BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Germany is the top target of Russian disinformation campaigns in the European Union, a report said on Tuesday, as ties between Moscow and the West hit new lows over the poisoning and jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The EU’s disinformation watchdog, which is run by the bloc’s External Action Service, said in the report it had documented 700 cases of deliberately fake or misleading reporting that aimed to spread disinformation about Germany since launching a tracking database in late 2015.
That compares to more than 300 cases for France, over 170 for Italy and 40 for Spain, said the watchdog, which was set up after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and aims to combat what it sees as a deliberate smear campaign by Russia.
“Germany is singled out as the main target for Russian disinformation efforts among European member states,” said the watchdog, which is called EUvsDisinfo.
EUvsDisinfo said the Kremlin was trying to portray Germany as a country driven by “irrational Russophobia” to draw attention away from Russia’s violations of human rights and international law.
“(Russia’s approach) intends to create uncertainty, sow discord, give Russian officials for manoeuvre… The Kremlin doublespeak exploits Europe’s, and Germany’s commitment to dialogue,” the report said.
Germany was among EU countries advocating for more sanctions on Russia over the case of Navalny, who received medical treatment in Berlin and recovered in the Black Forest after being poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent last year.
Navalny, an anti-corruption activist, says the Kremlin was behind the attack, which Moscow denies. He was arrested after returning to Moscow from Germany in January and is now serving a new jail sentence in a Russian penal colony.
The EU last month agreed to blacklist four senior Russian officials over the Navalny case, adding to economic sanctions it had earlier slapped on Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
EUvsDisinfo said Russia had depicted Germany as instrumental in driving the new sanctions that followed a trip by the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, to Moscow in February.
While Borrell called for Navalny’s release, he also played up the need for dialogue and cooperation between the EU and Russia in areas such as climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. During his visit, however, Moscow expelled four EU diplomats, including one from Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, has long been critical of Moscow’s human rights record, but Berlin has resisted U.S. pressure to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would pump more Russian gas to Europe via Germany.
EU leaders will discuss next steps in their troubled relationship with Russia at a summit on March 25-26.
(Editing by Robin Emmott and Gareth Jones)