The new trove included several highly incriminating files related to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in March 2018, which raised a number of extremely serious questions about the shadowy British state and NATO-funded ‘think tank' and its connections with the affair.
A few hours after publishing an article based on a precursory investigation of the documents, I received a curious email from political scientist Hannes Adomeit — the subject line 'Criminal Charges against Kit Klarenberg' — which made me somewhat glad I'd postponed my German series.
For several days, I'd been attempting to reach out to him and other individuals — prominent German politicians, businesspeople, military officials, academics and journalists — named in an ‘interim report' on the German cluster. It appeared Adomeit led the cluster, and had produced the write up for his Initiative paymasters in October 2018.
Responses to my enquiries were few, and Adomeit's email potentially shed light on why — he'd automatically moved my email to his 'trash' folder after seeing it'd been sent from an '@sputniknews.com' address.
"On second thought, however, I regretted it and asked my colleague Harold Elletson, whom you also contacted, for your address. I also retrieved it from the email you sent to Reporters without Borders board member Gemma Poerzgen. The reconsideration was spurred by your contacting other actual or potential members of the German cluster, and the point is to ask you how you succeeded in breaking into confidential communications — in this case the information that I met or was going to meet with Gemma Poerzgen in October of last year. This information was not made public in any way by either Ms. Poerzgen or me," he wrote.
He went on to say that if I'd obtained this content by hacking the systems of the Institute of Statecraft — the Initiative's parent organization — I would've breached section 202a of the German criminal code, and potentially faced a three-year prison term or fine as a result.
"I am fully determined to bring criminal charges against you for having gained such unauthorized access. Should you not be the person who obtained the confidential information illegally, I insist on providing me with the information as to how and/or from whom you received it," he concluded.
As I wasn't behind the hack, I wasn't intimidated by Adomeit's threats — in fact, his ominous missive was most welcome, for it confirmed the files were authentic, he has indeed been attempting to build a cluster in Germany, and some of his targets were apparently receptive to his advances (Poergzen has made clear to me she isn't among them though, as she "[doesn't] share their political analysis and standpoint").
The Initiative's overseas clusters are comprised of individuals who "understand the threat posed to Western nations" by Russian "disinformation" and can be mobilized to influence government policy in support of the "Anglo-Saxon worldview", and a "tougher stance" towards the Russian state.
Germany is perhaps the key country of interest for the organization in this regard, and an internal ‘progress report on establishing national clusters' produced July 2018 — a month after its German cluster was founded, following a two-day meeting in London between Institute/Initiative representatives and Adomeit — makes clear why. The document's author states that due to the country's "special vulnerability to Russian influence", it's a "very hard as well as most important target".
In the aforementioned October 2018 ‘interim report' on the German cluster, in a section titled ‘Specifically German Conditions', Adomeit further elaborates on the significance of Germany to the Initiative, and why it's such a tough — and crucial — nut for the organization to crack.
"Russia is one [of], if not the most, divisive and contentious issue in German foreign policy debates…the Russian narrative on the origins of the crisis in Russia's relations with the West is widely accepted by German public opinion. Its main theses are after the end of the Cold War, the US simply replaced the Soviet Union by [sic] Russia, continued policies of containment, isolation and humiliation, [including] NATO expansion into areas considered vital to Russian interests and exerted pressure on Europe, including Germany, to tow the line of its anti-Russian policies," he writes.
As a result, there's a widespread feeling among the German population and political class the country "should not fall in line with the US approach" and "reject the demonization of Russia", which could "raise yet again the spectre of war in Europe".
Deep State Connections
The June 2018 'progress report' states development of the German cluster was "based upon the work of a public relations specialist from the UK, partly resident in Berlin" — a reference to Elletson — through whom "all activities have been and will be coordinated".
The exactitudes of Elletson's MI6 career aren't clear, but it's evident prior to becoming Conservative MP for Blackpool North in 1992 (a seat he lost in 1997), he was an agency operative in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, using his work as a trade consultant as cover. His relationship with the organization didn't end after his election either, despite a long-standing convention in British politics that intelligence services not use MPs as agents — then-Prime Minister John Major waived the rule to allow him to continue his intelligence work while in parliament, which included visits to the now-former Yugoslavia during the Balkans war.
He's one of many individuals connected with the Institute and Initiative with an extensive intelligence service background — interestingly, Adomeit himself may potentially be another. In his discussion of ‘Specifically German Conditions', the political scientist dubs academic Peter W. Schulze "one of the most insidious advocates" of the idea the US has exerted pressure on Germany to "undercut its Ostpolitik".
