councils. Even though a lot about the attack remains mysterious, it looks very much like a classic Russian foreign policy maneuver, dating back to Soviet times and beyond: create a fake incident, deepen an ethnic conflict, then sit back and watch as it plays in Russia’s favor.
Even more interesting is the question of how the rest of Germany grapples with the Frohnmaier story. Inside the Bundestag, one leading Social Democrat has called for a parliamentary investigation; the Christian Democrats have demanded that Frohnmaier resign. But Germany is still profoundly resistant to the idea of a Russian threat to German democracy, preferring to downplay it as some kind of Cold War throwback idea, and to suspect those who discuss it of warmongering. The belief that German business depends on a good relationship with Moscow runs very deep, even though Germany’s trade with Poland is now larger than its trade with Russia. One German friend laughingly described to me the “psychological battle” the Frohnmaier story must present to many mainstream Germans, who will have to decide whether their instinctive desire to downplay stories about Russian influence trumps their instinctive dislike of the AfD.
At the same time, it’s far from clear that this story will put off the AfD’s core voters, especially those in the eastern part of Germany. Many former East Germans are resentful of the Western world, which they feel has ignored and patronized them. Some have developed nostalgia for the days when communist Germany and Soviet Russia were allies. Overall, about as many Germans tell pollsters they fear President Trump’s United States as do fear Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Among AfD voters, far more fear the United States than fear Russia.
The Frohnmaier story is unfolding at a moment of real geopolitical shift. Since 1989 and the German reunification that followed, Germans of all political colors have operated under the conviction that there is no real existential threat to Germany, that weapons and armies are unnecessary in Germany — even a waste of money — and that economic prosperity is the most important, if not the only, goal of politics. But a U.S. president is expressing his dislike of the NATO alliance just at a moment when Russian efforts to influence Germany are becoming bolder and more aggressive. Frohnmaier is the canary in the coal mine, a warning that Germans need to think differently about strategy and defense in this new age. But will any of them heed it?