Pro-Kremlin campaigns intensify in Germany ahead of European Elections

7 June 2024 

Russian state and pro-Kremlin actors continue their attempts to influence public opinion in Europe ahead of the election for the European Parliament this weekend. This article analyses narratives and tactics targeting Germany. ISD found that both Russian state media and a covert pro-Kremlin advertisement on Meta tried to discredit EU institutions and established political parties, while supporting far-right and far-left parties ahead of the election.  

This Dispatch is also available in German


Foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) remain a distinct risk for the European Parliament (EP) elections. Of the various foreign state actors with an interest in these elections, Russia has both the incentives and capabilities to attempt to influence public opinion in Europe.  

Since the onset of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia has intensified its efforts at information manipulation. These efforts include a large-scale covert campaign known as Doppelganger, the circumvention of EU sanctions against Russian state media, alleged covert funding of European politicians, and hack-and-leak operations 

The following Dispatch investigates the main narratives and tactics of pro-Kremlin and Russian state actors targeting audiences in Germany ahead of the EP elections. The investigation focuses on deceptive advertising on Facebook which is likely part of the Doppelganger campaign, and Russian state media activity on Telegram. The findings are based on a qualitative analysis of Telegram posts with keywords related to the elections and from lead candidates of German political parties, as well as a qualitative investigation of Facebook ads. 

Deceptive Ads on Facebook 

ISD identified pro-Kremlin political ads on Facebook targeting German audiences in the context of the EP election during March and April 2024. Some ads called on users to vote against the environmentalist, liberal Green party, while others supported politicians opposing aid for Ukraine in the midst of their war with Russia. Ads also sought to discredit European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen, while supporting the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and new far-left party BSW (Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht). Other Facebook ads supported peace with Russia, the removal of sanctions against Russia, an end to aid for Ukraine in general, and depicted German’s domestic economic situation as catastrophic.  

The ads were run by inauthentic pages and usually stayed running on the platform for one to three days. ISD reviewed a sample of 34 ads directly related to the EP elections, von der Leyen or German political parties. The ads ran between 26 April and 26 May 2024 and received more than 160,000 total views on Facebook. Only 6 of these 34 had been removed; Meta provides little information on their reasons for removing ads, in this case stating only that the content ‘violated advertising standards’ concerning elections, social issues and politics.  

This is not the first time loopholes in Meta’s moderation system have allowed pro-Kremlin actors to flood Facebook with deceptive ads. In September 2022, ISD identified inauthentic Facebook pages running advertisements for clone websites of European media (for example, Der Spiegel or The Guardian). Other ads promoted disinformation outlet RRN (Reliable Recent News), pro-Kremlin website truemaps[.]info and pro-Kremlin posts without any media branding.  

The operation, later dubbed Doppelganger, has continued to operate across social media platforms. The actors behind it have since adopted new methods to stay on popular social media platforms, such as altered spelling or a sophisticated system of redirections.  

A recent study by AI Forensics identified more than 3,800 Facebook pages running political pro-Kremlin ads targeting audiences in France and Germany. These reached over 38 million accounts between August 2023 and March 2024. A follow-up report by AI Forensics found 275 Facebook ads that reached over 3 million accounts in four European countries in May 2024. Despite an ongoing EC investigation into Meta’s practices related to advertising under the Digital Services Act (DSA) (which began on 30 April 2024), ISD found the pro-Kremlin advertising campaign continues and is targeting the EP elections.  

The reviewed sample likely represents just a small proportion of overall deceptive, pro-Kremlin ads on Facebook. The ads were identified using the Meta Ad Library, with search queries containing keywords related to the EP elections. ISD concluded that the observed campaign is likely part of Doppelganger due to behaviours and tactics including: 

  • Mass registration of single-use Facebook pages with page names that followed specific patterns; 
  • Cartoon-style visuals used in advertisements which are similar or identical to visuals previously used by Doppelganger; 
  • Several pages running ads with identical texts. 
Narratives of the Advertisements 

Several of the reviewed advertisements claimed that German industry is ‘dying’ because of rising energy costs and policies enacted by the Greens. Two alleged the Greens had carried out a ‘falsification’ of documents which led to phasing out nuclear power in Germany. Some ads called for voters to support parties such as the AfD, which would end the war in Ukraine, warning that otherwise Germany was on course to become a “heap of unemployed beggars.”  

