Germany Is Rekindling Its Bromance With Russia

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder cultivated a very special relationship with Vladimir Putin — and his protégés are picking up where he left off.

Berlin, GERMANY:  German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, 08 September 2005, arrive for talks at the Chancellory in Berlin. Putin is to oversee the signing of an agreement to build a multi-billion-dollar pipeline linking Russia with western Europe, just 10 days before the September 18 German general election. AFP PHOTO /PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / ITAR-TASS  (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Berlin, GERMANY: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, 08 September 2005, arrive for talks at the Chancellory in Berlin. Putin is to oversee the signing of an agreement to build a multi-billion-dollar pipeline linking Russia with western Europe, just 10 days before the September 18 German general election. AFP PHOTO /PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE / ITAR-TASS (Photo credit should read VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Angela Merkel is still chancellor of Germany, but the influence of her predecessor is on the rise. Call it Schröderism: the idea that Germany is destined to have a “special relationship” with Russia and must do everything it can to maintain it — regardless of Russian actions. As German chancellor from 1998 to 2005, Gerhard Schröder seemed prepared to do anything to develop a harmonious partnership between Berlin and Moscow and a personal friendship with Vladimir Putin, whether it involved describing him publicly as a “flawless democrat” or playing down his brutal war in Chechnya.

Schröder personally profited from this close relationship with Putin. Shortly before he left office, Germany and Russia signed an agreement to build Nord Stream, a gas pipeline that runs from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany. Just two months later, he was appointed chairman of the consortium constructing the pipeline, in which the state-owned gas corporation Gazprom holds a majority stake.

But Germany’s relationship with Russia caused particular concern in Poland and the Baltic states, where it evoked memories of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the wartime occupation. Many in central and eastern Europe feared that, by increasing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, Germany was increasing their vulnerability to Russian pressure. The United States, for its, part, was concerned that Schröderism was a threat to Western unity.

After Merkel took over as chancellor in 2005, she seemed to continue the approach taken by Schröder. Although she did not get along with Putin as well as Schröder, and was more cautious in her approach to Russia than he was, she pressed ahead with Nord Stream, opposed extending NATO membership to Ukraine or Georgia, and pursued a “partnership for modernization” with Russia.

By the summer of 2014 at the latest, everything was supposed to have changed. German officials and think-tankers insisted that the era of Schröderism was over. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Merkel led the European Union in taking a tough new approach and imposed economic sanctions against Russia, despite the costs to Germany. Even the German business community, which had supported the “special relationship,” backed Merkel’s approach.

Germany’s Western allies finally seemed prepared to believe the era of Schröderism was over. Those who wondered aloud, as I did, whether Germany had the stamina for a policy of “containment” were told they did not understand the “geopolitical awakening” that had taken place in Berlin following the Ukraine crisis. In short, there was no going back.

After a brief absence, however, Schröderism seems to be back.

Social Democratic party leader and national Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel — a Schröder protégé — has said that it is time for sanctions on Russia to be lifted and aggressively pushed for the development of the Nord Stream II project, which will increase the capacity of the original Nord Stream pipeline. He visited Putin in Moscow last October, prompting the newspaper Die Welt to say he was “playing Schröder,” and canceled at the last minute another visit that was to take place last week.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who worked for Schröder when he was prime minister of Lower Saxony and then became his chief of staff in the “red-green” government from 1998 to 2005, has also made conciliatory moves toward Moscow. In an op-ed earlier last month, he criticized NATO exercises in Poland and the Baltic states — in which Germany was itself participating — as “saber rattling.” It was exactly the kind of thing Schröder might have said. In fact, in an interview published a day before Steinmeier’s op-ed, Schröder had made similar criticisms of Germany’s participation in the exercises and warned that they were contributing to “a new arms race.” Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of Parliament, called Steinmeier a “voice of reason.”

As a result, the vexed question of Germany’s relationship with Russia, which analysts such as Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution claimed was closed, is once again open. There is concern elsewhere in Europe, especially in the Baltic states and Poland, where many feel directly threatened by Russia and wonder whether they can rely on Germany as an ally. Only 38 percent of Germans questioned in a Pew poll in the spring of 2015 thought that Germany should use military force to defend a NATO ally that was attacked by Russia.

So far the return of Schröderism has been mostly confined to Social Democrats such as Gabriel and Steinmeier. While Merkel has resisted the use of military tools — for example, before the last NATO summit in Wales in 2014 she opposed a permanent military presence in Poland and the Baltic states and publicly ruled out providing military assistance to Ukraine — she has stood firm on the economic track of the containment policy. She continues to insist that sanctions can be eased only if the Minsk Agreement, which calls on Moscow and Kiev to withdraw troops and military equipment from eastern Ukraine, is implemented. Last month, the EU agreed to extend sanctions until January 2017.

