Russia’s hybrid war: The destabilization campaign against Germany

By: Dr. Daniel H. Heinke

Source: Wikimedia

No shots were fired, but Tuesday, January 26 may very well mark the official beginning of the ‘open phase’ of Russia’s ongoing destabilization campaign directed against the German government, part of an undeclared hybrid war that abruptly came into the focus of public awareness. The East-West confrontation seemed to be a historical phenomenon, the Cold War a memory of the past – but right now there is at least an icy current in Western European capitals.

On January 26, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov decided to engage in the ongoing Russian media campaign covering the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl in Berlin, Germany. Several days earlier the state-run Russian TV station Channel One used its prominent evening news[1] platform to present the purported case of a young girl ‘Lisa’ – a dual German and Russian citizen – who allegedly had been abducted and repeatedly raped by migrants. This report fitted perfectly into the dark picture that the Russian media had already painted over the last weeks – of a Germany losing control over its own country due to overwhelming masses of migrants, and no longer being able to secure public safety. Together with a barrage of similar reports and commentaries over the following days it incited an unprecedented outrage among the Russian-speaking minority in Germany. Though the Berlin police quickly released a press statement[2] declaring that the young girl indeed had been missing for a short period of time, but there was no evidence of an abduction or sexual assault, the social media were in uproar, dismissing the press release as an attempt to cover-up the incident. The Russian embassy even sent a note verbale (a diplomatic letter) to the German Foreign Ministry demanding a full investigation into the case – in an overall aggressive tone, according to the German periodical Der Spiegel[3].

Then, Minister Lavrov took the stage. In his annual press conference[4] he referred to ‘enormous problems caused by migrants,’ and effectively accused the German authorities of a cover-up of the affair, demanding they not ‘gloss over’ reality for political purposes. To ensure Russia’s stance was understood by all in this case, he mentioned the alleged victim as ‘a Russian girl’ and ‘our girl Lisa.’ That apparently went too far even for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who disposed of these accusations as ‘political propaganda[5]’ and summoned Russian Ambassador Vladimir Grinin.

Nevertheless, even though the Berlin police repeatedly made clear that the girl had been in hiding for several hours for domestic reasons and that there was no evidence at all supporting the claim of an abduction, the propaganda continued. Russian media proceeded to keep the case alive, and social media were used to mobilise Russians and Germans of Russian descent to participate in large-scale demonstrations in Berlin[6] and several other German cities the next weekend. Following the incitement of a Russian-backed organization and calls disseminated via Facebook and text messages,[7] thousands of protesters – by far most of them with Russian migration background – addressed the alleged need to protect the German people against attacks from migrants. These protest had a strikingly homogenous appearance, though. In most cases all speeches were in Russian, but all the protest signs were written in German and even looked very similar[8], though used in cities several hundred kilometers apart. As the rallies were so obviously orchestrated, many German print[9] and TV[10] media outlets picked up these activities and broached the issue of Russian propaganda in Germany[11].

Though highlighted only in the wake of recent events, this kind of disinformation is not a new phenomenon. Several Eastern European states – especially the Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia with their background as a former Soviet Union region and now member states of NATO – complain about a long-term media propaganda campaign mainly addressing their respective substantial Russian minorities and targeted to manipulate this audience.

These attempts are part of an overarching strategy. Starting from the classic Clausewitzian definition, War is merely the continuation of policy by other means. These other means, he added, may include all physical and moral instruments available. The Russian Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, developed this strategic approach further by adapting the understanding of modern war to the environment of the 21st Century. In an article for the Russian-language Voenno-promyshlennyi kur’er[12] (or Military-Industrial Courier) in 2013, he expressed thoughts on the role of nonmilitary means for achieving political and strategic goals and their importance as an instrument to support (or even supplant) military means in certain situations and environments. He pointed out that the experience of the last few years supports the assessment that even a thriving state can be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war – all within the course of only a few months or even days.[13]  

Gerasimov explicitly stressed that the focus of applied methods of conflict has altered the direction of the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other nonmilitary measures — especially when applied in coordination with the potential of mass demonstrations. Russia obviously followed this strategy of ‘Hybrid war,’ dubbed the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ by US historian Mark Galeotti.[14] The massive disinformation campaign preceding and accompanying the occupation of the Crimean peninsula by Russian forces, and the not-yet fully acknowledged participation of Russia in the Ukrainian civil war serve as prominent examples.

This did not go unnoticed. The German domestic intelligence service stated in its annual report[15] that Russian intelligence services try to influence politics and the general public in Germany. Both NATO[16] and the European Union[17] are aware of this threat, but so far have limited their response to the creation of small specialized units tasked to monitor and document this kind of state-driven and/or state-sponsored disinformation. This handful of analysts is in no way able to effectively counter the Russian propaganda. The general population and the media, on the other hand, were preoccupied with concerns regarding Islamist terrorism, the increasing numbers of refugees, and the ominous rise of right-wing extremism.

This changed within a week.

Perhaps Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov acted prematurely. Perhaps he miscalculated the timing of his offensive, or overestimated the resentment against refugees among the German population. Either way, his move made clear that Russia is operating within a strategy of hybrid warfare – and that the campaign of such a war is also directed against Germany. With a new awareness among German media of Russian tactics, however, the odds of success may have shifted.

Dr. Daniel H. Heinke is at the Institute for Police and Security Research (IPoS), University of Applied Sciences (Public Administration) Bremen, Germany, and an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London. You can see more at:

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.




















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