Today, only a few Westerners are still attending President Vladimir Putin’s showcase events, such as the Valdai conference in Sochi, which, before the war, was Russia’s most prestigious international gathering. This year, one of those foreign guests was a journalist from a German far-left newspaper, who asked Putin to explain a seeming contradiction: If Russia is liberating Ukraine from Nazis, as Putin claims, why is the Kremlin maintaining high-level contacts with the far-right Alternative for Germany party?
The question had particular saliency because the AfD is growing in power and popularity across Germany. Earlier this month, it achieved historically good results in regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse, two traditionally centrist states. Nationally, the AfD is polling at a record 21 percent, making it the second-most-popular party in Germany. After next year’s regional elections, it could even become the leading party of several states in its eastern-German stronghold.
Putin’s response was revealing. He questioned the notion that the AfD is far-right and defended his contacts with the group. He went on to suggest that the AfD was the victim of “Nazi methods” rather than a party “using them.” As evidence, he pointed to rumors of an assassination attempt on one of the party’s leaders during a recent campaign event. The German authorities have not confirmed that any such attempt took place, but the AfD tried to exploit the rumor in the days before this month’s regional elections. Putin’s surprisingly detailed knowledge of a little-known conspiracy theory involving the AfD points to the special interest that the Kremlin is taking in Germany’s far right.
Putin’s connection to Germany is personal. A country that he thought he understood, from his posting to East Germany as a young KGB officer, has turned its back on him. “I still have friends in Germany,” Putin said at Valdai. “And it may seem strange, but their number is growing.” The implication, when taken with his remarks about the AfD, was that he’s finding new friends among Germany’s right.
Putin seems to hope he can make an ally of Germany’s far right in an effort to sow discord in German society. This would meet an important goal in his broader campaign to dissolve Western unity and reduce support for Ukraine.
Living and serving in East Germany in the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union had a huge influence on Putin’s life and political priorities. Throughout his career, he has shown a consistent preoccupation with Russia’s relationship with Germany. “Russia has always had special sentiments for Germany,” he said in a speech—delivered in fluent German—to the Bundestag in 2001. Many times, he has tapped into German guilt over its World War II history and harped on the debt of gratitude Germany owes the Russian people for the country’s reunification. Putin’s tactics have been very effective, and Germany has long put its relationship with Russia before that with any of its Eastern European neighbors.
In 2014, Putin extended his arm-twisting by drawing a parallel between Germany’s reunification and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Just as the Russian people had supported the “desire of the Germans for national unity,” he said in a public address, so he expected Germany to “also support the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity.”
Although Germany joined the widespread European and American condemnation of the annexation of Crimea, the country’s dependence on natural gas, and Russian supplies of it, was growing. That vulnerability bolstered Putin’s confidence that Germany’s business-driven political system would not dare cutting ties, regardless of Russia’s aggressive actions elsewhere.
That belief was affirmed by his close relationship with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (Putin has attended Schröder’s birthday parties, and once took Schröder on a Christmas sleigh ride in Moscow). After Schröder left office in 2005, he was appointed chairman of the boards of both Nord Stream AG and Rosneft, two major Russian-controlled energy companies. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Schröder fell into disgrace, and the Nord Stream 2 gas-pipeline project between Russia and Germany that he championed has been abandoned. Yet Putin continues to defend his friend as a “true son of his people.”
The German response to Russia’s 2022 assault on Ukraine suggests that Putin did not know Germany as well as he thought. Even when Moscow cut off gas supplies to Germany—a move that many countries, including the United States, long feared would sway German decision making—Germany continued to support Ukraine. In fact, Berlin became Kyiv’s second-biggest military supplier after Washington. Although Germany has hesitated to step into a leading role in Europe—delaying the delivery of tanks and still debating whether to provide long-range missiles to Ukraine—the era of a special relationship between Russia and Germany is over.
