The Disinformation Station Germany Fears Influence of Russian Propaganda Channel

With RT DE, Moscow wants to provide a platform for corona skeptics, right-wing populists and leftist fans of the Kremlin to destabilize democracy in Germany. Internal emails provide insights into the media organization.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to RT in Moscow in 2015

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to RT in Moscow in 2015

Foto: SNA / ullstein bild

The call to order from Moscow came at 2 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2020, per video call. That Friday, RT DE, the German-language arm of the Russian state-funded television channel RT, had a news story on its website: "China and Germany Are Becoming Superpowers.” According to the report, Vladimir Putin had said as much during a video conference. A photo of the Russian president was at the top of the story. Putin was further quoted as saying that the absolute dominance of the U.S. was passé.

The powers-that-be in Moscow were not happy. Not because they thought the story was inaccurate, but because it only appeared online 20 hours after Putin had made his remarks.

So they called the staff of the German branch of the broadcaster to voice their displeasure. "They really ripped into us,” say call participants. They were told that such a thing should never happen again, they say. Important statements from Putin needed to appear on the website much faster, they were told.

RT DE, which had been called RT Deutsch until November, has been disseminating Kremlin-financed propaganda in Germany since 2014. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which has been keeping an eye on the platform, says the outlet is seeking to weaken trust in democratic institutions. The agency says there are close links between the station and those seeking to undermine the democratic order in Germany in addition to conspiracy theorists. And it considers the news disseminated by RT DE to be part of a disinformation campaign orchestrated by the Russian state.

Internal documents from the media platform that DER SPIEGEL has seen show the extent to which German staff are required to follow instructions from Moscow, and how political those instructions are.

RT DE is part of a Russian media network that also includes the video news agency Ruptly and the production company Redfish. The platform publishes articles, photos and videos on its own website, on YouTube and via other social networks.

DER SPIEGEL 9/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 9/2021 (February 27, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

The platform doesn’t post a detailed masthead on its website in the way that most German or traditional media establishments do. And even those employees DER SPIEGEL was able to speak with don’t know how many people actually work for the organization. They estimate the number to be around 70 to 100. When contacted, RT DE said "the employee figures are accurate in this order of magnitude.” However, "we intend to significantly increase our team to more than double its size as quickly as possible," the organization added, saying it is "currently in the active hiring process." Just in time, of course, for Germany’s next federal election in September.

RT DE's website states that its creators "want to provide a counterpoint to the one-sided and often interest-driven mainstream media with its German-language program.” The aim is to create a "counter-public.” In one video, the broadcaster refers to itself as "a green menace,” a reference to the color of its logo, and describes others as "enemies.” Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief in Moscow, recently stated: "We defend our country like the army."

For the broadcaster’s 15th anniversary in December, the Moscow TV station offered itself congratulations in the form of a video. It featured semi-realistic animated heads-of-state including then-U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. The German chancellor is seen visiting a therapist because she feels persecuted. Alluding to the poison attack on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, Merkel examines water bottles, wipes them down and then draws the curtains. "They work 24/7,” she tells the therapist. When the therapist asks "who,” Merkel taps on her smartphone and holds it out to her. RT is written on it. The video ends with the words: "They’re crazy about us.”

The German-language broadcaster RT DE, this much is clear, likes to make itself look bigger than it really is. But its influence does appear to be growing, especially since the coronavirus pandemic and Navalny’s poisoning. The organization announced a month ago that it intends to expand further by launching a regular, 24-hour TV station to be aired from Berlin.

The platform doesn’t disseminate completely fabricated fake news, the disinformation is more subtle. The reporters distort and neglect facts, thus sowing distrust of the authorities, politicians and the established media. Internal documents show they deliberately stay away from obvious conspiracy narratives.

For example, according to an internal email sent in February, employees were told that they should not claim that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States were orchestrated by the U.S. government. Nor should they claim that the coronavirus doesn’t exist. Although "that is not to say that we are not ready to discuss some controversial ideas,” such as "the effectiveness of PCR tests.”

