Far Right’s Ties to Russia Sow Rising Alarm in Germany

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To enter a secret session of Germany’s Parliament, lawmakers must lock their phones and leave them outside. Inside, they are not even allowed to take notes. Yet to many politicians, these precautions against espionage now feel like something of a farce.

Because seated alongside them in those classified meetings are members of the Alternative for Germany, the far-right party known by its German abbreviation, AfD.

In the past few months alone, a leading AfD politician was accused of taking money from pro-Kremlin strategists. One of the party’s parliamentary aides was exposed as having links to a Russian intelligence operative. And some of its state lawmakers flew to Moscow to observe Russia’s stage-managed elections.

“To know with certainty that sitting there, while these sensitive issues are discussed, are lawmakers with proven connections to Moscow — it doesn’t just make me uncomfortable. It worries me,” said Erhard Grundl, a Green party member of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

The AfD called such comments “baseless.”

While some of the accusations against the AfD may be attempts at point-scoring by political rivals, the security concerns are real. As evidence of the party’s links to Moscow accumulate, suspicions are being expressed across the spectrum of mainstream German politics.

“The AfD keeps acting like the long arm of the terrorist state Russia,” Roderich Kiesewetter, the deputy head of the Parliament’s intelligence committee and a member of the center-right Christian Democrats, wrote on social media.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Europe has struggled to fend off influence operations by Moscow aimed at weakening Western unity and resolve. The worries extend beyond eavesdropping and spying to include Moscow’s ties to political parties, especially on the far right, which are proving to be useful tools for the Kremlin.

In Germany and elsewhere, that alarm is only growing ahead of elections for the European Parliament in June, as many of these parties are expected to have their best showings ever.

The AfD, which is against weapons deliveries to Ukraine and calls for an end to sanctions on Russia, is not only vying to become the second-strongest German party in European parliamentary elections. It is poised to become the leading force in three eastern state elections in Germany this autumn. That gives the AfD the possibility, albeit still unlikely, that it could take control of a state government.

“This would be a whole new situation with regards to Russia, where the people making propaganda, passing information, could also actually be in power,” said Martina Renner, a lawmaker from the Left party, who sits on the Parliament’s domestic security committee.

German lawmakers across the spectrum, including from Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats, have a long history of cozy economic relations that have entangled them in Russian interests. Critics say that is one reason the government has failed to move more aggressively against Russian covert operations — for fear of exposing how deep the ties to Moscow once were.

But in the wake of the war in Ukraine, mainstream lawmakers have expressed regret for those ties and most have cut them off, while many lawmakers in the AfD instead appear intent on deepening them.

On Friday, the Belgian authorities announced they were starting their own investigations into the reported payments of European lawmakers. Some of the loudest suspicions have been voiced against Petr Bystron, an AfD member of the German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

In 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Bystron led AfD lawmakers in demanding to know why the German government had not fought for the freedom of a pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, whom they described as “the most important Ukrainian opposition politician.”

Mr. Medvedchuk had previously founded a pro-Moscow political party in Ukraine and owned several pro-Kremlin television channels there. He had been put under house arrest in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, after the Russian invasion on charges of treason.

He was later freed and sent to Russia in a prisoner exchange with Moscow, where he has evidently remained active in promoting Russian interests.

Last month, Czech and Belgian authorities accused Mr. Medvedchuk of being part of a Russian “influence operation” that funneled money and cryptocurrency through a media platform, Voice of Europe, to politicians from at least six European countries in return for spreading Kremlin propaganda.

Mr. Bystron appeared several times on Voice of Europe, where he described his party as being a bulwark against “globalist” parties and repeated his objections to Western sanctions against Russia.

He and several AfD members are now among those suspected of receiving payments, the authorities said, though they have so far not brought any charges against anyone. Mr. Bystron’s office did not reply to a request from The New York Times for comment.

Last week, Mr. Bystron, who is an AfD candidate in the European elections, described the case as a kind of conspiracy against the party. “Before every election it is the same: defamation with the help of the secret services,” he told an AfD-linked website, Deutschland Kurier.

As for suspicions regarding his and the AfD’s questions in support of Mr. Medvedchuk — a move other lawmakers pointed to as suspicious — a spokesman for the AfD’s parliamentary group told The Times, “We firmly reject the discrediting of our opposition work by members of other parliamentary groups, which is obviously motivated by party tactics.”

Konstantin von Notz, a Green party member and the head of Parliament’s intelligence oversight committee, called the accusations against Mr. Bystron “the tip of the iceberg.”

Two months ago, an investigation by The Insider and Der Spiegel published what it described as communications over an encrypted messaging service last year between Wladimir Sergijenko, an aide to an AfD member of Parliament, and a Russian intelligence operative.

Purported encrypted communications between Mr. Sergijenko and the intelligence operative discussed AfD plans to file a lawsuit aimed at stalling or stopping the delivery of German arms to Ukraine, including much-needed tanks, by charging that the government had failed to seek parliamentary approval. He told the operative the plan needed “media and financial support,” according to the report.

Last July, the AfD filed just such a lawsuit. But the party said it had nothing to do with Mr. Sergijenko, who has called any accusations of ties to Russian intelligence “fictitious.”

The concerns about Moscow’s influence over the party extend beyond the actions of a few individuals, however, and suggest deepening ideological ties as well.

A top aide to Tino Chrupalla, a leader of the AfD, published an article on an obscure website connected to Aleksandr Dugin, a right-wing ideologue whose concept of a “Russian World” helped inspire Mr. Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Dugin also popularized terms like “Eurasianism” that now feature in the rhetoric of many AfD figures.

This month, Mr. Scholz said that many comments by AfD leaders on Europe and security issues were “very similar” to those of Mr. Putin.

Una Titz, an analyst at the Amadeu Antonio foundation who researches the far right and links to Moscow, said the AfD’s tone on Russia and Europe began to shift in 2018, when Russian officials invited some AfD members to observe elections.

Since then, there have been many AfD delegations to Russia. One member of Parliament even wanted to open an office in Moscow, but backed away after remonstrations from fellow lawmakers.

“Of course this was carefully orchestrated,” Ms. Titz said of the ties Moscow had forged with the AfD. “This is part of the nonlinear warfare that Russia is leading against Western democracies.”

Indeed, some officials say privately that the AfD’s links to Moscow may be just the most obvious manifestation of a far broader problem of covert Russian infiltration of Germany’s political parties and institutions.

Officials acknowledge that most aides — of whom there are hundreds in Parliament — have not received security screenings and that they cannot be sure of their backgrounds.

“With the AfD, it’s very easy,” said Ms. Renner, of the domestic security committee. But Russia’s secret service wants to find allies “with the big parties, or even to take the governing parties,” she warned. “They want them everywhere.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Berlin.





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