Ukraine crisis spotlights German party ties to Russia

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • The contradictory noises from members of the ruling party are muddying Scholz's message that Berlin is united with allies against the Russian threat, even though the chancellor has in fact toughened Germany's stance vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin.

Berlin. As Olaf Scholz's coalition tackles its first major international crisis with the threat of war in Ukraine, Germany's ambivalent stance towards Russia has come under the spotlight -- and in particular, that of the chancellor's own party.

Even as Russia masses tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, leading Social Democrats in Germany are openly questioning whether the risk of an invasion is exaggerated.

And former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, also of the SPD, is warning Kyiv against "sabre rattling" and arguing that the Russian military buildup is a reaction to NATO manoeuvres in the Baltics and Poland.

The contradictory noises from members of the ruling party are muddying Scholz's message that Berlin is united with allies against the Russian threat, even though the chancellor has in fact toughened Germany's stance vis-a-vis Vladimir Putin.

The concerns are compounded by Germany's refusal to deliver weapons to Ukraine over what it described as its historical responsibilities following World War II.

"The biggest handicap for Germany's foreign policy at the moment is the chancellor's party SPD," Spiegel weekly said.

Large sections of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, it noted, remain caught up in a "sympathy for Moscow".

The party's general secretary Kevin Kuehnert recently warned against "talking potential international conflicts into existence" in order to bury projects "that have always been a thorn in one's side". 

He was referring to the controversial pipeline Nord Stream 2 built to relay Russian gas to Europe, which Washington and many EU nations alike have warned would increase reliance on Moscow.

Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht, also a Social Democrat, in early January argued the pipeline's future should not be linked to the Ukraine crisis. 

She later backed down as Scholz, under pressure from the United States and key allies, put all options on the table if Russia were to invade.

But at a time of the worst tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War, Schroeder still sits as chairman on the board of Russian oil giant Rosneft.

Voicing incomprehension, Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said "Germany should ensure that lobbyists" like Schroeder "are legally banned from working for the Russian regime".

- Detente and dialogue -

The SPD's unusually cosy attitude to Russia grew out of the so-called Ostpolitik devised by former chancellor Willy Brandt.

The policy of detente and dialogue with the then Soviet Union was a break from the strategy of Konrad Adenauer, who refused to recognise communist East Germany.

For many Germans, Ostpolitik is credited as a key strategy that led to rapprochement and eventually the successful reunification of Germany. Today, it remains in the DNA of Social Democrats.

Subsequent chancellors have brought their own tweaks to Ostpolitik, but even Angela Merkel of the conservative CDU party championed dialogue and economic ties as a way to rein in Russia.

Through the 16 years of Merkel, an economic pragmatism also dominated. Despite opposition from Western allies, the former chancellor also defended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline insisting it was a commercial project.

Hence so-called Putinversteher (Putin sympathisers) can be found across the German political spectrum, albeit to varying degrees.

The ingrained attitude on Russia, coupled with Germany's legacy of war guilt, has reinforced Berlin's reluctance on armament exports.

A request from Estonia for Berlin to approve the transfer of eight old Howitzers from ex-communist East Germany is still pending in the hallways of bureaucracy.

"A lot of Germans think that if you send arms to Ukraine now, it wouldn't help anybody... because all it would do is lead to escalation," said Marcel Dirsus, political scientist at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.

A survey published this week found that 59 percent of Germans surveyed backed Scholz's government on its refusal to arm Ukraine. Only 20 percent disagreed.

Instead, Germany dispatched 5,000 helmets, something which Lambrecht said was a "very clear sign" Berlin stands by Ukraine -- a remark that drew scorn from critics.

- 'Fundamentally changed' -

Faced with an expansionist Putin, calls have grown for Germany to rethink its stance.

The war guilt argument did not wash, say some observers.

"Nazi crimes were targeted not only against Russia, but also above all took place in Ukraine, Poland, and Baltic countries. All these nations are now feeling threatened by Russia," noted Thomas Enders, president of the think-tank German Council on Foreign Relations. 

Policies that Germany has developed, such as "its conciliatory Ostpolitik toward Moscow, its reluctance to face military threats, its reliance on other powers when it comes to hard-power issues" are simply "unsuitable for dealing with the current confrontation with" Putin's Russia, said Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. 

Amid the split within the party, the Social Democrats are due to hold closed-door talks to thrash out their position on Russia.

The SPD's head of foreign policy Michael Roth too has warned his own party needed to pursue a new course, as the times have "fundamentally changed". 

Meanwhile, analysts said the participation of the Greens in the coalition may be helping to shift Germany's tone on Russia.

Nord Stream 2 is now part of a sanctions package should Russia invade.

"The general idea that there should be some consequences for aggressive dictators... is something that is becoming more acceptable in German public discourse and I think in large part because of the Greens," said Dirsus.