Vladimir Putin Played Germany’s Aging Patriarchs for Fools

World Politics Review, 20.04.2022
Alexander Clarkson, profesor en Estudios Europeos del King’s College-London

Usually, parents don’t congratulate their children for ending up in detention at school. But for my Ukrainian mom in early-1990s Germany, there were some things that mattered more than what my teachers thought.

Having opted to learn Russian at my high school in the city of Hanover, I quickly discovered that the version of history my teachers embraced did not square with what I had experienced growing up in the Ukrainian tradition. My Russian teachers espoused a deep commitment to promoting reconciliation between Germany and the Russian people, having embraced the idea that all of German society shared a collective responsibility for the Nazis’ crimes during World War II.

But while working with schools in Moscow, my teachers had also absorbed a particular late-Soviet view of history in which the experiences of nations stuck between Germany and Russia—including Ukraine—were swept aside as inconvenient detail. My patience finally snapped after hearing a teacher describe Ukrainians as “Little Russians.” The resulting argument won me detention, as well as praise and a nice lunch at the market hall from my proud mom.

The attitude of these teachers was not unusual in the Germany of my teenage years. Particularly among supporters of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, or SPD, the idea became entrenched that peace in Europe would only be secured if Germany built strong economic and political ties with the Russian state. In the years that followed, Germans developed an increasingly distorted historical memory of the Ostpolitik pursued by West Germany’s SPD governments in the 1970s, whose economic and diplomatic engagement with Moscow often took place over the heads of other Eastern European states.

In the 1990s, a new generation of SPD leaders similarly hoped that Russian presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin could be drawn deeper into a shared European political order by emphasizing diplomatic dialogue and deepening business ties. That strategy led to today’s entrenched German dependence on Russian energy exports. And in the process, its proponents downplayed the fact that, during the Cold War, Ostpolitik had counted on West Germany’s deep integration with NATO, which allowed it to negotiate with Moscow from a position of military strength.

The faction at the forefront of these efforts first rose to prominence in Hanover in the 1990s, where I grew up. Gerhard Schröder, who would eventually become German chancellor in 1998, was elected in 1990 as minister-president of Lower Saxony, and used this position to enhance his national profile. With the help of close allies such as Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel, Schröder began working with Volkswagen and other Lower Saxon businesses to expand investment opportunities in Russia.

This tight circle of political operators was often a product of the crudely patriarchal Lower Saxon and Ruhr political culture of that period. It was a world in which “serious men”—and it was mostly men—saw little difference between the interests of the state, trade unions and businesses. They believed that a closer trading relationship with Putin’s Russia could both secure Germany’s economic interests as well as encourage political reform in Russia.

The patriarchal politics of 1990s Lower Saxony also encouraged a hierarchical understanding of European geopolitics, in which big players, such as Berlin and Moscow, could work out their differences without worrying much about what governments in places like Kyiv or Warsaw thought about it. They held an arrogant confidence that they understood Russia better even than states once ruled by Moscow. In this, there was not much difference between the world of Schröder, Steinmeier and Gabriel and that of the average local SPD councilman in my hometown, who could often be found lecturing young people in finger-wagging monologues about how the “real” world works.

There was nothing hidden about Germany’s dysfunctional relationship with Russia in the years building up to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. By then, an intricate network connected elites in both societies, giving the Putin regime leverage over German businesses while denying Berlin any over Russian politics. This dynamic was constructed with a brazen openness that was hardly conspiratorial.

Under former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Steinmeier and Gabriel—serving then as foreign minister and minister for economic affairs, respectively—continued to privilege Germany’s relationship with Russia, even as Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and the mass protests in Moscow in 2011-13 signalled that Putin’s regime was hurtling toward imperialist authoritarianism. Their belief that Germany had the influence to make Russia a better place was by then deeply entrenched.

The extent to which Gabriel and Steinmeier invested their personal prestige into this mission explains why their faction—now at the heart of the SPD’s establishment—is finding it difficult to respond to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  They have tried to slow the momentum toward arming Ukraine with heavy weapons, clinging instead to the hope that some form of diplomatic dialogue could eventually reconcile the Putin regime with a shared European security order.

Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that Saskia Esken and Michael Roth—senior SPD figures who rose long after Schröder left political office for his current job as a Gazprom-funded lobbyist—have been among those firmly demanding that Germany offer full support to the Ukrainian people. Esken became the SPD’s leader in 2019 with the help of other SPD members who were fed up with the patriarchal arrogance of Schröder's heirs in the party establishment. As an anti-establishment figure, she has the space to challenge many of the entrenched orthodoxies within her party, including its stubborn unwillingness to oppose Russia—a compulsion that now risks paralyzing Germany’s governing coalition.

Roth, as chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee and former minister of state for Europe, has long been a strong voice committed to European integration within the SPD, and has expressed little patience for party members that continue to hope Putin might turn out to be a reasonable chap after all.

Caught in the middle of these tensions within his own party is Merkel’s successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who took office in December. Scholz was first brought to national prominence after Schröder appointed him to senior party positions in 2002, but the new chancellor has always maintained a careful distance from Schröder's coterie of Lower Saxon operators. Indeed, Scholz is more a product of a very distinct SPD milieu in Hamburg, one that is marked by a strong trans-Atlantic outlook rather than any great interest in Russia. Nevertheless, Scholz could still be considered part of the SPD establishment, and has at times incurred the hostility of Esken’s backers.

So far, Scholz’s government has struggled to reconcile these internal differences, to the growing frustration of the SPD’s coalition partners, who want Germany to move faster on Ukraine. The EU and NATO have similarly been pressuring Scholz to take a more active stance by moving faster to cut Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and doing more to provide Ukraine with the heavy weaponry. Instead, Scholz has struggled to develop a coherent strategy, an outcome that has been increasingly damaging for Germany’s reputation among its partners. The German government has often only taken stronger action—on supplying Ukraine with weapons, pushing forward EU sanctions against Russia and diversifying its energy supply—after a seemingly reluctant Scholz has come under noisy pressure from his coalition partners and NATO allies.

It is an open question whether Scholz will be able to assert his authority and retain Germany’s ability to influence the accelerating geopolitical shifts, which will no doubt affect fundamental EU and German interests. But the arrogant attitudes toward Russia and Ukraine that I encountered 30 years ago are still prevalent in substantial parts of the German elite. For the SPD’s aging patriarchs, it may prove impossible to come to terms with the reality that they have been played for fools by Vladimir Putin.

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