The far-right's ties to Russia are causing growing alarm in Germany

To enter a secret session of the German parliament, lawmakers must lock their phones and leave them outside. They can't even take notes inside. Yet to many politicians these precautions against espionage now seem like something of a farce.

Because sitting next to them in those confidential meetings are members of the Alternative for Germany, the far-right party known by its German acronym, AfD.

In the past few months alone, a prominent AfD politician has been accused of taking money from pro-Kremlin strategists. One of the party's parliamentary assistants turned out to have ties to a Russian intelligence agent. And some of its state lawmakers flew to Moscow to observe Russia's run elections.

“Knowing for sure that sitting there, while these sensitive issues are being discussed, are legislators with proven ties to Moscow, not only makes me uncomfortable. This worries me,” said Erhard Grundl, a member of the Green Party in the parliament's foreign affairs committee.

The AfD called such comments “unfounded”.

While some of the accusations against the AfD may be attempted points by political rivals, the security concerns are real. As evidence of the party's ties to Moscow accumulates, suspicions are being expressed across the spectrum of mainstream German politics.

“The AfD continues to behave like the long arm of the Russian terrorist state,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, deputy head of parliament's intelligence committee and a member of the center-right Christian Democrats. he wrote on social media.

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Europe has struggled to repel Moscow's influence operations aimed at weakening the West's unity and resolve. The concerns go beyond wiretapping and espionage and include Moscow's ties to political parties, especially far-right ones, which are proving useful tools for the Kremlin.

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

The AfD, which opposes arms deliveries to Ukraine and calls for an end to sanctions against Russia, is not only vying to become the second strongest German party in the European parliamentary elections. He is poised to become the driving force in Germany's three eastern state elections this autumn. This gives the AfD the possibility, although still unlikely, of taking control of a state government.

“It would be a completely new situation as far as Russia is concerned, where even those who make propaganda and pass information could actually be in power,” said Martina Renner, a lawmaker from the left-wing party, who sits on parliament's internal security committee.

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

But in the wake of the war in Ukraine, mainstream lawmakers have expressed regret about these ties and most have severed them, while many AfD lawmakers appear intent on deepening them instead.

Belgian authorities announced on Friday that they would launch their own investigations into the payments reported by European lawmakers. Some of the strongest suspicions were expressed against Petr Bystron, an AfD member of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee.

In 2022, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Bystron pushed AfD lawmakers to ask why the German government had not fought for the freedom of a pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch, Viktor Medvedchuk, who they described as “the most important Ukrainian leader”. opposition politician”.

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

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

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

Bystron appeared several times on Voice of Europe, where he described his party as 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, authorities said, although they have so far not brought any charges against anyone. Mr. Bystron's office did not respond to The New York Times' request for comment.

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

Regarding suspicions surrounding his and the AfD's questions in support of Medvedchuk – a move that other MPs have pointed to as suspicious – a spokesperson for the AfD parliamentary group told the Times: “We firmly reject discrediting our work of opposition from members of other countries. parliamentary groups, which is obviously motivated by party tactics.”

Konstantin von Notz, a Green Party member and head of the parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, called the accusations against Bystron “the tip of the iceberg.”

Two months ago, an investigation by The Insider and Der Spiegel published what it described as communications on an encrypted messaging service last year between Wladimir Sergijenko, assistant to an AfD member of parliament, and an intelligence agent Russian.

Allegedly encrypted communications between Sergijenko and the intelligence officer discussed the AfD's plans to file a lawsuit aimed at blocking or halting the delivery of German weapons to Ukraine, including much-needed tanks, accusing the government of failing to sought parliamentary approval. He told the agent that 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 Sergijenko, who called all allegations of links to Russian intelligence “fictitious”.

Concerns about Moscow's influence on the party, however, extend beyond the actions of a few individuals and also suggest deepening ideological ties.

A top aide to AfD leader Tino Chrupalla has published an article on an obscure website linked to Aleksandr Dugin, a right-wing ideologue whose concept of a “Russian world” helped inspire Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Dugin also popularized terms such as “Eurasianism” that now appear in the rhetoric of many AfD figures.

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

Una Titz, an analyst at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation who studies the far right and has connections to Moscow, said the AfD's tone toward Russia and Europe began to change in 2018, when Russian officials invited some AfD members to observe the elections.

Since then there have been many AfD delegations to Russia. One MP even wanted to open an office in Moscow, but backed out after complaints from his parliamentary colleagues.

“Of course all this was carefully orchestrated,” Titz said, referring to the ties Moscow had forged with the AfD. “This is part of the non-linear war Russia is waging against Western democracies.”

Indeed, some officials say privately that the AfD's ties to Moscow may be just the clearest manifestation of a much larger problem of covert Russian infiltration of German political parties and institutions.

Officials acknowledge that most aides – of which there are hundreds in Parliament – ​​have not received security checks and that they cannot be sure of their backgrounds.

“With the AfD it's very simple,” said Ms. Renner, of the internal security committee. But the Russian secret services want to find allies “in the big parties, or even conquer the government parties”, she warned. “They want them everywhere.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed a report from Berlin.

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