Considered opinionRT, Sputnik and Russia’s new theory of war

By Jim Rutenberg

Published 18 September 2017

The 2016 Russian government’s disinformation campaign helped Donald Trump win the November election, and key to that effective campaign were lies expertly manufactured by Russian disinformation specialists and spread through two Russian government propaganda outlets, RT and Sputnik, and on social media. The U.S. intelligence community says that RT and the rest of the Russian information machine were working with “covert intelligence operations” to do no less than “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” The U.S. intelligence assessment warned ominously, “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.”

One morning in January 2016, the Russian government propaganda outlets, RT and Sputnik,, published a story about how German prosecutors were refusing to prosecute a Muslim immigrant who had raped a13-year old German girl of Russian origins, named Lisa.

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The demonstrators carried signs which read “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!”

But the “rape” of Lisa never happened, and the German authorities never “refused” to prosecute a non-existent culprit. It was a lie manufactured by Russian government’s disinformation specialists to sow dissention, create discord, discredit the authorities, inflame anti-immigration passions, encourage racist and white supremacist groups, and weaken centrist and liberal forces in Germany.

In other words, the Russian disinformation campaign in Germany was identical in its methods and goals to the Russian pro-Trump disinformation campaign in 2016 in the United States.

One reason for the relative lack of success of the Russian disinformation campaign on behalf of the far-right, populist, nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-EU AfD party is that the German authorities quickly realized what was going on (the German federal election will be held next Sunday, 24 September, and the AfD is projected to win 11 percent of the vote, which would give it 89 seats in the 703-seat Bundestag. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is proejcted to win the election with 36 percent, followed by the center-left SPD with 22 percent).

“The whole [Lisa] affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit,” writes Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Rutenberg continues:

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West. In the months that followed, politicians perceived by the Russian government as hostile to its interests would find themselves caught up in media storms that, in their broad contours, resembled the one that gathered around Merkel. They often involved conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods — sometimes with a tenuous connection to fact, as in the Lisa case, sometimes with no connection at all — amplified until they broke through into domestic politics. In other cases, they simply helped promote nationalist, far-left or far-right views that put pressure on the political center. What the efforts had in common was their agents: a loose network of Russian-government-run or -financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts.