Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis


If there’s anyone the European Union could have sent to Moscow on a quiet trip to de-escalate tensions with Russia in February, it was former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.Germany Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

Schröder served as Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, when he led two consecutive governments led by his center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  As chancellor, Schröder cultivated strong economic ties with Russia, and in 2003, he led Europe’s opposition to he US invasion of Iraq, a cause that also found Schröder in alliance with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, who Schröder once called a ‘flawless democrat.’

But Schröder’s comments about the growing crisis have been far from discreet, greatly angering his successor, Angela Merkel. He has criticized the European Union’s approach to Ukraine, defended Russia’s right to annex Crimea, and validated Putin’s view that the NATO military action during the 1999 Kosovo War (an action Schröder supported in his first term as chancellor):

Mr. Schroeder told a discussion forum hosted by Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper that as someone who was aware of history, Mr Putin had certain justifiable “ fears about being encircled” and that since the end of the Cold War there had been “ unhappy developments” on the fringes of what was once the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the European Union appeared not to have “the remotest idea” that the Ukraine was “culturally divided” and had made mistakes from the outset in its attempts to reach an association agreement with the country.

Mr. Schroeder accepted that Russia’s intervention was in breach of international law but compared the Kremlin’s action to his own government’s military support for the NATO bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. “We sent our plans to Serbia and together with the rest of NATO they bombed a sovereign state without any UN security council backing,” Mr Schroeder insisted, adding that he had since become cautious in apportioning blame.

That puts his position almost entirely in line with Putin’s — and almost entirely at odds with the German government’s. Needless to say, that has also ruined whatever value Schröder may have had in soothing German and European relations with Russia. 

(Imagine, for a moment, how it would be received in the United States if former US president George W. Bush blatantly took sides in favor of Putin and against the current administration).

Schröder, as the first chancellor to come to office after Germany’s reunification and after the end of the Cold War, oriented Berlin toward a ‘strategic partnership’ with Moscow. The partnership’s most ambitious project was the Nord Stream pipeline, an offshore natural gas pipeline between Vyborg, on the Russia coast near Finland, and northern Germany  completed in 2012 — it’s the world’s longest sub-sea pipeline. After the SPD lost the 2005 election in Germany, Schröder accepted a position as the chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG, the joint project responsible for building the pipeline, 51% of which is owned by Russia’s state energy company, Gazprom. The SPD, dating back to the 1970s and the Ostpolitik doctrine of the late chancellor Willy Brandt, has historically favored closer ties with Moscow.

Schröder’s critics have argued for the past eight years that his post-chancellor business interests are a conflict of interest. But his ties to Putin would have made him, arguably, a natural envoy to help smooth EU-Russian relations, especially now that Germany has become the indisputable engine, politically and economically, of the European Union. In the current Große Koalition, Merkel, leads a broad coalition between her center-right Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU, Christian Democratic Party) and the SPD. Schröder’s former chancellery minister (essentially, his chief of staff), Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is now in charge of the foreign ministry, reprising a role he played from 2005 to 2009 during the first CDU-SPD grand coalition.

Relations between Merkel, who grew up in the Soviet-dominated, Communist East Germany, and Putin, the former KGB agent, were never incredibly strong. Earlier in their bilateral meetings, Putin brought his black Labrador to intimidate Merkel, who has a fear of dogs, and in 2006, Putin quizzically sent Merkel the gift of a small dog.

Schröder, however, developed strong personal ties with Putin and prioritized Russo-German relations, but Merkel has instead prioritized rebuilding stronger ties with the United States — when she hasn’t been focused on the eurozone.

The Putin-Merkel relationship took a turn for the worst during the crisis over Crimea. After weeks of telephone conversations, during which Putin apparently claimed he wasn’t planning a military invasion of Ukraine, Putin abruptly changed course in a chat with Merkel on March 2.

Typically cautious, Merkel responded by taking an increasingly firmer line against Moscow, especially after Crimea’s  March 16 referendum on joining Russia.

In a bold speech late last week in the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, Merkel pushed back, in particular, at the concept that the Kosovo precedent justifies Russian aggression in Crimea — or elsewhere in Ukraine.

Merkel said that the European Council had developed three phases of sanctions against Russia, that the European Council would  immediately implement the phase-two sanctions, which will extend a list of Russian officials subject to a travel ban and asset freezes within the European Union. She noted that the Council will consider in the coming days whether to carry out the third and final phase of sanctions, and she added that so long as the crisis over Crimea (and Ukraine) continues, G-8 economic cooperation is essentially dead. Merkel is said to favor ratcheting up the European response as Russia pushes incrementally farther into Ukraine — what’s been described in Germany as a Nadelstiche (‘pinprick’) approach.

There are obvious risks for Merkel, because Russian trade is vital to Germany’s economy. The two countries conducted over €77 billion in trade in 2013, making Russia Germany’s 11th largest trading partner — and its third-largest (after the United States and China) outside of the European Union. Russia supplies around 36% of German crude oil supplies and 35% of its natural gas supplies.

Steinmeier, who served as Schröder’s chancellery chief between 1999 and 2005, is a much more Russophile foreign minister than his immediate predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, who often criticized Russian abuses of human rights, most recently in opposition to the harsh anti-gay measures enacted into law last year.

But even Steinmeier has been forced to draw a bright line against Russia. He visited Ukraine last weekend to deliver German (and European) reassurances to the new interim government, echoing Merkel’s newly hardened line on Russia:

“I am very worried that the attempt, contrary to international law, to correct the internationally recognized borders in our European neighborhood 25 years after the end of the Cold War could open a Pandora’s box,” he told the paper.

There might yet be a role for Schröder to play one day in repairing European-Russian relations. But for now, Schröder has isolated himself not only from Merkel, but the entire spectrum of Germany’s political leadership, including the SPD.

Photo credit to DAPD.

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