New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is facing his first crisis, sparked by mounting criticism of his party’s alleged closeness to Russia, at a time when Westerners are trying to unite around Ukraine.
“The main handicap for German foreign policy is the chancellor’s SPD party,” says the weekly Der Spiegel this week.
The SPD leadership called an internal meeting for Monday to try to clarify its position on Russia.
For several weeks, the chancellor has been sending contradictory signals about Russian-Ukrainian tensions.
Sometimes he promises tough sanctions on Moscow if it invades Ukraine, other times he warns of the consequences for Germany, which buys 55% of its gas from Russia.
Olaf Scholz’s government, in power for less than two months, has been harshly criticized by Ukraine and the Baltic states for its refusal to deliver arms to Ukraine, as the United States and the United Kingdom do.
The alternative proposal of the Social Democratic Defense Minister, to send 5,000 military helmets and a field hospital, was met with sarcasm.
According to this weekend’s edition of Der Spiegel, the German ambassador in Washington warned in a confidential message that in the United States the thesis is beginning to gain strength that “Germany cannot be trusted” in the crisis with Russia and sounds with more force the idea that Berlin is with Putin.
The future of the German-Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream II, built in the Baltic avoiding going through Ukraine, crystallizes tensions. The pipeline is awaiting authorization to operate, but for many it is an instrument of geopolitical dependence of Germany on the Kremlin.
One of the main people responsible for this controversial project, which arouses the wrath of the United States and Eastern European countries, is none other than the former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
And Schröder insistently defends Russia’s positions in the crisis.
This behavior “is annoying and unworthy of a former chancellor,” said one of the leaders of Angela Merkel’s conservative party, Christoph Ploss, on Saturday, demanding that his office in the chamber of deputies be withdrawn.
If he prefers “to openly lobby for Russian state interests in exchange for good income, he should not benefit from German taxpayer money,” he said.
The conciliatory attitude of the SPD with Russia dates back to the “Ostpolitik” promoted by Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s.
This policy sought to approach the communist Eastern bloc and in particular the former East Germany, through commercial exchanges, with a view to achieving appeasement in the Cold War.
This strategy contributed to German reunification in 1990.
This policy is deeply rooted in the social democratic DNA, and even at the national level: since it was maintained with some adjustments by the conservative chancellor Angela Merkel, sometimes criticized for her closeness to Vladimir Putin.
To this is added a pacifism deeply rooted in German opinion, marked by guilt after the horrors committed by the Nazi regime.
According to a survey published this week by the Yougov institute, 59% of the German population rejects supplying weapons to Ukraine.
The problem is that the logic with which German diplomacy has functioned for more than 40 years now seems outdated.
“The conciliatory Ostpolitik with Russia, the difficulties in dealing with military threats” are simply “inadequate in the face of the current confrontation”, considers Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
In addition, “Nazi crimes not only targeted Russia but especially Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic countries and those countries now feel threatened by Russia,” stresses Thomas Enders, president of the German Council on Foreign Relations think tank.