Wednesday

29th Jan 2020

Analysis

Is Putin trying to topple Merkel?

  • Merkel. "A year ago nobody would have dared ask questions" on her resignation, a pollster said. (Photo: bundesregierung.de)

If Russian leader Vladimir Putin was trying to use refugees to topple German chancellor Angela Merkel, then Aleppo was a step too far, Norbert Roettgen, the head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, has told EUobserver.

Merkel’s decision to welcome the huge numbers of people coming from Syria to Germany has drained her popularity over the past year.

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  • Roettgen: The Aleppo effect is "ambivalent" (Photo: Oliver Hallmann)

She'll have to fight for re-election at the latest in September 2017.

When German pollster Insa-Consulere asked people last week if she should quit now, 40 percent said Yes.

“A year ago nobody would have dared asked questions like we did,” Hermann Binkert, the Insa-Consulere director, told EUobserver on Monday (8 February).

“But in the meantime, her approval ratings have dropped, mostly because of her position on refugees … Right now, there’s no discussion of an early election in Germany. But we can’t say how the situation will develop.”

The situation escalated last weekend when the Syrian regime, backed by Russian air power, reached Aleppo in northern Syria, prompting tens of thousands of people to flee toward Europe.

It had already escalated on New Year’s Eve, when migrant men carried out sex assaults against German women in Cologne.

Pro-Kremlin media tried to make things worse by spreading a fake story that migrants also raped a 13-year old girl.

The events have seen a surge in the popularity of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party that faces allegations of secret Kremlin funding.

They have ignited street protests, including by Russia-linked NGOs such as the Internationaler Kongress der Russlanddeutschen, a Russian expat group.

They have also split Merkel’s coalition, with Putin last week hosting centre-right leader and Merkel critic Horst Seehofer at his Moscow palace.

Russia denies any wrongdoing in Syria or Europe.

But for some EU diplomats it looks like a concerted campaign to unseat the German chancellor - the lynchpin of EU economic sanctions on Russia and of European unity more broadly speaking.

“If you look at what’s going on in Syria, look at Aleppo, you’ll see that Russia is the only one who controls the timetable of the refugee crisis," one EU source said.

"Its actions are designed to create as many refugees as possible. The target is quite obvious.”

The source said Russia’s decision on Monday to hold military drills on the Ukraine border could mean worse to come.

“If heavy fighting restarts in Ukraine, it would create a new exodus of refugees. It would be the perfect moment [in terms of Russian interests],” the source said.

“I don’t believe these are all coincidences,” another EU source said.

Far-fetched?

But for Norbert Roettgen, an MP from Merkel’s CDU party who chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, the Putin-Merkel theory is “too far-fetched".

Roettgen told EUobserver, also on Monday, that Russia’s main objective in Syria is geopolitical.

“They want to maintain their position in the region [the Middle East], to strengthen their military bases and to be part of the international solution," he said.

The increase in refugees was a "welcome side effect” for Russia because the refugee crisis has divided Europe, he said.

“But the addressee of this problem is the EU as a whole, not a single state or person,” he said.

The German MP noted that if Putin’s bombs in Syria were designed to harm Merkel, then the Aleppo siege might have been a step too far.

“The effect on Merkel’s standing is ambivalent. With so many new refugees on the Turkish-Syrian border, it’s more obvious than ever that this isn’t just a German problem. It strengthens Merkel’s case that it requires an international or, at the least, a European solution,” he said.

Roettgen said Russian propaganda also went too far.

German police debunked the story of the raped girl and Berlin prosecutors have opened proceedings against Ivan Blagoy, a journalist from Russian broadcaster Channel 1.

“The false claim of the 13-year old girl was overstated. It revealed, for the first time, the kind of policies the Russians are using,” Roettgen said.

“It reached a new level when Lavrov openly engaged in the manipulation of [German] public opinion,” he added, referring to a statement by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in January that German police had tried to cover up the crime.

The MP said German authorities have known “for a long time” that Russia was funding far-right and far-left groups in Europe.

“It’s nothing new,” he said.

Mark Galeotti, a US scholar of Russian affairs, agreed with Roettgen.

“I don't think Moscow is confident that a new chancellor would be more sympathetic. Merkel is the person who can ultimately deliver partial relief from European … sanctions if some kind of deal is struck [on Ukraine],” he told this website.

“Moscow wants to keep her under pressure, to make it worth her while being less confrontational, but not, I think, to see her fall.”

Rotten herrings

The story of the raped girl got wide coverage in German media and was repeated by pro-Kremlin outlets in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia.

An EU source said Russian media, in January, switched focus from Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet last year, to the refugee crisis.

He said Russian media had also claimed that Merkel was infecting refugees with contagious diseases and deporting them to the Czech Republic in revenge for its refusal to join an EU migrant scheme.

“Even if the stories are debunked, they make a mark. It’s called the ‘rotten herring’ technique and it’s described in FSB textbooks,” the source said, referring to Russia’s intelligence service.

The rotten herring is the idea that even if an allegation is disproved it stays in people’s minds because they talk about it.

The herring analogy is because no matter how you handle a rotten fish, the bad smell lingers.

Transparency

The EU source welcomed the fact that Germany is taking action against Channel 1. He noted that Ofcom, the British media regulator, recently censured Russia Today, another pro-Kremlin broadcaster, for bogus stories on Ukraine.

“Free speech doesn’t mean you can frighten the public with fake stories,” the source said.

Roettgen said there were other ways to react to Russian meddling.

“It’s not more regulation that’s required, it’s more transparency. Transparency is the best shield of democracy,” he said.

“We need to find out what’s being done and publish it so that the public has the full picture. There are some direct means to reveal what they [the Russians] are doing."

German MPs sceptical of Merkel's 'European solution'

Conservative critics of the German chancellor's refugee policy feel increasingly insecure after she fails to win over member states for a European solution. Still, few believe that her stepping down would lead to a solution.

Cologne attacks put Merkel under pressure

German leader cancels trip to Davos after a weekend which saw far-right protesters clash with police and amid hundreds of criminal complaints over New Year's Eve sex assaults.

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