BERLIN (Reuters) - At an hour-long meeting in Moscow on March 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov irritated his German counterpart by raising the case of a German-Russian girl who said she was raped by migrants in Berlin earlier this year.
After the girl's claims were reported by Russian media in January, Lavrov accused Germany of "sweeping problems under the rug." The Berlin public prosecutor's office, though, said a medical examination had found the girl had not been raped.
That was why Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was so upset when Lavrov raised the issue again. "I can only hope that such incidents and difficulties, as we had in that case, aren't repeated," he told reporters afterwards.
The rape case is indicative of the mutual suspicion that officials from both countries say extends to the highest levels of government. At the root of those tensions lie opposing visions for Europe and the Middle East. Those rival visions have led to clashes at diplomatic negotiating tables, in cyberspace and in the media.
German and other European security officials accuse Russian media of launching what they call an "information war" against Germany. By twisting the truth in reports on Germany's migrant crisis, the officials say, Russia hopes to fuel popular angst, weaken voters' trust in Chancellor Angela Merkel, and feed divisions in the European Union so that it drops sanctions against Moscow.
"Russian propaganda is a danger to the cohesion of our society," Ole Schroeder, German deputy interior minister and a member of Merkel's conservatives, told Reuters.
Russian officials deny their country is mounting a campaign against Germany. "These accusations are atrocious," said one Russian official, who said Moscow is the victim of an "indiscriminate information war" being waged from Germany.
In February, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied the Kremlin had exploited the rape case to stir up tensions around immigration in Germany.
"We cannot agree with such accusations," Peskov said. "On the contrary, we were keen that our position be understood, we were talking about a citizen of the Russian Federation. Any country expresses its concerns (in such cases). It would be wrong to look for any hidden agenda."
But officials in Berlin say Russia's aim is to muddy what is true and what is not and shake Germans' trust in Merkel. "The idea today is to get disinformation, which means you don't believe anything," Hans-Peter Hinrichsen, a Foreign Ministry official, told a recent meeting on Russia's role in Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
German and European officials say Russia's aim is two-fold: To exaggerate the problems the migrant crisis is causing Germany and to push Germany to relax its backing for European sanctions on Russia over Moscow's interference in Ukraine. While EU governments last month extended asset freezes and travel bans on Russians and Russian companies, there is less consensus on whether to prolong more far-reaching sanctions on Russia's banking, defence and energy sectors from July.
Both sides agree on one point: relations between the two countries are at their lowest point since the early days of the Cold War.
Beginning in the late 1960s, the then West Germany pursued a policy of 'Ostpolitik', which encouraged warmer ties with Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries grew even closer thanks to trade and cultural ties. But those ties began unraveling when Vladimir Putin returned as Russian president in 2012, and worsened further after the Ukraine crisis began in late 2013.
"All the networks, all the personal ties – they just don't work anymore," said Stefan Meister, at the DGAP.
The accusations of disinformation have spawned a whole new vocabulary. Officials at NATO now talk about the 'weaponization of information' by Russia. Colonel Aivar Jaeski, deputy director at the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, says Russia's campaign against Europe uses "angry trolls" who produce online hate speech, and "bikini trolls" to lure followers and then sow discord and doubt about news events.
Jaeski pointed to a NATO StratCom report on trolling, which says the Guardian newspaper's online edition was targeted "in a troll attack that is considered to have been ordered by the Kremlin" over its reporting on the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied funding or backing online trolls, and has specifically denied any connection with a company based in St Petersburg whose ex-employees have said they were paid to spread disinformation, praise Putin and criticize the West.
In the rape case, Russian media reported the German-Russian girl – under German law she can only be identified as Lisa F. – had been abducted by 'Arab-looking men' and raped repeatedly over a 30-hour period. Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, said Russian media continued to report that even after the Berlin authorities said the girl had not been raped.
Europe's East StratCom Task Force has collected dozens of examples of Russian reporting on the migrant crisis that it says are clear cases of deliberate disinformation.
German daily Bild reported in March that Germany's foreign and domestic intelligence agencies were warning of increasing Russian interference in German politics.
Moscow rejects the idea of any coordinated campaign. One Russian official said there was a German media campaign to paint Russia in a bad light and "demonize" it. The official said that Russian media had formerly been too positive about Germany and were now more objective. "This ends the discrepancy that saw the German media be very critical of Russia and the Russian media paint a very favorable picture of Germany," he said.
At the March 23 meeting, the two countries reached an "academic cooperation accord." Both sides also continue to emphasize cultural ties.
But repairing political ties may be harder. Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) – junior members in Merkel's ruling coalition and the party behind "Ostpolitik" all those decades ago – seems increasingly ready to compromise with Moscow. Sigmar Gabriel, an SDP member and Germany's Economy Minister, said recently that the EU should try to lift sanctions on Russia by this summer.
Merkel, though, has refused to ease the sanctions, insisting that Russia first needs to comply with an agreement to enforce a ceasefire, pull back heavy weapons, exchange prisoners, and hold internationally monitored local elections in eastern Ukraine.
German officials say Merkel speaks to Putin more than any other Western leader and recognizes better than most that the Russian leader respects firmness.
But the governments still struggle to understand each other.
"The Kremlin is like a Black Box: we have a rough idea of who sits in the Black Box but we have no idea what they are thinking, what they are worried about, what they are thinking for 5-10 years' time," a senior German official said.
Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold in Berlin, Robin Emmott in Brussels and Andrew Osborne in Moscow; Edited by Simon Robinson