Putin targets German speakers in Russia in search for cannon fodder

Vladimir Putin
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has largely avoided conscripting Muscovites or the middle classes, instead relying heavily on ethnic groups - Alexander Kazakov/AP
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Russia has launched a propaganda drive targeting German speakers for its army and Wagner mercenary force in the latest case of Vladimir Putin seeking ethnic minorities to be cannon fodder.

In recent months, organisations claiming to represent the interests of ethnic Germans in Russia have been bombarding the minority group with war propaganda, with a particular emphasis on attracting youngsters.

The disclosure is disturbing and potentially embarrassing for Berlin, as Russia is in effect weaponising German culture against Ukraine.

Germany is also grappling with espionage at home, with plots involving Russian-German dual citizens including a recent conspiracy in Bavaria to blow up military sites that deliver support to Ukraine.

An estimated 400,000 Russian-Germans, or “Russlanddeutsche”, live in Russia. They faced persecution during the Soviet era and are still marginalised by the Kremlin.

The Telegraph has seen propaganda material issued by the Tomsk Regional Russian-German House. It bears the entwined flags of Germany and Russia and urges ethnic Germans to donate to the armed forces and attend free pro-war concerts.

A lapel badge featuring the German and Russian flags
A lapel badge featuring the German and Russian flags posted on Facebook by the far-Right German political party AfD

Other groups, such as the Novosibirsk Regional Russian-German House, have co-hosted pro-invasion summits. Young Russian-German men have faced calls to sign up to Wagner en masse, with one Russian-German community leader taunting them about proving they were not cowards.

“Russian-Germans of Russia should do something unusual, extraordinary to be rescued and survive,” Victor Dietz told Realnoe Vremya, a Russian newspaper, in March last year. “I offered [advise] all the male population of our people [to] apply for Wagner Group – as a team, in an organised way.”

Referring to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner chief who was later killed by Putin in a power struggle, he added: “[Maybe] half of our men turn out cowards and start fleeing abroad, but the second half will continue joining Prigozhin’s group … with big noise.”

The Telegraph has also seen “combat sheets” – Russian army propaganda leaflets – which contain excerpts about the work of the Tomsk Regional Russian-German House, including its “patriotic education” projects.

Valentina Hertzen, an ethnic German poet, has been rolled out at memorial ceremonies in Russia, where she has read out her work for soldiers “participating in the special military operation” – Putin’s euphemism for the war in Ukraine.

The propaganda material was first unearthed by the Society of Germans of Zaporizhzhia, a group of ethnic Germans living in Ukraine which has called on its Russian counterparts to campaign against the invasion. The society hopes the German government will take action over its language and culture being used in war propaganda.

In a recent letter to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, they wrote: “We have publicly addressed the ethnic Germans of the Russian Federation, calling on them to refuse to participate in the war against Ukraine.

“We believe this step is crucial given the conditions of daily information propaganda in which ethnic Germans in the Russian Federation live. We urge representatives from Russian-German organisations living in Germany to follow our example.”

A flier advertising a pro-war concert in Tomsk Oblast, Russia, aimed at Russian-Germans
A flier advertising a pro-war concert in Tomsk Oblast, Russia, aimed at German-Russians

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has largely avoided conscripting Muscovites or the middle classes, instead relying heavily on ethnic groups such as the Buryats, from south-east Siberia, who make up a significant proportion of Russian war casualties.

But the appeal to a German-speaking minority is unusual. Their language and culture stems from an EU and Nato member state which has pledged billions of euros in support for Kyiv, as well as air defence systems, tanks and infantry combat vehicles.

The Society of Germans of Zaporizhzhia also stressed that ethnic Germans in Russia faced appalling abuse during the Second World War, and said the state was now “doing the same thing” in Ukraine.

The group expressed concern that Russian-Germans opposed to the war have been unable to claim asylum in Germany, and that groups standing against Putin’s war have been forced to relocate to Georgia and the US.

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