Germany needs a specialized Fusion Center and political backing if it wants to tackle hybrid threats
European Values Center for Security Policy, Prague
Discussion paper presented at the IISS conference on ‘Statecraft and influence networks: Russia, China, Turkey’.
December 7-8, Berlin
A simple look into the latest issue of Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency’s report for 2020 (Verfassungsschutzbericht) provides an overview on the hostile activities of the Russian Federation on German soil. Pages 309 to 317 list concrete cases of disinformation, cyber-attacks, aggressive influence operations, interference, liquidation and espionage.
During the last five STRATCOM summits in Prague, international security experts have discussed the shortcomings of German authorities when it comes to the timely detection and subsequent countering of hostile Russian activities on German soil. This self-inflicted vulnerability, they concluded, appears to be caused less by a lack of professionalism than by the restrictive institutional framework within which security authorities are forced to evolve.
The total preparedness approach as practiced in Sweden and Finland, which involves as many stakeholders as possible while emphasizing media and cyber literacy, is regarded as the ‘Swiss army knife’ for countering a wide range of hybrid operations, including disinformation. Germany’s government has found it difficult to adopt a similar strategy, let alone gather such expertise. Both Sweden’s and Finland’s multi-stakeholder approaches demand a swift mobilization of all actors in civil society, the media, law enforcement, security agencies, political decision-making circles as well as the private sector.
The Czech ‘bottom-up approach’, in which Czech authorities delegate the early warning system to grass roots elements of society thus empowering communities to become an essential pillar of societal resilience, has also been put forward as an example of best practice.
Germany seems reluctant to use these examples and adapt them to the German context. The main obstacles to this are legal contingencies that are rooted in an almost endemic distrust towards a concentration of security powers, a legacy from both the Third Reich and the “GDR”. These restrictions are enshrined within the constitutional framework of the Grundgesetz.
Federalism and “Trennungsgebot” (separation of police and intelligence authorities), for instance, make the pooling and sharing of information between states (Bundesländer) and the Federal Government difficult. Furthermore, it restricts information and intelligence sharing within the Federal Government and its agencies. Actors such as the Ministry of Defense whose expertise is essential in the fight against disinformation, as demonstrated in the Baltic states, are limited in their operational capacities within Germany. Articles 87a and 87b of the Grundgesetz inhibit them from applying their expertise in the domestic context. Paradoxically, operative information units can be deployed in support of German armed forces during their missions abroad, for instance, but their use or even the exploitation of their expertise is strictly prohibited on German soil. This leaves Bundeswehr experts in information warfare unable to intervene in the domestic context, even at an active consultation level.
The second obstacle is political in nature. It appears pointless to discuss a multi-stakeholder approach to combatting hybrid threats emanating from the Russian Federation in states governed by “Die Linke” such as Thuringia for example, or Mecklenburg Western Pomerania which is governed by the SPD. Both Minister-Presidents have openly displayed a Kremlin friendly attitude. Even worse, their respective parties are downplaying the Russian threat and are highly critical of security agencies. For ‘Die Linke’, the domestic intelligence agency IS the threat. The party even demands the dismantlement of the Verfassungsschutz. For the SPD, the Russian Federation poses no threat to Germany.
Therefore, the prospect of an outreach concept involving ministries, the military, intelligence agencies, academia, political actors, the private sector, civil society and the media seems unlikely.
The solution to tackling hostile operations by foreign actors on German soil appears more likely to be the introduction of fusion centers following the example of the Center for Cybersecurity linking the capabilities of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior.
Acknowledged shortcomings of the Federal Security system
Security experts across the political spectrum have underscored the vulnerabilities of the security apparatus within the context of counter-terrorism and the fight against politically motivated extremism, citing the results of the parliamentary investigative committees on NSU and the 2016 Christmas market attack.
These findings specifically highlighted the weaknesses of both early warning systems and the fluidity of the information sharing mechanism in Germany’s federal security architecture. The Green Party and the FDP were especially vocal in criticizing the far too numerous grey areas of ownership, as well as the varying levels of expertise between federal and state levels leading to security layers of different qualities (‘Föderalismus der unterschiedlichen Sicherheitsqualitäten’).
This easily applies to the fight against various hostile activities on German soil attributed to the Russian Federation. The “Lisa Case” demonstrated the absolute necessity of a fusion center approach: What started as a typical case of a teenage running away resulted in the Russian foreign minister ridiculing German Law enforcement. What happened in between can aptly be termed a “multiple organ failure”.
The case of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili is another example illustrating the ineptness of German leadership in dealing effectively with the Russian threat. Although they had been warned, the State of Brandenburg and the State of Berlin failed to protect a Georgian asylum seeker on their territory. Germany was also unable to detect and push back against a massive Russian disinformation campaign against the victim. Following the murder of Khangoshvili, several representatives of the German media relayed the Kremlin’s disinformation and went out of their way to portray the victim as a dangerous terrorist. Some voices in German academia contested the implication of Russian intelligence services while attributing Khangoshvili’s death either to organized crime, to Ramzan Kadyrov, or alternately to what amounts to a typical Chechen family vendetta.
‘A house divided in itself cannot stand’
Like the Lisa Case, the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili demonstrates the vulnerability of the Federal state when it is confronted with hybrid threats, due to unclear ownership. It is inefficient, slow to react, and unable to deter or retaliate. German security apparatus needs to be supported by solid pillars. If division of labor is necessary, a comprehensive holistic approach engaging all stakeholders is the solution. The biblical principle ‘A house divided in itself cannot stand’ also applies to the German security architecture.
 See for reports from Stratcom Summits: STRATCOM SUMMIT – Defending democratic states and societies
 Marcus Kolga, Jakub Janda, Nathalie Vogel, Russia proofing your elections, Global lessons for protecting Canadian democracy against foreign interference, Toronto, 2019 20190724_MLI_Russia-proofing Elections_KOLGA PAPER v3.pdf (macdonaldlaurier.ca)
 See Handbook countering influence activities, Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, Stockholm, 2019 Countering information influence activities : A handbook for communicators (msb.se)
 The Prague Manual, European Values Center for Security Policy, Prague, 2018, How to Tailor National Strategy Using Lessons Learned from Countering Kremlin’s Hostile Subversive Operations in Central and Eastern Europe prague-manual.pdf (kremlinwatch.eu)
 See assessment of the FDP p.1254; Assessment of the Green Party p.1263; S. 1163, See also: Föderalismus unterschiedlicher Sicherheitsqualität, p. 1163 in Deutscher Bundestag Drucksache 19/30800 19. Wahlperiode 21.06.2021 Beschlussempfehlung und Bericht des 1. Untersuchungsausschusses der 19. Wahlperiode
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