Figure 1: Pro-Kremlin ads calling to vote against the Greens or for the parties that would stop supporting Ukraine. Ad on the left claims: “We have thrown too many resources into the abyss called Ukraine. War only causes problems for everyone and should be ended as soon as possible. On 9 June will support those who say exactly that." Ad in the middle claims: “The main problem is rising electricity and commodity prices due to the actions of the Greens - including their forgery [of documents] to shut down nuclear power plants - and our conflict with Russia. If we don't change course, our industry will simply die and Germany will become a bunch of unemployed beggars! Think about it: on 9 June we can change that!"  Ad on the right claims: “First the Greens forged [documents] to get nuclear power plants shut down, and now they lie to justify themselves and think they can get away with it. That's why I'm prepared to support the Blue Party [AfD] so that the Greens get out of their offices.” 

Figure 1: Pro-Kremlin ads calling to vote against the Greens or for the parties that would stop supporting Ukraine. Ad on the left claims: “We have thrown too many resources into the abyss called Ukraine. War only causes problems for everyone and should be ended as soon as possible. On 9 June will support those who say exactly that.” 

Ad in the middle claims: “The main problem is rising electricity and commodity prices due to the actions of the Greens – including their forgery [of documents] to shut down nuclear power plants – and our conflict with Russia. If we don’t change course, our industry will simply die and Germany will become a bunch of unemployed beggars! Think about it: on 9 June we can change that!” 

Ad on the right claims: “First the Greens forged [documents] to get nuclear power plants shut down, and now they lie to justify themselves and think they can get away with it. That’s why I’m prepared to support the Blue Party [AfD] so that the Greens get out of their offices.”

Pro-Kremlin ads also supported the new far-left BSW. ISD found identical ads spread by different pages which emphasised leader Sahra Wagenknecht’s position on Russia is close to that of the AfD and that she supports restoring friendship with Russia. The advertisement concluded that the current government is driving Germany to a catastrophe and other parties deserve a chance.   

Figure 2: Pro-Kremlin advertisement in support of Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. The ad claims: “As far as relations with the Russians are concerned, their [BSW’s] opinion coincides more and more with that of the Blue Party [AfD], who believe that the restoration of friendship with Moscow is much more favourable for Germany than increasing hostility. and that it is necessary to work towards reconciliation. Perhaps some will say that all these words are just an attempt to gain popularity ahead of the upcoming change in EU leadership. But what the current bosses are doing is leading Germany to disaster. These people must go!" 

Figure 2: Pro-Kremlin advertisement in support of Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. 

The ad claims: “As far as relations with the Russians are concerned, their [BSW’s] opinion coincides more and more with that of the Blue Party [AfD], who believe that the restoration of friendship with Moscow is much more favourable for Germany than increasing hostility. and that it is necessary to work towards reconciliation. Perhaps some will say that all these words are just an attempt to gain popularity ahead of the upcoming change in EU leadership. But what the current bosses are doing is leading Germany to disaster. These people must go!”

Several of the reviewed ads (which were again identical but spread by different pages) attempted to discredit von der Leyen by spreading unsubstantiated claims that she bought COVID-19 vaccines “from friends” and turned people into “lab mice”. The content, depicting von der Leyen as an octopus holding vaccination syringes and boxes filled with money, alluded to an investigation into the EU deal with pharmaceutical company Pfizer. As discussed below, Russian state media and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels have instrumentalised the topic in a similar manner.  

Figure 3: Pro-Kremlin ad attempting to discredit Ursula von der Leyen. The ad claims: Our blonde from Brussels, for example, bought a huge batch of goods that had not undergone clinical testing. Firstly, she bought everything from her friends, secondly, she turned people into lab mice." 

Figure 3: Pro-Kremlin ad attempting to discredit Ursula von der Leyen. 

The ad claims: Our blonde from Brussels, for example, bought a huge batch of goods that had not undergone clinical testing. Firstly, she bought everything from her friends, secondly, she turned people into lab mice.”

The pro-Kremlin campaign also alleged that German support for Ukraine and mistakes by the ruling coalition have left the country in a dire economic situation. One ad claimed money spent on buying US weapons for Ukraine have left hospitals without resources, depicting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz draining blood from a German patient into money bags. Another claimed that Germany is experiencing an “energy collapse” and called for the total removal of the ruling “traffic light” coalition [SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), the Greens and FDP (Free Democratic Party)].  These themes are a familiar part of Doppelganger, and their spread during an election campaign additionally supports those parties that call for the end of sanctions against Russia and reducing assistance to Ukraine.  

 

Figure 4: Pro-Kremlin ads about the economic situation in Germany. The ad on the left claims: “The healthcare is being reduced to buy American tanks and missiles for Ukraine?” The ad on the right claims: “The attempts by the traffic light coalition to replace pipeline gas [from Russia] with LNG will soon deprive Germany of its industry. That’s why the traffic light coalition should be removed on all levels.” 

