No fewer than 1.7 million copies of the German newspaper Bild are printed every day. The paper has ten million daily readers online. That is the readership of editor Julian Röpcke’s articles that have revealed several lies told by the Russian government and shed light on attempts to influence public opinion in Germany in recent years.
The journalist has come across evidence Russia is helping the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Syrian conflict. This has made him a nuisance for several of the Kremlin’s propaganda networks and earned Röpcke negative attention from RT and Sputnik for example.
Röpcke, who receives new information from his sources in Syria every day, is an avid user of Twitter. His activity manifests in 88,000 tweets and 48,000 followers, including Estonia’s previous president Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
The Estonian reader knows Röpcke from his recent articles on the Zapad series of exercises. Röpcke made waves the world over with an article in which two intelligence operatives talked about the true extent of Zapad; he also interviewed the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, Gen. Riho Terras last week.
You have thoroughly investigated the conflict in Syria and looked at Russian connections and claims they are aiding ISIS. What is the most concrete evidence you’ve found?
The Russian army has been in Syria since September of 2015. They have supported [President Bashar] al-Assad’s regime from day one and claimed to be fighting terrorism.
It turned out that the Russians’ idea of terrorists coincides with the Assad regime’s – every man, woman, and child who is against the regime or inhabits territories controlled by its adversaries.
During their first year in Syria, they concentrated on so-called terrorists, or opposition fighters some of whom are Islamists and some more moderate. They concentrated on Aleppo, Latakia, and other areas in the north of the country, but not ISIS. They initially made some efforts against ISIS in Palmyra, but then stopped, and ISIS retook the city.
After Aleppo, it was realized efforts would have to be concentrated east. Not because ISIS was there, but because the US and their Kurdish allies were gaining ground and taking one city after another.
They advanced along the banks of the Euphrates and were closing in on Deir ez-Zor that was surrounded by ISIS. They wanted to beat the Americans to it. And they found success as they brought major forces, including a lot of fighters from Iran and Shia militant group Hezbollah.
They were two years into the conflict and following strategic considerations. Russia did not want to combat terrorism, while it did want to take control of these areas that are rich in oil and gas before the Americans.
A few weeks ago, we got news from Deir ez-Zor that had thousands of ISIS militants. They had suddenly disappeared. The Americans bombed Ar-Raqqah for months and many people died before a deal was struck that saw ISIS pull out. It only happened after bitter fighting.
Things were different in Deir ez-Zor. The city was surrounded, and then, without any fighting, ISIS was gone. The same happened in Abu Kamal. There was some fighting, and still is, but some jihadists, including fighters from Europe, agreed to pull out, whereas no one knew where they were going.
Then, in late October, early November, ISIS suddenly surfaced in rebel-held territories in Northwestern Syria, Idlib, and Hama. These are the largest rebel territories home to more than two million people. Even other Islamists who fought ISIS in 2014 couldn’t believe it. They were sure ISIS had cleared out of the area.
There is 270 kilometers of regime-controlled territory patrolled by Russian planes and drones between Deir ez-Zor and where ISIS resurfaced. And suddenly, as if out of nowhere, you have tanks, trucks, and thousands of fighters. All opposition news agencies and US and UK sources showed ISIS was there, and that they came from territory held by the Assad regime.
A young Dutch ISIS fighter wrote to his family in September from Deir ez-Zor, saying how he would fight to the death if necessary. Another Dutch fighter wrote to the previous man’s family in early December, notifying them that he had died fighting in Hama province. We know he moved 270 kilometers. Many ISIS fighters do not communicate with the outside world, but Europeans talk to their families and the public. That is how we know for sure he took the journey.
The area is thick with Russian aircraft. We were told Russia has withdrawn for the third or fourth time a little while ago. But it is not true. I can show you videos from mid-December of Russian planes attacking rebels in Idlib province with Su-25 aircraft Assad does not have. It is clear Russia is still engaged in military activity. We can see new ships taking the Bosporus to Syria.
