It’s the most vivid metaphor yet for the divisions between the United States and Europe over how to retaliate against Russian aggression in Ukraine: a photograph of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder literally embracing Russian President Vladimir Putin at the former’s 70th birthday party in St. Petersburg.
On Monday, the same day Washington rolled out its latest sanctions against Russian officials, a smiling Schroeder greeted Putin as he arrived for the party at the Yusupov Palace, hugging the balding Russian strongman as he stepped out of his car.
The awkward embrace came on the same day the United States unveiled a new set of sanctions against officials close to Putin because of Moscow’s refusal to curtain its efforts to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine. The new measures were relatively modest, in large part because the leaders of European powers don’t want to harm their deep and longstanding commercial ties with Russia.
Schroeder’s home country is one of the most ambivalent about taking stronger steps against Russia. In a poll conducted between March 31 and April 1, 45 percent of Germans said that Germany should stay closely aligned with its Western allies, while 49 percent said the country should stake out a "middle position" between Russian and the West.
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has emerged as Europe’s de facto leader in dealing with Putin, her predecessor’s embrace of the Russian leader is particularly embarrassing. The rough American equivalent would be if Bill Clinton partied with Putin and was seen embracing him in the midst of the crisis. That, too, would surely provoke questions about the unity of America’s efforts in responding to Russia.
Schroeder’s relationship with Putin has long been controversial, to put things generously. As detailed in the International Business Times, Schroeder, while still chancellor, signed a deal with Russia in September 2004 to build a $4.7 billion oil pipeline called Nord Stream. Five months later, Schroeder resigned his post and took a job with Russian energy giant Gazprom, as the chairman of the Nord Stream project. Rep. Tom Lantos, the then-head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, derided Schroeder as a "political prostitute."
The reaction within Germany to the new photos has been just as angry and sarcastic. "Our boys suffer on bread and water in the dungeon. Schroeder is celebrating with Champagne and caviar in a ballroom," Andreas Scheuer, general secretary of the ruling Christian Social Union, told the tabloid Bild, referring to the German officers detained, along with several other military observers, by pro-Russian militiamen in eastern Ukraine. "Particularly as former chancellor, he bears great responsibility for peace and freedom."
"The pictures of a laughing Schroeder, being hugged and cuddled by his friend Vladimir in the former tsarist palace, while German army soldiers are held hostage by fanatical Putin admirers, look macabre," Thomas Holl wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
On the other hand, it was probably a great party.