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Germany Investigates Russia Over Pre-Election Hacking

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BERLIN — The federal prosecutor’s office in Germany said Friday it was investigating who was responsible for a spate of hacking attempts aimed at lawmakers, amid growing concerns that Russia is trying to disrupt the Sept. 26 vote for a new government.

The move by the prosecutor’s office comes after Germany’s Foreign Ministry said this week that it had protested to Russia, complaining that several state lawmakers and members of the federal Parliament had been targeted by phishing emails and other attempts to obtain passwords and other personal information.

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Those accusations prompted the federal prosecutor to open a preliminary investigation against what was described as a “foreign power.” The prosecutors did not identify the country, but they did cite the Foreign Ministry statement, leaving little doubt that their efforts were concentrated on Russia.

In their statement, the prosecutors said they had opened an investigation “in connection with the so-called Ghostwriter campaign,” a reference to a hacking campaign that German intelligence says can be attributed to the Russian state and specifically to the Russian military intelligence service known as the G.R.U.

Russia was found to have hacked into the German Parliament’s computer systems in 2015 and three years later, it breached the German government’s main data network. Chancellor Angela Merkel protested over both attacks, but her government struggled to find an appropriate response, and the matter of Russian hacking is now especially sensitive, coming in the weeks before Germans go to the polls to select a successor after her nearly 16 years in power.

“The German government regards this unacceptable action as a threat to the security of the Federal Republic of Germany and to the democratic decision-making process, and as a serious burden on bilateral relations,” Andrea Sasse, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday. “The federal government strongly urges the Russian government to cease these unlawful cyber activities with immediate effect.”

Ms. Merkel is not running for re-election and will leave office after a new government is formed, meaning the election will be crucial in determining Germany’s future — and shaping its relationship with Russia.

Of the three candidates most likely to replace Ms. Merkel, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, who has pledged to take the toughest stance against Moscow, has been the target of the most aggressive disinformation campaign.

The other two candidates — Armin Laschet of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, and Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats, currently Ms. Merkel’s vice-chancellor and finance minister — have served in three of the four Merkel governments, and neither is expected to change Berlin’s relationship to Moscow.

Ms. Merkel enacted tough economic sanctions against Moscow after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine despite some pushback in other capitals and at home, but she has also worked hard to keep the lines of communication to Moscow open.

The two countries have significant economic links, not least in the energy market, where they most recently cooperated on construction of a direct natural gas pipeline, which the Russian energy company Gazprom announced had been completed on Friday.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe that “Ghostwriter,” a Russian program that received its nickname from a cybersecurity firm, was active in disseminating false information about the coronavirus before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, efforts that were considered to be a refinement of what Russia tried to do during the 2016 campaign.

But attempts to meddle in previous German election campaigns have been limited, partly because of respect for Ms. Merkel, but also because the far-right and populist parties that have emerged in France and Italy have failed to gain as much traction in Germany.

German intelligence officials nevertheless remain concerned that their country, Europe’s largest economy and a leader in the European Union, is not immune to outside forces seeking to disrupt its democratic norms.

Russia’s state-funded external broadcaster, RT, runs an online-only German-language service that for years has emphasized divisive social issues, including public health precautions aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus and migration.

During a visit to Moscow last month, Ms. Merkel denied accusations that her government had pressured neighboring Luxembourg to block a license request from the station, which would have allowed it to broadcast its programs to German viewers via satellite.

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