Figure 4: Pro-Kremlin ads about the economic situation in Germany. 

The ad on the left claims: “The healthcare is being reduced to buy American tanks and missiles for Ukraine?” The ad on the right claims: “The attempts by the traffic light coalition to replace pipeline gas [from Russia] with LNG will soon deprive Germany of its industry. That’s why the traffic light coalition should be removed on all levels.”

Explicit calls to end to support for Ukraine and to make “peace” with Russia (including removing sanctions) were also prominent. Among the claims were that war in Ukraine was at the heart of German economic problems; that Germany needs cheap gas from Russia; and that negotiations are the only option for Ukraine.  

 

Figure 5: Pro-Kremlin ads calling for peace with Russia and end sanctions. The ad on the left claims: “To finally stop insolvencies in Germany we need to rethink some things and do them differently. We need to eliminate the root cause – the conflict with Russia, in which the US dragged us." The ad on the right says: “We need cheap gas. I look with horror on the last winter. I felt like a polar researcher at the north pole in my own home and had to wear all the warm clothes." 

Figure 5: Pro-Kremlin ads calling for peace with Russia and end sanctions. 

The ad on the left claims: “To finally stop insolvencies in Germany we need to rethink some things and do them differently. We need to eliminate the root cause – the conflict with Russia, in which the US dragged us.” The ad on the right says: “We need cheap gas. I look with horror on the last winter. I felt like a polar researcher at the north pole in my own home and had to wear all the warm clothes.”

Tactics to avoid detection 

ISD found actors using a variety of tactics to evade detection by Meta, despite the platform’s efforts. First, ads were placed by ‘single-use Facebook pages’, which only ran one advertisement; identical content was run by several pages, presumably to mitigate the risk if one was removed. Common naming patterns included using two random adjectives (“Glorious Cautious” or “Enraged Talkative”), random female names (“ElviraEfimushkina” or “GretaChashnikova”), or a generic business name and a random combination of letters (“Beauty Design VGO” or “Simple Food XHU”). ISD identified multiple dormant Facebook pages with similar naming conventions, but without any current advertisements.  

Secondly, the reviewed ads used text and pictures rather than redirecting users to known Doppelganger websites, presumably to avoid detection if the platform searched for domains. Thirdly, ads used altered spelling of words or codes: “​9​.​ ​J​u​.​ ​n​i​” or ​​9​.​ ​J​.​ ​u​n​.​ ​i​” for the EP elections day, for example; “unsere Blondine aus Brüssel” (“our blonde from Brussels”) for von der Leyen; and “a​l​l​s​e​i​t​s​ ​b​e​k​a​n​n​t​e​​ ​D​a​m​e​” (“well-known lady”) for Wagenknecht. However, this rendered most of the texts difficult to comprehend. 

The low quality of these ads likely hindered their impact on the elections. However, their presence on Facebook is concerning, given the behavioural evidence suggests they are a part of a campaign known to Meta since at least September 2022; the platform itself attributed similar ads to Doppelganger in its Q1 2024 Adversarial Threat Report. The registration of new single-use pages and the spread of their ads targeting a crucial election shows that Meta efforts to pre-empt Doppelganger’s activity were not sufficient. 

Russian state media on Telegram 

In the weeks prior to the EP elections, Russian state media outlet has continued attacking the German government for its support for Ukraine, promoting pro-Kremlin war narratives and amplifying polarising domestic topics. These tactics have been used consistently, including around previous elections in Germany. Much like the pro-Kremlin ad campaign surfaced above, Russian state media has focused on discrediting EU institutions and president von der Leyen, justifying AfD’s actions following recent political scandals, portraying the Greens and FDP as warmongers, and amplifying the BSW’s pro-Kremlin positions on the war in Ukraine. While unsurprising, an analysis of these narratives is useful for understanding the Kremlin’s approach to propaganda in Germany. Much like the pro-Kremlin ad campaign surfaced above, Russian state media has focused on discrediting EU institutions and president von der Leyen, justifying AfD’s actions following recent political scandals, portraying the Greens and FDP as warmongers, and amplifying the BSW’s pro-Kremlin positions on the war in Ukraine. While unsurprising, an analysis of these narratives is useful for understanding the Kremlin’s approach to propaganda targeting Germany. 

Discreditation of EU Institutions and Ursula von der Leyen 

One central narrative among Russian state media content is claiming that the EU is corrupt and undemocratic. One RT DE article shared on Telegram by channels set up to spread its content claims that the EU is “the most undemocratic organisation in the world.” This quote is a translation from an English-language article published by the Strategic Culture Foundation, a think-tank publicly linked by the UK and US governments to the Russian Security Service.  

