27th Feb 2024


Russian malign inspiration and how to counter it

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As Germany was heading for Christmas, the German Federal Public Prosecutor General brought charges against 27 individuals for membership in, or support of, a terrorist organisation, and preparation of a highly treacherous enterprise.

Nine of them were also charged with attempted murder.

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  • (Photo: Anton Shekhovtsov)

The "terrorist organisation" is the far-right Patriotic Union founded in November 2021 and led by German businessman turned political activist Heinrich XIII Prinz Reuß.

The Patriotic Union was part of the larger Reichsbürger (Reich Citizens) movement — a loose network of around 20,000 individuals who deny the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany.

In their view, the last truly sovereign incarnation of Germany was the German Reich. After the Allies defeated the German Reich in 1945, they allegedly replaced the German state with a "trading construct".

The aim of the "Reich Citizens" is to restore the German Reich, which implies the abolition of the current German state.

The Patriotic Union went even further: they believed that a group of foreign nations called the "Alliance" was going to invade Germany, and they aimed to assist the "Alliance" in taking control over the German territory by overthrowing the government.

The Patriotic Union would then be able to re-negotiate with the "Alliance" the restoration of the German Reich's sovereignty.

To achieve its goals, the Patriotic Union amassed hundreds of firearms, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and combat gear.

The German prosecution established that the imaginary "Alliance" was a "secret society of governments, intelligence services and military of various states" including Russia and the US, but Russia was the sole central point of reference for the Patriotic Union.

Several members of the organisation tried to establish contacts with Russian "representatives" of the "Alliance".

Members of the Patriotic Union contacted Russian diplomats in the Russian consulates in Leipzig, Frankfurt, and Baden-Baden.

Prinz Reuß visited the one in Leipzig together with his reported life partner or assistant Vitalia Bondarenko who holds Russian citizenship.

Members of the Patriotic Union even approached "Reich Citizen" Ralph Thomas Niemeyer, a self-proclaimed leader of the German "government-in-exile" and darling of the Russian state-controlled RT TV channel, and asked him to deliver a letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin that Reuß had written in May 2021. (A few days later, Niemeyer reported the letter to the German domestic intelligence agency.)

The German prosecutor found no evidence that Russian diplomats or any other Russian stakeholders either instigated the actions of the Patriotic Union or voiced their support for the planned regime change.

The Patriotic Union's narratives and actions represent a phenomenon that is rarely discussed in Western media.

Over the past 10 years, there have been numerous discussions about Russian malign influence in the West.

Today we know a lot about tactics, instruments and tools used by Russian pro-Kremlin actors to destabilise Western societies, drive wedges between European nations, and undermine democratic institutions.

But the case of the Patriotic Union is different: it tells us not so much about Russian malign influence, but rather about Russian malign inspiration.

Inspiration is a two-way process; it works when humans gain awareness of new possibilities in what they are doing or planning to do, but at the same time they are stimulated by external factors and events to explore those possibilities.

The Patriotic Union intended to dismantle the German state, and in their quest to find new ways to realise their aspirations, they were stimulated by Russia's political warfare against the West and military aggression against Ukraine.

If Russia supports far-right organisations in the West, why would it not support the Patriotic Union?

If Russia provided military assistance to Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists back in 2014, why would it not provide the same to the German pro-Russian "Reich Citizens"?

If Russia launched the full-blown invasion of Ukraine in 2022, why would it not invade Germany?

But Russia's actions are only one part of the external environment that inspired the development of the political mythology of the Patriotic Union. The other part is how mainstream media report on Russian anti-Western political warfare.

Ironically, while mainstream media tend to deride Russia's military exploits in Ukraine, they simultaneously tend to exaggerate Russian malign influence in the West.

This has much to do with the difference between regular war and political warfare.

For the former, we measure the effectiveness of armed forces' campaigns by evaluating whether they meet kinetic goal objectives.

It is impossible to measure the effectiveness of political warfare using the same principle.

However, mainstream media too often misrepresent the mere existence of tools and instruments of Russian malign influence as its actual effectiveness.

Such an approach may help raise awareness about tactics and objectives of Russian political warfare, but because it is fundamentally flawed, it also unduly magnifies Russian influence and subversive might, and thus contributes to the inspirational power of the Russian regime — a power that stimulates development of pro-Kremlin narratives and ideas within Western anti-establishment milieus even without the direct involvement of Russian stakeholders.

To counter Russian malign inspiration, it is essential to provide balanced media reporting that will not only emphasise threats that Russian influence operations pose but will also highlight many evident failures of Russian political warfare. This will diminish the innate potential of the Putin regime to inspire illiberal actors in the West to act against the liberal-democratic order.

Author bio

Anton Shekhovtsov is director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity in Vienna, visiting professor at the Central European University, and author of three books: New Radical Rightwing Parties in European Democracies (2011), Russia and the Western Far-Right: Tango Noir (2017), and Russian Political Warfare (2023).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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