I duly alerted Schulze — he was "not astonished" to learn of the admonition, as Adomeit "is a cold warrior of the old school, educated in many US defence and counterinsurgency institutions, like RAND, Defence College, Monterrey et al."
"I stand my ground. The change of paradigm in the EU and German politics occurred 2009/10 after Poland, the Baltics and Romania entered the EU and got support from Scandinavian countries and the UK to launch an attack on Russia, to drive the country out of Europe and the Ostpolitik of the SPD [Social Democratic Party]. Unfortunately, this move was and still is quite successful — the SPD neither understood the dimension nor consequences, or fought back. If you look at the present draft of the new SPD Ostpolitik, you'll observe a total break with the past, mainly due to a fundamental change in leadership positions to cadres which have no connection or understanding of the East," he added.
Agents of Influence
Whatever the truth of the matter, in his capacity as cluster 'coordinator' Elletson is said to have produced a study of "Russian influence in Germany", which was "circulated in senior German political circles, including the Chancellor's office".
The document — Russlands Informationskrieg in Deutschland: Wie Moskau die Meinung der Deutschen verandert (Russia's Information War in Germany: How Moscow is Changing German Public Opinion) — expands on the 'conditions' Adomeit despairs of elsewhere, as well as discussing the "major tools" allegedly used by the Kremlin to shape German perceptions.
Reading the 'study', what's immediately and palpably clear is it's in no way an empirical examination of any of its stated research topics — it's a highly prejudiced, polemical and at-times borderline literary disquisition, rampant with barely disguised contempt for Russia and Russians.
The paper, which fittingly commences with a likely apocryphal Vladimir Lenin quote, is also rife with references to 'Russlandversteher' (literally ‘Russia understanders', perhaps better understood as 'Russia sympathizers') — people who, Elletson writes, "gush with empathy for Russia and its President Vladimir Putin on talk shows, in journals and at dinner parties", and have a "general tendency to excuse Moscow and blame the West".
He provides numerous examples of such individuals, including Gabriele Krone-Schmalz (Moscow correspondent at the ARD TV network 1987 — 1992), Klaus von Dohnanyi (SPD Mayor of Hamburg 1981 — 1988, a city he dubs a "place d'armes" for Russlandversteher), Gerhard Schroder (SPD Chancellor of Germany 1998 — 2005), Sahra Wagenknecht (Die Linke MP since 2009), Bjoern Hoecke (AFD parliamentary group chair in the Thuringia state assembly) and Eckhard Cordes (head of the Eastern Commission of German Industry, Volvo board member).
However, beyond harboring views he believes insufficiently hostile to Russia, Elletson further claims this group are in fact an all-important facet of Russia's information warfare operations in the country — and have been actively "cultivated" by the Russian state to that end.
Evidence provided for such "cultivation" is invariably thin to non-existent. Individuals who have (or had) financial interests in Russia and/or Russian businesses, or are involved in some way with businesses that trade (or once traded with) Russia, are members of a Russo-German forum (political, industrial or otherwise), have appeared in the Russian media or spoken at an event convened by a Russian organization, or are members of an organization that hosted an event at which a Russian or Russians spoke, among other trivial and supremely tenuous 'connections', are all — for Elletson — Kremlin agents of influence.
This paranoia even takes on a xenophobic character at points, with the MI6 operative noting certain Russlandversteher have Russian ancestry, grew up in former East Germany, or have relatives born there.
"An important factor in the dissemination of distortions and untruths has been Germany's large Russian-speaking community (almost 2.3 million, according to some estimates). They have roots in the former Soviet Union and many still watch Russian TV, listen to the radio or read newspapers. They often share stories on the Internet and, wittingly or unwittingly, help to spread Moscow's distorted versions of current events," he writes.
Beware of Trolls
One can spot a "cultivated" Russlandversteher, Elletson suggests, when they make statements in accordance with one the Kremlin's 21 alleged "key messages". These include: "Germany and Russia had a 'special relationship' and should return to it; Russia has legitimate interests and the West should respect them; the West deceived Russia over NATO expansion; 'Wikileaks' and Snowden show the West has not been open in its dealings with Germany; the Georgian crisis was the result of Georgian aggression; Russia has a legitimate claim to Crimea; the Ukrainian revolution was actually a coup d'etat; sanctions against Russia are counter-productive and will damage the German economy; the Syrian crisis cannot be solved without Russian support, which has been instrumental in stopping the spread of ISIS* [Daesh]."
