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People demonstrate against German energy policies and sanctions against Russia in Schwerin, Germany. September 19, 2022.

‘There are many losing sides in this war, Germany among them’ A new poll suggests that Russian propaganda has swayed German public opinion

Source: Meduza
People demonstrate against German energy policies and sanctions against Russia in Schwerin, Germany. September 19, 2022.
People demonstrate against German energy policies and sanctions against Russia in Schwerin, Germany. September 19, 2022.
Jens Büttner / dpa / Scanpix / LETA

New research shows that the share of Germans who believe Russia “had to” invade Ukraine in response to “NATO provocation” has risen by 20 percent in the past six months. German media picked up the story, reporting that anti-government, pro-Russian propaganda is spreading quickly in German society. However, some analysts believe that the change in opinion has more to do with German domestic politics than with Russian influence.

On October 2, the independent Berlin-based research group CeMAS published a study on “Russian conspiracy narratives” and the spread of disinformation in German society. The study included the results of research conducted in Germany in early October – and those results were fairly sensational. Until now, there was no cause to doubt that German society was firmly on Ukraine’s side in the war. In June, 70% of Germans believed that it was necessary to support Ukraine in the war with Russia despite the costs, including rising energy prices. CeMAS’s survey casts doubt on that picture.

In response to the question “Do you believe that NATO provoked Russia for so long that it had to go to war?” 19 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative. Twenty-one percent said they partially agreed with the idea. That means nearly 40 percent of Germans believe that the cause of the war is unclear and that NATO shares responsibility for it, or even forced Russia into war. In the former GDR in eastern Germany, the share of respondents who answered in the affirmative is 59 percent — making it essentially a mainstream belief.

In the same survey, 44 percent of Germans agreed or partially agreed with the idea that Putin is battling global behind-the-scenes forces that control the world. Thirty-five percent agree that Ukraine cannot have its own territorial claims since it is historically part of Russia. Thirty-three percent feel certain that information about American laboratories manufacturing biological weapons is at least partially true.

An earlier survey with similar questions was conducted in April, and the numbers were strikingly different from the most recent ones. At that time, 29 percent of respondents thought the invasion was due to NATO provocation — compared to the most recent 40 percent. And only 32 percent considered Putin a fighter against a secret global government.

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The study’s authors conclude that pro-Russian propaganda is widespread in Germany, and they consider it part of a “hybrid method of warfare.” Moreover, pro-Russian sentiment became widespread in German society even before the invasion in February, especially among so-called “COVID deniers,” who have organized an active anti-government group. COVID deniers are the driving force behind the pro-Russian rallies which have attracted thousands throughout the fall in eastern Germany. Authorities fear, with rising energy prices and possible interruptions to service, that the rallies will spread throughout Germany this winter.

Additionally, the widespread use of the answer “partly yes, partly no” on the surveys indirectly indicates the success of Russian propaganda because, according to the study’s authors, the purpose of Russian disinformation campaigns is to spread “uncertainty in society” — the Kremlin is trying as hard as possible to make Germans doubt democracy.

On the other hand, maybe Russian propaganda has nothing to do with it

German media picked up the researcher’s conclusions. Der Spiegel ran an article with the headline “More and more Germans believe Russian propaganda.” However, Germany has blocked the main distribution channels for such propaganda — the RT German-language channel has been removed from satellite broadcasts and blocked on YouTube, and the main pro-war German-language channels on YouTube and Telegram have also been blocked. And Russian propaganda can’t boast of any particular breakthroughs — either in circumventing censorship or in content — in recent months.

Alexey Yusupov, Berlin-based political scientist, director of the Ebert Foundation, and author of a Telegram channel about German politics, also could not recall any particular successes for Russian propaganda in Germany:

I have the sense that there’s some hype [about this research]. The effect that we’re gradually seeing in public opinion is a return to pre-war discourse. And in Germany even before February 24, the view that NATO was provoking Russia — though I don’t want to assess it — was very widespread. It was a normal, “reputable” position among a very large portion of the population and elites. What we’re seeing now is an exit from intense wartime communications. In other words, normalization.

It’s true that skepticism toward NATO has characterized Germany throughout the past several decades. In 2019, only 30 percent of Germans viewed NATO as a “force for good” in the world — the lowest number for any country in the alliance. And only 51 percent of Germans thought that NATO membership was beneficial for Germany. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped rally Germans around NATO for a time, but the effect was fleeting — and then questions arose about the costs of war. Germany is likely harder hit by the effects of war than any other western European country — the German economy lost the competitive advantage it had from cheap Russian gas, and Putin’s transformation into an unambiguously evil force has impacted the German elites who maintained friendly relations with him. 

“In private German conversations about politics the question ‘who benefits’ is asked constantly. And, in contrast to April, we understand that there are many losing sides in this war — Germany among them. Basically only Washington is winning. Germany feels increasingly dependent on decisions that are not made in Berlin. That’s a more important influence than any Russian propaganda. With all due respect, you don’t need to look for spies and agents in every corner,” says Aleksey Yusupov.

Story by Dmitry Vachedin

Translation by Emily Laskin

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