There are Russian air strikes. People living in rebel-held areas are filming them. They show that ISIS is never the target and that villages controller by rebels are hit instead.
ISIS is moving through regime territory, and we have reason to believe they can resupply there.
The most telling fact is that no one is refuting this information. I stay in contact with several Assad supporters who ask: “Why should we stop them? Let the Islamists kill each other after which government forces will deal with whoever is left!” They admit that ISIS has suddenly moved 270 kilometers.
ISIS is an important factor for Russia and Assad. For as long as it exists, it is possible to sell the idea that the choice in Syria is between Assad and ISIS. The real choices are far more complicated as there are myriad rebels and activists many of whom have escaped by now.
The 2011 revolution called for democracy, not Islamism. A year later, Al-Qaeda formed for the first time, with ISIS following three years after that. Many people now forget that and believe it was an Islamist uprising and a choice between Assad and Islamists.
Do you perceive some sort of agenda by the Americans other than destroying ISIS?
The Americans’ agenda is ISIS. Their fight is not with Assad, Russia, or Iran, even though the latter is maintaining a corridor from Teheran to Beirut of which there is evidence.
Destroying ISIS is the main goal. There is a global coalition against Daesh 90 percent of which is made up of US troops, with some Germans and Brits thrown in for good measure. The latter carry out maybe three air strikes a day. The remaining 25-30 [air strikes] are carried out by the Americans.
It is their goal as they have made a promise to themselves, to Obama, and now Trump. They were looking for allies and for some reason found the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that maintains close ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). YPG have publicly admitted they support the struggle of their bothers at PKK. They have a similar narrative and ideological leaders.
Then came the Americans and said they don’t like it. There is a recording of a US general saying the name must include the world “democratic” somewhere. They were told: “You should be multinational Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD).” And they said: “Okay, we can call ourselves that.” They are US allies who started in the north and have been moving south quite successfully.
That is the goal of the Americans, and we can see ISIS has been all but destroyed. Now, it’s Turkey’s turn to say: “Remove your troops; we tolerated you for as long as you were fighting with the Kurds against ISIS, but now it’s time for you to go.” While the Kurds say: “As soon as you move your troops, we will be attacked by Turkey and their allies.”
What will the QSD do when the Americans pull out their troops? They will seek contact with Russia. Because they do not want to be controlled by Turkey or the Assad regime.
Unfortunately, the strategy of USA in Syria has only addressed ISIS. Terrorism cannot be disposed of without defeating its original cause, which in Syria is the Assad regime.
That is the only reason Islamist views can gain ground in Syria. If we think back to the Iraq invasion, there were a lot of rebels and Islamists in neighboring countries, but not in Syria.
Syria sent its Islamists to fight USA in the 2000s but never suffered Al-Qaeda attacks. Syria is a dictatorship; however, its population is moderate, not Islamist.
It was not imported. Even though Vladimir Putin himself has said every third ISIS fighter has a Soviet background. There are Europeans and people from other countries; however, defeating ISIS will pave the way for a new extremist group – Sunni or Shia.
Syria seems to be a weapons testing polygon for world powers. What do you think?
Americans are mostly using laser-guided weaponry. I’m not saying the US is doing less damage; however, when they fire at something, they know ISIS or Al-Qaeda terrorists are there.
What the Russians are doing, and we can see it every day, is having a Tu-22 show up and commence carpet bombing. A Soviet tactic. Therefore, it is not weapons testing. They are trying to demonstrate that they have high-tech modern weapons, while they are really using 30-50-year-old bombs. I’ve seen videos of state of the art aircraft dropping bombs from the 1970s.
In addition to investigating Russia’s activity in Syria, you have also looked at Russian efforts to influence public opinion in Germany and other parts of Europe. We can say Germany has been a far more frequent target than several other Western European countries. Why is that?
I heard an EU diplomat say a few weeks ago that Europe is 90 percent Germany. What they meant was that Germany plots the EU’s course for policy and development.
Like it or not, there are ways the German government influences Europe, for example in terms of security or foreign policy, or Russian sanctions.