There’s one example in the mail that shows just how thin the line is for RT staff. It is, for example, not OK to write that the corona pandemic has been "state proclaimed.” But it is fine to write that the pandemic had been "declared by the WHO (World Health Organization)” because it is WHO that made the crisis an official fact. The emphasis is on"declared," as is understood by the audience.

When asked for comment, RT DE said they "naturally" wants to "provide a forum for the relevant public opinion.” The broadcaster’s standards, the statement continues, are currently applied and will be in the future as well.

In recent months, RT DE has become one of the main platforms for Germany’s so-called Querdenker, a movement made up of corona skeptics opposed to the government’s coronavirus containment measures, and other groups skeptical of the disease. The platform reports more about the protests against the coronavirus measures than normal media do. Ruptly even broadcasts live streams of the events.

The editorial strategy appears to be paying off for RT. "Our August numbers are very good. Of course, 'Querdenken' rallies have helped a bit," Executive Director Dinara Toktosunova wrote in an email to the entire editorial staff on Sept. 5, 2020. "We’ve also started September strong with our strong coverage of Navalny’s case.”

An RT reporter in the town of Marienberg, Germany, in 2017

An RT reporter in the town of Marienberg, Germany, in 2017

Foto: Uwe Meinhold / imago images

In further emails, senior officials at the broadcaster said they were pleased by the "150-180,000 views per day.” Stories about the coronavirus, they continued, had achieved "very significant growth” and a 41-percent increase in "unique users” relative to the previous year. In the past nine months, the mail stated, they reached 14 million people.

When asked to comment, ,RT DE confirmed the authenticity of the email and wrote: "We are pleased with this success."

This, however, is concerning to Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. "RT DE, along with Ruptly and Redfish, is a danger to democracy,” says the head of one state branch of the domestic intelligence agency. "The Russian state has realized that it can be used to achieve reach and impact." The source says the platforms function as multipliers in disinformation campaigns. "Broadcasting on all channels – exploiting the power of algorithms and taking advantage of the low media literacy of many consumers – is unfortunately working very well,” he says.

"The Russian Patient – Political Theater at Berlin’s Charité Hospital,” for example, was the name of a video posted in August in which RT DE’s founding editor-in-chief and now director of strategy development, Ivan Rodionov, spoke about Navalny’s poisoning. With a string of video snippets and screenshots, he suggests it’s not Russia that needs to clear up what happened. Instead, the West has "questions to answer,” he says. "Who had access to the patient after he landed in Berlin? Who got their hands on the samples taken from him?” He also noted that Navalny wasn’t the first "assigned patient with geopolitical implications” to be treated at Berlin’s Charité University Hospital.

The video is just one in a series of pieces published that aim to absolve Russia of guilt and try to play down the seriousness of the case. It’s not by chance – there are clear instructions from the top. A February email, for example, stated that RT was not speaking of a "poisoning" in the Navalny case, but of a "suspected poisoning." By the time the email was sent, there hadn't been any doubts for some time that Navalny was poisoned.

Protesters in Berlin in August 2020: "A significant influence on the formation of public opinion to the detriment of confidence in our democracy."

Protesters in Berlin in August 2020: "A significant influence on the formation of public opinion to the detriment of confidence in our democracy."

Foto: Screenshot / DER SPIEGEL

The email also discusses rules for articles about Crimea, which was annexed by Russia. "With regard to Crimea, we do not speak of an annexation,” the message states. "We refer to reintegration or we write around the process.” That is "once again very important for ALL, including those who were not present today,” the message says.

RT DE reports frequently about the annexation and writes, for example, about "the non-violent reintegration of Crimea into the Russian Federation in accordance with the will of the people.” The United Nations estimates that more than 13,000 people have died so far in the war in Ukraine, which began a few weeks after the occupation of Crimea.

When asked to comment, RT DE confirmed the authenticity of the message and defended the instructions.

In general, staff in Berlin are required to abide by Moscow’s wishes. "If we want to request high-level representatives, we should do so in coordination with our RT colleagues,” reads one message from December. A staff member is Moscow is responsible for handling such inquiries.