Putin’s reaction to this has been to turn his false narrative about neo-Nazis in Ukraine back on Germany. “It’s unbelievable but true,” he said at an event earlier this year commemorating Soviet sacrifices during World War II. “We are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks.” (Germany had “panther” and “tiger” tanks in World War II, but no “leopards,” in fact.) Germans, however, thought of a different wartime analogy for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939. “Acting as an imperial power, Russia now seeks to redraw borders by force,” wrote Olaf Scholz, Germany’s current chancellor, and “my country’s history gives it a special responsibility to fight the forces of fascism, authoritarianism, and imperialism.”
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Putin appears to hope that a return to Russia’s pre-2022 relationship with Germany is possible. Because “one line of Nord Stream 2 has survived” (the other line was blown up last year), “tomorrow we open the valve,” he has offered—if Germany asks to resume its Russian gas supply. But this is something, he complained, that Germany’s “bosses in Washington” will not allow the country to do. (The idea that the U.S. dictates policy to Berlin is a favorite trope of his: The Americans “continue to occupy Germany,” he said on Russian TV earlier this year.)
Rebuffed by Germany’s centrist politicians, Putin has been forced to look for allies on the more extreme margins of German politics. A supposed lack of national sovereignty and independence is a popular narrative among far-right parties and conspiracist movements in Germany. For example, AfD is calling for emancipation from the United States and rapprochement with Russia in its platform for the candidates it’s running in next year’s European parliamentary elections. The rhetoric of Germany’s continued “occupation” is also echoed by the ultra-reactionary Reichsbürger movement, whose members do not accept the legitimacy of the postwar Federal Republic and wish for the restitution of the “German Reich” that ended with the defeat of the Nazis.
AfD politicians have repeatedly argued that Germany should move away from the European Union’s sanctions and reopen the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. As well as calling for an end to support for Ukraine, they have also blamed NATO expansion for provoking Russia. For its part, Moscow has cultivated relations with the AfD, including a 2020 meeting between senior party members and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. The Kremlin has also brought AfD members on all-expenses-paid trips to Russia and invited them to act as “election observers” in Crimea. In August, an investigation by Der Spiegel found that an AfD staffer in the Bundestag who was preparing a lawsuit against the German government over its arms supplies to Ukraine had taken multiple trips to Russia, returning with large sums of cash and suspected contacts to Russian intelligence.
The attitudes of the AfD and movements like Reichsbürger conveniently align with some of Putin’s views about Germany. Reichsbürger is growing in strength, and now has more than 20,000 members. A regional branch of Germany’s domestic-intelligence service last year warned that Russia is actively encouraging the movement in online disinformation campaigns.
The likely reasons for Putin’s interest in his new friends are not hard to discern. The rise of Germany’s far right makes it easier for Russia to undermine social cohesion and public consensus. The political center in Germany is growing weaker: The three parties in the governing coalition—the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the Free Democrats—are not performing well. No major party has given any indication of being willing to include the AfD in a coalition. That makes it very unlikely that the AfD will gain power at the federal level. But its strength in local and regional elections is eroding the firewall that Germany’s political center has tried to build between itself and the far right.
To make things worse, a new nationalist left-wing party just launched by the charismatic politician Sahra Wagenknecht echoes some of the AfD’s positions on Russia. In the past, the Kremlin has also targeted Germany’s far left with hopes of establishing an anti-war coalition between the far left and the far right. Wagenknecht’s party may draw votes away from the AfD, but even if it succeeds in doing so, the presence of two populist antiestablishment and pro-Russian parties threatens to further destabilize the political center.
By backing the AfD and other extreme actors in German politics, Putin is betting not only on diminishing support for Ukraine in Germany, but also on European and American fatigue with the war effort. As major elections approach in Western countries in 2024 and 2025, Russian interference and disinformation efforts are bound to increase. Its support for far-right groups in the West is not just about weakening democratic societies; it is part of a geopolitical strategy. At a time when the world faces political turmoil on several fronts, the success of Putin’s tactics will be decided at ballot boxes across Europe and in the United States.