We have countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece that are partly opposed to sanctions. However, they continue supporting them because Germany tells them to. That is Germany’s role.
The other reason is the German economy that needs a lot of Russian gas and has no alternatives as the Americans are not producing enough LNG. And even if they were, it would be too expensive. Unfortunately, it makes more sense for German companies to buy Russian gas. Our market and political position are the main reasons we are targeted.
What kind of information warfare is Germany facing?
There are different approaches. A recent study showed that nearly 50 percent of Americans encounter fake news on Facebook. The figure for Germany was 25 percent. I also believe Germans are less sensitive to fake news. We see them and have a laugh at their expense, while we don’t change our political preferences because of them.
Even though Germany was hit by a cyberattack named the Bundestag Hack in 2015, the German people are very critical of these things. All parties said it was unacceptable. Even Russia-friendly right- and left-wing radicals.
We cannot see anything like the Trump administration where people say: “Whatever is bad for [Hillary] Clinton, is good for us. And we don’t care about anything else.”
France is an alternative example. Information efforts are aimed at supporting the far-right. It is different in Germany, because we don’t have such a strong far-right party.
It turned out Frauke Petry (former AfD leader – ed.) visited Russia in early 2017 and met with right-wing extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Petry denied it, but Russia leaked the information and Petry had to admit he was in Russia and wanted to meet with politicians of United Russia. He was given Zhirinovsky. They thought Petry is so far right he can be shown with a neo-Nazi.
Therefore, while Russia supports right-wing radicals in Germany to weaken society, it does not expect them to come to power.
If during the French presidential election Russia openly backed far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and the defense ministry even tweeted “Je suis Le Pen”, hybrid warfare is different in Germany and aimed more strongly against conservative society.
Russia is attempting to paint itself as a good neighbor to Germany. This is hoped to lead to more lenient attitudes toward Russia, the Kremlin, and the situation in Ukraine, Syria, and the Baltics. Russia tries to come off as an important player for Germany. We are not physical neighbors, while there have been government-level utterances that refer to Russia as the great eastern neighbor.
German politicians are introduced to people with close ties to Moscow or the Russian embassy in Berlin. Some even have contracts with Gazprom. These people then try to convince politicians and those in their inner circles that Russia is not that bad and that it would pay to seek friendship. It is said friendly relations would help Germany and Europe and that sanctions should be lifted.
Unfortunately, some politicians from various parties, especially the far-right AfD and far-left Die Linke that are in truth pro-Kremlin parties, have been convinced.
AfD and Linke want to partially leave NATO and the EU. The far-left wants to put a stop to Bundeswehr activity outside of Germany. Russia doesn’t have to do anything there. These parties already are pro-Russian.
Then there are the others. For example, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Social Democrat Party (SPD) that lean toward the center and do not sport such extreme views. Still, successful lobbying efforts by Russia mean that their leaders are willing to recognize the occupation of Crimea in the long run.
They are prepared to alleviate sanctions as soon as any kind of headway is made in Eastern Ukraine, while they are not holding to the Minsk agreement. They say that if one of the 14 items of the Minks agreement is honored, it is a telling example of how one positive step can do a lot of good and result in willingness to lift the first sanctions.
Lobbying is one thing. Media conditioning is another. There are channels like RT Deutsch or Sputnik Deutschland and several German so-called journalists who are making efforts to get people to vote for parties that are in favor of lifting sanctions. Most German people already support those parties.
The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the greens have about 35 percent in the parliament. We cannot include the Christian Social Union (CSU) as while it is not pro-Kremlin, it maintains a neutral line. CDU and the greens are the only parties that support sanctions. They have said they will not go back on sanctions for as long as the Minsk agreement is not complied with.
All other parliament parties support immediate or gradual lifting of sanctions irrespective of Russia’s future action in Ukraine. I would call that a major victory for Russia. Efforts to convince politicians and the people have been successful.
Russia is trying to make it look like Germany is on the verge of disaster. That is not true. Germany is headed for more confusing, but not more unstable times.