The message was triggered by a request from RT DE to interview Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the European Union. The request from Berlin was sent to Brussels from Moscow, though the interview ultimately didn't take place.

RT DE said in response to a query that the instructions were in place "to ensure a speedy, uniform and straightforward process.”

Some of the German staff are clearly completely in line with the Kremlin. One of RT DE’s first employees, Yasmine P., still works for the platform today. In 2004, she gave an interview and said that Vladimir Putin "has very truthful views of the world – he addresses and explains many problems that others simply hush up.” She seems to be quite taken by the Russian president. That same year, Yasmine P. published a Compact Edition book dedicated to Putin together with the extreme right-wing publisher Jürgen Elsässer, whose Compact magazine is now under observation by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.

In general, staff in Berlin are required to abide by Moscow's wishes.

One high-ranking RT DE staffer, Sebastian Range, wrote articles for the conspiracy theory magazine Hintergrund (Background) for years. His name is still listed on the website's masthead. Some of his articles on the website promulgated wild theories about 9/11.

Florian Warweg, who, like Range, is a so-called "final editor” at RT DE, has been with the platform since the year of its founding. He used to be active with the far-left Left Party in Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood, but these days, he’s best known for making a show of himself at the Federal Press Conference, the location where many important government- and policy-related press briefings are held in Berlin. And for his cynical tweets. In September, for example, he posted a photo showing Navalny surrounded by his family in a hospital bed at Charité Hospital in Berlin. He captioned it: "We present what is said to be the 'deadliest nerve agent’ in the world: Novichok as a beauty treatment – whether for Yulia #Skripal or now #Navalny."

Yulia Skripal was poisoned with Novichok in the UK in 2018 along with her father, former Russian intelligence colonel and later defector Sergei Skripal. Both barely survived the attack, and Navalny shared a similar fate last year. Russian intelligence services have been blamed for the poison attacks.

When asked about the three employees, RT DE wrote: Care has been taken to ensure there are "diverse opinions and views on our team.” Employees are required to adhere to "strict editorial standards and our commitment to objectivity and balance.” Apart from that, the media organization said that it does not comment on the private lives of its employees as a matter of principle.

In addition to staff, freelance writers also work for the platform, and they often comment on current events. These "guest editorials and opinion pieces don’t necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff,” the website states. In practice, though, items posted on the website seldom deviate from the company line.

They include, for example, people like conflict researcher and Russia proponent Leo Ensel, or Rainer Rupp, who in East Germany spied on NATO under the codename "Topas” on behalf of the Stasi secret police. Karin Kneissl, the former Austrian foreign minister and member of the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), who Putin danced with when he attended her wedding in 2018, also contributes to RT DE. Other writers come from intellectual backgrounds that fall somewhere between the German Communist Party and the Marxist Junge Welt newspaper in Germany.

This does not discourage all German officials and politicians from speaking to reporters who work for RT DE. Rainer Wendt, for example, the controversial national head of the German Police Union, seems to have no reservations about the outlet and often provides comments on domestic security issues. So does Horst Teltschik, once a confidant to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former chairman of the respected Munich Security Conference. Or Matthias Schepp, chairman of the board of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce and a former DER SPIEGEL journalist.

Of the German political parties, however, it is primarily members of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) who like to lend their voices to RT DE. Be it party leader Tino Chrupalla, the right-wing extremist head of the AfD chapter in Thuringia Björn Höcke, or Waldemar Herdt, an ardent Russia fan and member of the federal parliament, all are welcome interviewees on the platform. When AfD politicians met with representatives of the Putin-backed Assad regime in Syria in 2019, RT DE provided fitting coverage of the event. AfD representatives didn't answer questions submitted to the party about its contacts with RT DE.

