German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday at an awkward time for the leader of a Western nation still dependent on Russian gas. The new chancellor’s position is not helped by an old chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, whose lucrative business dealings with Russia are exasperating Germans and compromising their leaders.
Earlier this month, during a visit to Washington DC, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was asked about a former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was nominated in January to join the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Schroeder also sits on the boards of Nord Stream AG and Rosneft, Russia’s top oil producer, leading CNN anchor Jake Tapper to ask the new German chancellor if he supported Schroeder “sitting on all these boards. What message does that send to…”
Scholz cut in immediately, answering, with a tight smile, “He’s not working for the government. He’s not the government. I am the chancellor now.”
The reply was picked up by the German weekly magazine, Der Spiegel, just days before Scholz headed to Moscow for his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as chancellor on Tuesday. “It almost sounded as though there was some need for clarification as to who is Germany’s political leader. It was an uncomfortable moment,” the magazine noted.
It’s an awkward time to be the leader of a NATO member reliant on Russian gas as the Kremlin masses troops and conducts threatening military exercises at Ukraine’s borders. Amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion, Scholz has been on a diplomatic shuttle in recent days as Moscow’s military noose around Ukraine tests the West’s unity and resolve.
At every stop, Scholz has been pushed on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, which has been built but is not yet operational. In every reply, the new chancellor has hedged and equivocated, dodging Washington’s call to “bring an end” to the gas link – and providing fodder for critics and cartoonists.
On Monday, Scholz was in Kyiv, where he stressed that, “no one should doubt the determination and preparedness” of Berlin to punish Russia if it attacked its western neighbour. His host, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky however did just that when he publicly warned Scholz that Moscow was wielding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a “geopolitical weapon”.
‘Embarrassment for Germans’
Germany’s international low-cost pacifism, combined with its economic self-interest, have long exasperated some of its allies. The exasperation turned to derision last month when Germany refused to send weapons to Ukraine. Berlin instead offered Kyiv 5,000 protective helmets, prompting Kyiv’s mayor to ask if the next delivery would be pillows.
Ridiculed and without the reassuring presence of Angela Merkel to manage Putin’s hardball games, Germany could do with a leg-up on the soft power stage.
When Scholz took office on December 8, 2021, Germans knew their new chancellor had big shoes to fill. They did not however foresee that a chancellor who left office more than 15 years ago, a septuagenarian former politician from Scholz’s own Social Democrats (SPD), would dominate the headlines.
Earlier this month, Schroeder was nominated to join the board of Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, just as tensions were mounting over Russia’s military buildup. The nomination came just days after Schroeder, in a podcast released on January 28, accused Ukraine of “sabre-rattling”. The former chancellor also blasted German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock for visiting Kyiv before Moscow, warning that Russia would view the Ukraine trip as a “provocation”.
It was the last straw for many Germans. “Gerhard Schroder is an embarrassment for Germans,” said Paul Hockenos – a Berlin-based journalist and author of several books, including “Berlin Calling” – in an interview with FRANCE 24. “For years, since he left office, the media has looked at his private sector links, his relations with Russia, Putin, Gazprom and Russian fossil fuel giants. Now he’s overwhelmingly criticized in the media, and even in his own party, almost everybody has been distancing themselves from him.”
The breaking with Schroeder, though, is still a work in progress for some SPD politicians, depending on their age and the economic interests of their constituents. What’s more, distancing from Schroeder may be easier than breaking with the principles that underline his embrace of Russia, and that could be a bigger challenge for Scholz on the international stage.
The new ‘Ostpolitik’ or ‘Putinversteher’ circles
The SPD has historically championed close ties with Russia, born out of the “Ostpolitik” policy of rapprochement and dialogue with the then Soviet Union, devised by former SPD chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s.
“The ‘Ostpolitik’ of Brandt is ingrained in the Social Democrats. It was a clear balance to the excesses of the Cold War and the aggressive posture of the US. It did a lot of good for normalizing relations with East Germany and it was tremendously successful for enabling people-to-people relations, particularly for families that had relatives in the East. It normalized relations with the East, but in a way, it sold out on human rights activists taking a principled stance against Putin’s aggression and repression,” Hockenos said.
More than 50 years after Brandt launched his “Ostpolitik” initiative, it’s now being used as an excuse for what Germans call a “Putinversteher” – which literally translates as “Putin understander”. The term is a pejorative reference to politicians, who insist the Russian leader’s expansionist interests are justified, as well as anti-American pundits pushing back against Washington’s calls for Germany’s energy security.
“There are dense networks of money, influence and politics between the SPD and Russia. They hang out in the board rooms of energy companies, trying to build solidarity with Russia while just raking in the money,” explained Nick Spicer, FRANCE 24’s Berlin correspondent. “The question is whether Scholz is going to call out his former SPD colleague.”
It’s a question the German media has asked with renewed fervor over the past few days. In its scathing article, “Gerhard Schroder Casts a Dark Shadow over Berlin’s Foreign Policy,” Der Spiegel noted that in 1999, Merkel “famously broke away from once overpowering former chancellor and party chair Helmut Kohl” in an article she wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.
“In doing so, she freed the Christian Democrats from Kohl’s donations scandal,” the weekly noted, referring to the 1990s illegal party financing scandal that rocked Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
No ‘foresight’ on energy security
But while Merkel broke away from Kohl’s donations scandal, she never distanced herself from “Ostpolitik” and was a committed discipline of the German “Wandel durch Handel” or “Change through trade” strategy.
The policy provided the perfect cover for continued economic engagement with Moscow even as Putin showed no signs of changing his worldview and every indication that his vision of a Russian “zone of influence” was plucked from a past stretching from Communist to Czarist times.
While younger SPD members are critical of the Schroeder era “Putinversteher”, the party includes powerful politicians committed to Russian gas. These include Manuela Schwesig, governor of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state, where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline terminates.
With jobs and tax revenues at stake, Schwesig has continued to defend the controversial pipeline – as well as Schroeder. The Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania governor bristles at any suggestion that she is some kind of stooge to Schroeder or Putin, maintaining the pipeline is in Germany’s energy interests.
It’s an argument that makes Hockenos sigh with despair. “Germany has not shown any foresight at all when it comes to energy security. The thing to do was to find alternatives, including gas sources from other countries, which has expanded since 2014, as well as switching to electrification,” he explained. “I was against Nord Stream 2 from the start. I kept writing about it, but beyond a point you can’t keep repeating yourself, then you just shut up about it.”
The latest crisis with Russia though has reopened the debate, and patience even among German politicians sympathetic to Moscow is running out.
“The problems he is creating for Scholz internationally are unacceptable,” SPD veteran Rudolf Dressler told Der Spiegel. “To be on Putin’s payroll as a former chancellor: That doesn’t look good.”