We use this the crisis set off by the arrival of asylum-seekers in Germany to test a theory of the use of propaganda as a strategy by a non-democratic state against a democratic state. We argue that a non-democracy on a collision course with a democracy will use propaganda discourse to punish recalcitrant elite, and will do so especially near elections while promoting frames that weaken the opponent’s institutions. We test these propositions on a corpus of half a million publications, covering Kremlin-backed media channels broadcasting in German, and German media. We find that Kremlin-backed channels are more likely to publish refugee stories near elections in Germany and that they push conspiracy theories at the expense of discussing economic or crime-related aspects of immigration. Our work has implications for the rise of propaganda discourse in Europe and beyond, and for democratic politics under foreign autocratic pressure.