Von der Leyen has been personally targeted by narrative which paint her as dishonest, undemocratic and unpopular. This often involves articles about the investigation into negotiations about COVID-19 vaccines that von der Leyen conducted with the CEO of Pfizer. Russian state and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels also alleged that French MEP Michele Rivasi, who was investigating the ‘Pfizer deal’, was murdered because of what she discovered; Rivasi died of a heart attack at the end of 2023. In late November and early December, state media outlets such as Rossiyskaya Gazeta and broadcaster Tsargrad suggested that Rivasi’s death was suspicious. A German-language post echoing this narrative was published on a pro-Russian Telegram channel on 6 December 2023. It was then forwarded by ‘Satellit’, a Telegram channel which previous ISD research found was created to circumvent EU sanctions against state media outlet SNA (Sputnik). 

 

Figure 6: Left: Telegram channel Satellit forwards a message alleging that the death of an MEP might have been linked to the “Pfizergate”. The headline reads: “MEP dies ‘unexpectedly’ after accusing von der Leyen of corruption.” Right: RT DE article accusing von der Leyen of being corrupt. The headline reads: “Ursula Gate: Why even highly corrupt behaviour doesn’t do any damage to the EC president." 

Figure 6: Left: Telegram channel Satellit forwards a message alleging that the death of an MEP might have been linked to the “Pfizergate”. The headline reads: “MEP dies ‘unexpectedly’ after accusing von der Leyen of corruption.” Right: RT DE article accusing von der Leyen of being corrupt. The headline reads: “Ursula Gate: Why even highly corrupt behaviour doesn’t do any damage to the EC president.”

Attacking the Greens and FDP as Warmongers, Supporting Far-Right and Far-Left Voices 

Support for populist, radical and pro-Russian political forces is also core to Russian state media activity, with emphasis on the alleged popularity of parties such as the BSW and AfD. This is a continuation of longstanding Kremlin efforts to support both far-right and far-left forces, previously documented by ISD in Germany. 

BSW was presented as an anti-imperialist force and a political home for disappointed social democrats and liberals, COVID-19 sceptics, supporters of tighter migration policy and critics of a law to make changing legal gender easier. RT DE amplified pro-Kremlin statements made by BSW politicians calling for peace with Russia and claims that it should be included in the European community of countries. 

The revelation that AfD politician Petr Bystron allegedly received money from Russia was portrayed as a concerted “campaign” against him. Similarly, a scandal around the arrest of an AfD staffer allegedly involved in espionage for China was presented as artificially orchestrated. All of these are clear attempts to selectively present pro-Kremlin voices positively, amplifying their positions while downplaying negative coverage.   

At the same time, Russian state-controlled media amplified calls to protest at election-related events held by the Greens or FDP. Telegram channel Satellit published videos of a protest targeting FDP lead candidate Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann in Hamburg, describing her as a “warmonger” for supporting Ukraine. RT DE similarly published a video of protests against Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, calling her “the most incompetent foreign minister.” These clips were selectively highlighted to discredit these politicians and portray pro-Kremlin positions as popular within Germany. 

Figure 7: Left: RT DE video showing a protest against Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. The headline reads: “The most incompetent foreign minister ever – Baerbock greeted by a loud protest in Nuremberg.” Right: Telegram post by Satellit showing a protest against FDP lead candidate Strack-Zimmermann. The headline reads: “Strack-Zimmermann booed during an event in Hamburg.” 

Figure 7: Left: RT DE video showing a protest against Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. The headline reads: “The most incompetent foreign minister ever – Baerbock greeted by a loud protest in Nuremberg.” Right: Telegram post by Satellit showing a protest against FDP lead candidate Strack-Zimmermann. The headline reads: “Strack-Zimmermann booed during an event in Hamburg.”

Conclusion 

Ahead of the EP election, the Kremlin has deployed well-known tactics to discredit democratic institutions and established parties, while amplifying far-left, far-right and pro-Kremlin voices, as well as polarising topics. This content continues to reach European audiences (at least 160,000 in Germany), despite sanctions and social media platforms’ measures including geo-blocking sanctioned entities and removing assets involved in covert campaigns.  

On Telegram, identified German-language pro-Kremlin channels post articles from RT DE in their entirety, embed the outlet’s videos or link to alternative RT domains that are not geo-blocked. On Facebook, a deceptive advertising campaign has been active despite Meta’s assurances to take steps against Doppelganger, from both a political advertising perspective and through disrupting coordinated inauthentic behaviour.  

The direct impact of such campaigns on the broader audience may be limited, but the persistence with which the Kremlin attempts to influence public opinion in Europe shows a need for consistent implementation of adopted countermeasures and education about evolving tactics and narratives.