In essence, any German who's remotely critical of NATO, the West, or prevailing Western global political narratives, or indeed government policy anywhere in the world negatively impacting Russia in any way — or who simply doesn't view Russia as invariably villainous — is a stooge of Putin. That these views may be an individual's legitimate opinions, or indeed may potentially have some value, is completely out of the question.
Elletson claims these "key messages" also inexorably emanate from a vast army of "pro-Kremlin trolls" and bots on various social networks. However, despite stating "the extent of Russian efforts to influence opinion in Europe [via] false accounts on Facebook and Twitter" has been well-documented, he offers no evidence of any such ‘operations', in Germany or elsewhere, instead merely invoking the uncorroborated allegations of a few sources to that effect.
For instance, he quotes Ingo Mannteufel, German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle's ‘Head of Department' for Russia, as saying "with the help of social 'bots', false news and internet memes are spread…the flooding of reader forums on international media sites with pro-Kremlin comment is part of this." In support of the statements, Elletson alleges the news outlet's Russian-language Facebook pages "have been repeatedly attacked" with posts by Russian-language accounts. Whether these "attacks" actually happened, or the accounts were automated, let alone government-run, isn't clear.
Likewise, remarks made by Adrian Chen in his 2015 profile of the Internet Research Agency make an appearance — "Russia's information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space," he wrote.
Elletson's referencing of Chen's incendiary comments is curious, given the journalist has strongly repudiated this analysis in recent years. For example, in February 2018, when allegations of Russian state-backed social media interference in the 2016 US Presidential election were reaching fever-pitch, he appeared on MSNBC to pour cold water on the idea such efforts had any impact whatsoever on the vote's outcome.
"It isn't all that effective…it's essentially a social media marketing campaign…run by people who [barely] grasp the English language, [without] a full understanding of who they're targeting and what they're targeting. The paranoia aspect, the idea there's this all-powerful propaganda machine, that anyone who's tweeting something you don't like or is causing trouble on the internet can be chalked up to Russia…is increasing in a worrying way. There's not a lot of people saying 'let's hold back, it's not that big of a deal'," he cautioned.
Elletson does concede such tactics are "not new" and Russia isn't unique in deploying them, noting "the Israelis developed a sophisticated operation, using trolls, to counter pro-Palestinian coverage in European media" — although the question of which other states are attempting to influence debate in Germany and elsewhere via online activities, and how, is left unasked and unanswered.
Nonetheless, despite this glaring evidentiary deficit, the MI6 operative feels confident concluding "false or distorted stories [in Russian] media, helpful comments, speeches and articles by well-placed 'Putin-versteher' and blogs, tweets or comments on the internet all help to create the Kremlin's 'information noise' and undermine arguments for German solidarity with NATO and the EU."
That a paper of such dubious content, authored by an individual with no relevant academic credentials of any kind and a professional history involving espionage operations of an indeterminate nature directed against the very country he's writing about, was apparently circulated among "senior German political circles — including the Chancellor's office" — and in the process may have influenced powerful individuals, if not state policy itself, is troubling in the absolute extreme.
Still, the ‘report' is highly illuminating, for it demonstrates just how desperate the Initiative is to damage Russo-German relations. As Elletson himself acknowledges, the consequences of a "special relationship" between Russia and Germany would be "very serious", raising the possibility of "an end to Germany's ‘Westbindung', a severe blow to NATO and the transformation of the European Union into an eastward, as opposed to westward, leaning bloc".
These are prospects the organization — and by extension, the British government and NATO — cannot abide, so in order to degrade the deep and cohering bond between Russia and Germany, it intends to fight a vicious "information war" of its own in the country, and has sought to enlist a number of influential figures in Germany for the purpose. In my next article, I'll discuss who they are, and why they were such attractive targets for cluster enlistment — although key questions I and many others have about the Initiative are likely to remain unresolved for the foreseeable future.
Namely, why is a UK government-funded 'think tank', based in London and staffed overwhelmingly by individuals with backgrounds in military intelligence, seeking to meddle in the affairs of a foreign democracy, and what possible right does it have to do so?
*Daesh (aka Islamic state/ISIL/ISIS/IS) is a terrorist organization banned in Russia