Germany's Merkel is 'outraged' by Russian hack but struggling to respond

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, on May 13, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (NYTIMES) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel used strong words on Wednesday (May 13) condemning an "outrageous" cyberattack by Russia's foreign intelligence service on the German Parliament, her personal email account included.

Russia, she said, was pursuing "a strategy of hybrid warfare." But asked how Berlin intended to deal with recent revelations implicating the Russians, Mrs Merkel was less forthcoming.

"We always reserve the right to take measures," she said in Parliament, then immediately added, "Nevertheless, I will continue to strive for a good relationship with Russia, because I believe that there is every reason to always continue these diplomatic efforts."

Germany and Mrs Merkel may be furious about what they see as the increasingly bold activities by Russian spies on German territory, which have ranged from toxic disinformation campaigns to cyberattacks and the daylight murder of a former Chechen commander in a Berlin park. But even as patience with President Vladimir Putin is running thin, officials are struggling to figure out a good way to respond.

It is another chapter in a German-Russian relationship that is close but complicated and contradictory.

Mrs Merkel has been one of the tougher leaders in Europe when it comes to Russia, demanding a strong line on maintaining 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 to Moscow open. The two countries have many economic links, not least in the energy market, and a sizable faction in German politics believes Russia should be a primary partner.

Mrs Merkel also needs Russia's help on several geopolitical fronts from Syria and Libya to Ukraine; on Wednesday, as the chancellor condemned the cyberattack in Parliament, Mr Dmitry Kozak, Mr Putin's point man on Ukraine, was allowed to land in Berlin for talks despite a travel ban, illustrating the complexities in the German-Russian relationship.

The cyberattack on Germany's Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, took place in May 2015, siphoning off an estimated 16 gigabytes of data and paralysing the entire network for several days.

Intelligence officials had long suspected Russian operatives were behind the attack, but they took five years to collect the evidence, which was presented in a report given to Mrs Merkel's office just last week.

Officials say the report traced the attack to the same Russian hacker group that targeted the Democratic Party during the US presidential election campaign in 2016.

The FBI two years ago issued an arrest warrant for Mr Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, a member of the hacker group known as APT 28, or "Fancy Bear," which is attached to Russia's foreign intelligence service, known as the GRU.

Last week, Germany's federal prosecutor's office issued its own arrest warrant for Mr Badin, a boyish-looking 29-year-old believed by German officials to work for a department inside the GRU called Centre 85.

"I am very glad that the investigations have now led to the federal public prosecutor putting a specific person on the wanted list," Mrs Merkel told lawmakers on Wednesday. "I take these things very seriously because I believe that a very proper investigation has been carried out."

Mrs Merkel has been the victim of a foreign power's communications sabotage before. When the chancellor learned in 2013 that her cellphone had been tapped by the National Security Agency (NSA), following a leak of NSA documents by a former contractor, Edward Snowden, it caused deep tensions with Washington, while Mr Barack Obama was president.

At the time, Mrs Merkel struggled to strike a balance between appeasing a German public outraged over what it viewed as reckless disregard by the Americans for the sanctity of their personal data, and the need to continue supporting crucial cooperation between the two countries' security services.

With Russia, Germany faces a different balancing act. For years now, Mrs Merkel and Mr Putin have been on opposite sides of a culture war, in which the chancellor has been celebrated as a defender of Western liberal values and the Russian president as an icon of the illiberal backlash.

On Wednesday, Mrs Merkel said Russia was waging war on multiple levels, including disinformation campaigns, "which we have to take into account and which we cannot simply ignore."

Following the latest news on the Russian hack, the momentum for some form of response is growing, officials said. But for now it remains unclear when and how Berlin will act.

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