As so often in German foreign policy, however, one never quite knows to what extent different positions within the same government reflect a genuine difference of view and to what extent they are a good cop-bad cop routine. Spiegel reported a few weeks ago that the position of the chancellery was shifting and that, behind the scenes, German officials were planning a step-by-step easing of sanctions. In any case, Merkel will not be around forever.

Part of the reason for the return of Schröderism is the general election that is scheduled for September 2017. For the second time in three electoral periods, the Social Democrats are the junior partner in a grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats. After the last grand coalition, they were punished by voters and slumped to 23 percent of the vote in the 2009 election. They know they must differentiate themselves from the Christian Democrats in order to avoid another debacle — and Russia policy is one of the few ways to do so. In particular, presenting themselves as the party of “peace” and arguing for a more conciliatory approach to Russia could win them votes in the five states that comprised the former Soviet ally East Germany — as Schröder did with his opposition to the Iraq war in the 2002 election.

The deeper reason for the tendency among Germans to revert to Schröderism is that they think it is a continuation of Ostpolitik, the approach to the Soviet Union pursued under Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s. Ostpolitik has long been seen as one of postwar Germany’s big foreign-policy successes — a decisive and distinctively West German contribution to the end of the Cold War. It has become a kind of model for the German foreign policy establishment, which seems to have learned that dialogue and cooperation are always preferable to deterrence and confrontation. Its influence is particularly strong among Social Democrats — Brandt’s party. “We cannot allow the successes of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik to be squandered,” Schröder said in a recent interview.

However, as I have argued elsewhere, this approach is based on a misunderstanding of Ostpolitik, which was a much more nuanced policy than those who now invoke it seem to realize. Its aim had never been to transform the Soviet Union. “I didn’t go to Moscow to turn Communists into Democrats,” Egon Bahr, the architect of Ostpolitik, told me in Berlin in June 2013. (He died in August 2015.) Rather, as he first explained in a famous speech in Tutzing in Bavaria in 1963, the aim was to achieve German reunification through a series of “small steps.” The “change” that Bahr had in mind when he talked about Wandel durch Annäherung, or “change through rapprochement,” was between East and West Germany, not with the Soviet Union. Moreover, Ostpolitik was conceived in a completely different context than the one in which German governments since Schröder have operated. Before détente began in the 1970s, there was little trade between the two Cold War blocs. The Soviet Union desperately needed hard currency. Therefore, the West in general and the United States and West Germany in particular could use the opening of trade as leverage — in other words, it could be used to secure concessions in other areas such as security and human rights. But the situation today is quite different.

Though the Schröderists invoke Ostpolitik, the approach toward Russia that they advocate — and which seemed to have come to an end after the Ukraine crisis — is in reality quite different from the one West Germany pursued under Brandt. Where the earlier German diplomats talked about Wandel durch Annäherung, they talk about Wandel durch Handel, or “change through trade.” Moreover, instead of using trading relationships as leverage to secure concessions on such issues as human rights, they want trade for its own sake. In particular, the Schröderists claim that trade leads to the creation of a middle class, which in turn leads to democracy. The hope — and it is little more than that — is that trade is itself transformative and that there is a perfect symbiosis between doing business and doing good.

No one thinks it is possible to go back completely to the policy Germany pursued under Schröder. For some — what might be “soft” Schröderists — it is just a matter of keeping some form of dialogue, for example the NATO-Russia Council, going. But for many of them, “normalizing” the relationship with Russia remains the long-term goal — even if it cannot be done immediately. In other words, the “change” the Schröderists have in mind is no longer even the transformation of Russia itself, as it was before the Ukraine crisis, but a change in relations between Germany and Russia. In fact, some Schröderists almost seem to see initiatives like Nord Stream II as the equivalent of the “small steps” in Ostpolitik toward a long-term objective — in this case, getting back to the good old days.

It is not yet clear how powerful the Schröderist current in Germany is. In any case, given its weight within the EU, which has increased further since the United Kingdom’s decision last month to leave, the United States has no choice but to work with Germany. But though there is no doubt that there has been a rethink of German-Russia policy since the Ukraine crisis, it now looks slightly less conclusive than it did a year or so ago.

Social Democrats such as Steinmeier have acknowledged that, in the current situation, Germany can no longer have a “strategic relationship” with Russia. But they have not admitted that it was a mistake to seek such a relationship before the crisis. In other words, they do not necessarily believe that Schröderism was always inherently flawed, simply that it had to be temporarily placed on hold in response to Russian revisionism — not so much a “geopolitical awakening” as a tactical pause.

Photo credit: Vladimir Rodionov via Getty Images

Hans Kundnani is a senior research fellow at Chatham House.