German politician Sahra Wagenknecht of the far-left Left Party

German politician Sahra Wagenknecht of the far-left Left Party

Foto: Screenshot / DER SPIEGEL

But RT DE is even more popular among elements of the Left Party, some roots of which lead back to the East German communist party. Andrej Hunko, the European policy point man for the party in German parliament is happy to make himself available, and he has the appropriate political positions - on NATO, on Venezuela and on the United States. He’s not the only one in his parliamentary group: Indeed, Kremlin-critical representatives refer to Hunko and Left Party colleagues like Sahra Wagenknecht, Alexander Neu, Zaklin Nastic and Diether Dehm as the "RT Faction.” The Left Party even hired away a journalist who was with RT DE. He now works in the party's media and public relations department in the Bundestag. When contacted for comment, the press office wrote back that it complies with employee data protection and thus can’t answer any questions about him.

Dehm seems to be closest to the platform. Weltnetz TV, an internet project he founded with others, featured an interview with then-Editor-in-Chief Rodionov just in time for the 2014 launch of RT Deutsch in Germany. One of Dehm’s co-founders at Weltnetz TV was also a shareholder at the time in another media company, Salve.tv. The regional television station in Thuringia began syndicating a show from RT Deutsch ("Der fehlende Part") in 2015 and made headlines across Germany. Dehm had also been in business with a former shareholder of Salve.tv for years. Dehm left a request for comment unanswered.

When asked how important the pro-Kremlin platform is for the party’s public relations work, Left Party leaders Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger responded: "RT DE doesn’t play a major role in the party’s media and public relations.”

Politicians from other parties have also spoken to RT, including Economics Minister Peter Altmaier and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, both from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Katarina Barley and Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democrats and Wolfgang Kubicki of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). Overall, though, all parties aside from the AfD and the Left Party are far more cautious in their approach to the propaganda channel.

"RT doesn’t produce journalism – it engages in targeted disinformation."

A spokesperson for the national chapter of the FDP, for example, says that headquarters has decided not to respond to inquiries from RT DE for the time being. She says that RT DE produces "state-directed PR under the fig leaf of purported journalistic neutrality.” It poses "a danger to the quality and factuality of our political discourse.”

The CDU said that it responds to all media inquiries. The party adds, however: "We don’t see Russia Today as a news channel.” The conservative party says the broadcaster’s aim is "obviously disinformation and one-sided reporting.” It is not a trustworthy source, the party added.

Meanwhile, Markus Blume, the general secretary of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, says: "RT doesn’t produce in journalism – it engages in targeted disinformation.” He then adds, "We need to buttress our democracy and democratic discourse against that kind of influence from abroad.”

The Social Democrats say they have virtually no contact with the broadcaster. The SPD does, though deal with the broadcaster. Uli Grötsch, an SPD parliamentarian focused on domestic affairs and a member of the parliamentary committee that has oversight of intelligence matters, says that RT DE has been a focus for himself and the Bundestag for years. He says "the relevant parliamentary bodies focus intensively on Russian interference." Parliament takes the problem "very seriously and is constantly discussing suitable countermeasures,” he says.

The Greens are also "cautious” about requests from the platform, a spokesman says. The party’s media policy coordinator in parliament, Margit Stumpp, says the Kremlin-backed broadcaster’s announcement that it will soon broadcast around the clock is "bad news for Germany as a democracy.” In the long term, Stumpp sees "a significant influence on the formation of public opinion to the detriment of confidence in our democracy.”

So far, however, RT DE has not attempted to obtain a broadcasting license. The media organization hasn’t applied in either Berlin or Brandenburg, says a spokesperson for the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenburg, the authority responsible for broadcast licenses in the two states. But there is still plenty of time left before the planned launch in December and an application could likely still be reviewed in that timeframe if it were submitted by this summer.

The main question is how RT DE intends to circumvent Germany’s Interstate Broadcasting Treaty. The law prohibits broadcasting operations by state agencies in Germany. There are, however, loopholes. One option would be to move to another country. A license from another European Union member state would make it possible to broadcast into Germany.

DER SPIEGEL learned in its reporting that the German authorities are therefore in close contact with their colleagues in other EU countries.

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