Does the federal government have a Putin problem?
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Economy

Does the federal government have a Putin problem?

The war in Ukraine has exposed the emptiness at the heart of the German Social Democrats (SPD) – the centre-left party that leads the current government. SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been on the defensive for weeks as more and more damning news emerges about what appear to be close ties between SPD top officials and the Putin regime. Scholz’s initial reluctance to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine has angered both opposition politicians in Germany and European allies. critics of the chancellor to say his party has a “Putin problem”.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the relationship between former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a particular concern for the SPD. Schröder is not only a personal friend of Putin – he is also a prominent lobbyist for the largely state-owned Russian gas giant Gazprom. Schroeder’s refusal to sever ties with Putin or resign from his posts at Russian energy companies has left him an outcast.

The latest scandal that shook the SPD revolves around the Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Manuela Schwesig. Schwesig has held several top positions in the SPD, including Minister for Family Affairs, and was once considered a rising star in the party. Now documents appear to have been leaked revealing their efforts to enforce the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This has led to accusations that she is a puppet of Putin.

Nord Stream 2 was built to double the amount of gas imported into Germany from Russia. The line ended in the federal state of Schwesig, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. After the US, then led by Donald Trump, imposed sanctions on the project, Schwesig is said to have set up a front organization to help Russian contractors evade the sanctions.

For her part, Schwesig championed Nord Stream 2 as a means of creating new jobs in one of Germany’s poorest regions. She was far from the only one supporting the project. September 2021 was Schwesig applauded in the German Bundestag, when she claimed that anyone questioning Nord Stream 2 must certainly be a lobbyist for the American shale gas industry.

So how did we get here? Commentators have tried to blame Germany’s post-war history for this mess. “Since 1945, the Germans have been taught only one option – surrender to the Russians,” argues one author Politically. There is now a writer in the Viewers attaches the SPD’s alleged “Putin problem” to the “party”Ostpolitik‘ of the 1970s, led by SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt.

In truth, the ancients are worlds apart Ostpolitik at the height of the Cold War—when Brandt entered into talks with the Soviet Union that led to improved relations with both the USSR and then-Stalinist East Germany—and today.

First of all, Brandt at least had a coherent foreign policy. His goal was to bring East and West Germany closer together. He felt that greater economic cooperation would eventually undermine the communist government in the east. There is no ideology behind the SPD’s recent Russia policy, not even a foreign policy strategy. On the contrary, Schwesig and others were motivated by short-term economic pragmatism. Germany simply needed gas and needed Russia to supply it.

Ostpolitik was also introduced at a time when defense was still considered extremely important. In the 1970s, the Bundeswehr was still in its infancy, but newer governments of all stripes let it fall into disrepair – a problem that Germany is only now grappling with. And while Nord Stream 2 and the SPD’s proximity to the current Russian government have severely strained Germany’s relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, Brandts Ostpolitik laid the foundation for greatly improved relations with Poland by officially recognizing its borders.

It is of course difficult to know what Brandt would have said about today’s war in Ukraine. Most likely, he would have understood the importance of defending the sovereignty of Ukraine. After all, the goal of him Ostpolitik intended to strengthen Germany’s sovereignty at a time when it was still an occupied country.

In contrast, German politics has dispensed with the word sovereignty in recent years. Instead, leading SPD officials justified Germany’s dependence on Russian energy with empty phrases and signals of virtue. Typical of this is Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was SPD foreign minister when Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014 defended Nord Stream 2 with the flimsy justification that “we must never forget the historical dimension of the project”. He was essentially attempting to portray the pipeline as a form of atonement for Nazi Germany, which killed over 20 million people in the former Soviet Union. He has since acknowledged that it was a Mistake ever to have supported the pipeline.

Apart from the most egregious cases like Schröder and Schwesig, the SPD’s real problem is not that it is too closely linked to Putin or the Russian economy. Rather, it is hampered by its lack of political clarity. Like Angela Merkel before him, Scholz expected to be able to govern simply by following the opinion polls. But Germany is deeply divided over how best to respond to the war in Ukraine. In the last polls 45 percent of Germans support the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine, while about the same number oppose it. Of course, this varies depending on which party you support. While more SPD voters say they are skeptical about supporting Ukraine, support for Ukraine is strongest among Green Party and Free Democrat voters. Both parties belong to the current governing coalition.

All of this put Scholz under enormous pressure. As a weak, unpopular leader, he tries to please everyone. This made him incapable of leadership and put his party in a real quandary. He is not a Putin henchman, he just runs a very confused and unprincipled government.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is pepperedis Germany correspondent.