Angela Merkel, Russia’s next target

Jochen Bittner writes: It seems that Russia may be planning to do to Ms. Merkel and her allies in 2017 what it did to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in the United States in 2016.

After all, last year the same hackers who broke into the Democratic Party’s computers, known online as Fancy Bear or Sofacy Group, attacked the German Parliament’s network; they are also accused of stealing documents from individual members of Parliament. Every revelation about how Russia interfered in the American elections gives Germany a foretaste of what is already looking to be the nastiest, toughest, most exhausting election campaign in modern German history.

That foretaste, though, is also Germany’s one advantage. We know something about Russians’ technical abilities and methods, and, even more important, we have a developing sense of where they’re coming from ideologically — and how that will guide their attacks.

Here, we can draw valuable lessons from the Cold War. What Russia does today is very much the digital version of what we Germans, before 1989, termed “Zersetzung.” The term is hard to translate, but it’s best described as the political equivalent of what happens when you pour acid on organic material: dissolution and disintegration.

The methods of Zersetzung are to cast doubt on the basic norms of the Western liberal order and its institutions; to distort and thereby discredit the purposes of the European Union, NATO and the free-market economy; to erode the credibility of the free press and free elections. The means of Zersetzung include character assassination and, through the spreading of lies and fake news, the creation of a gray zone of doubt in which facts struggle to survive.

We have seen all of this before, employed by the K.G.B. and the East German Stasi: psychological warfare, rumor-mongering, schemes to bribe politicians and then expose them as criminals. They used it both internally, against dissidents, and externally, against Western enemies. Mr. Putin and his former K.G.B. colleagues should know that, this time, we have a better sense of their dirty tricks, and how they have updated Zersetzung for the internet. [Continue reading…]

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