Former German Chancellor Schroeder’s Russian ties cast a shadow over Scholz’s trip to Moscow
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday at a difficult time for the leader of a Western nation still dependent on Russian gas. The position of the new chancellor is not helped by a former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, whose lucrative trade relations with Russia infuriate the Germans and compromise their leaders.
Earlier this month, during a visit to Washington DC, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was asked about a former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who was appointed in January to join the board of the Russian giant Gazprom energy.
Schroeder also sits on the boards of Nord Stream AG and Rosneft, Russia’s top oil producer, prompting CNN presenter Jake Tapper to ask Germany’s new chancellor if he supports Schroeder “sitting at all those advices. What message does this send to…”
Scholz jumped in immediately and answered with a strained smile: “He doesn’t work for the government. He is not the government. I am Chancellor now.”
The response was picked up by German weekly Der Spiegel, just days before Scholz traveled to Moscow for his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Chancellor on Tuesday. “It almost seemed like there was a need for clarification as to who the political leader of Germany is. It was an uncomfortable moment,” the magazine noted.
It’s a tricky time to be the leader of a NATO member dependent on Russian gas as the Kremlin is massing troops and conducting menacing military exercises on Ukraine’s borders. Amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion, Scholz has been on shuttle diplomacy in recent days as Moscow’s military noose around Ukraine tests Western unity and resolve.
At each stop, Scholz was pushed onto the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, which has been built but is not yet operational. In each response, the new chancellor has wavered and equivocated, dodging Washington’s call to “end” the gas link – and providing fodder for critics and cartoonists.
On Monday, Scholz was in Kiev, where he stressed that “no one should doubt Berlin’s determination and readiness” to punish Russia if it attacked its western neighbor. Its host, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, did just that, however, when he publicly warned Scholz that Moscow was brandishing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline as a “geopolitical weapon.”
“Inconvenience for the Germans”
Germany’s cheap international pacifism, combined with its self-interested economic interests, has long infuriated some of its allies. Exasperation turned to derision last month when Germany refused to send weapons to Ukraine. Berlin instead offered Kiev 5,000 hard hats, prompting the mayor of Kiev to ask if the next delivery would be pillows.
Ridiculed and without the reassuring presence of Angela Merkel to handle Putin’s hard ball games, Germany would need a boost on the soft power scene.
When Scholz took office on December 8, 2021, the Germans knew that their new chancellor had big shoes to fill. They hadn’t expected, however, that a chancellor who left office more than 15 years ago, a septuagenarian former politician from Scholz’s own Social Democrats (SPD), would make headlines.
Earlier this month, Schroeder was named to join the board of Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy giant, just as tensions were mounting over Russia’s military buildup. The appointment came just days after Schroeder, in a podcast published Jan. 28, accused Ukraine of “saber-rattling.” The former chancellor also slammed German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock for visiting Kyiv ahead of Moscow, warning that Russia would view the trip to Ukraine as a “provocation”.
This was the last straw for many Germans. “Gerhard Schroder is an embarrassment to Germans,” said Paul Hockenos – a Berlin-based journalist and author of several books, including “Berlin Calling” – in an interview with FRANCE 24. he left office, the media scrutinized his ties to the private sector, his dealings with Russia, Putin, Gazprom and the Russian fossil fuel giants.Now he is being heavily criticized in the media, and even in his own gone, almost everyone moved away from him.
The break with Schroeder, however, is still a work in progress for some SPD politicians, depending on their age and the economic interests of their constituents. Moreover, walking away from Schroeder may be easier than breaking with the principles that underpin his joining Russia, and it could be a bigger challenge for Scholz on the international stage.
The new ‘Ostpolitik’ of the ‘Putinversteher’ circles
The SPD has always defended close ties with Russia, born of the “Ostpolitik” policy of rapprochement and dialogue with the former Soviet Union, devised by former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s.
“Brandt’s Ostpolitik is rooted among the social democrats. It was a clear balance between the excesses of the Cold War and the aggressive posture of the United States. It did a lot of good to normalize relations with East Germany and it was a huge success in enabling relations between people, especially for families who had relatives in the East. He normalized relations with the East, but somehow he sold himself to human rights activists who took a principled stance against Putin’s aggression and repression,” he said. Hockenos.
More than 50 years after Brandt launched his “Ostpolitik” initiative, it is now being used as an excuse for what the Germans call a “Putinversteher” – which literally translates to “understanding Putin”. The term is a pejorative reference to politicians, who insist that the Russian leader’s expansionist interests are justified, as well as anti-US pundits who push back against Washington’s calls for Germany’s energy security.
“There are dense networks of money, influence and politics between the SPD and Russia. They hang around on the boards of energy companies, trying to build solidarity with Russia while pocketing the money,” explained Nick Spicer, FRANCE 24 correspondent in Berlin. “The question is whether Scholz will call his former SPD colleague.”
It’s a question the German media have been asking with renewed fervor in recent days. In his scathing article, “Gerhard Schroder casts a dark shadow over Berlin’s foreign policy”, Der Spiegel noted that in 1999 Merkel “did away from former chancellor and party chairman Helmut Kohl”, in a article she wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper Zeitung.
“In doing so, she freed the Christian Democrats from the Kohl donation scandal,” notes the weekly, referring to the illegal party funding scandal in the 1990s that rocked the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from Merkel.
No “foresight” on energy security
But while Merkel broke with the Kohl donation scandal, she never distanced herself from “Ostpolitik” and was a committed discipline of Germany’s “Wandel durch Handel” or “Change through Trade” strategy.
The policy provided the perfect cover for continued economic engagement with Moscow even as Putin showed no signs of changing his worldview and there was every indication that his vision for a Russian “zone of influence” stemmed from a past ranging from the communist era to the tsarist era.
While younger members of the SPD criticize the Schroeder-era “Putinversteher”, the party includes powerful politicians committed to Russian gas. These include Manuela Schwesig, governor of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline ends.
With jobs and tax revenue at stake, Schwesig continued to defend the controversial pipeline — as well as Schroeder. The governor of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania bristles at any suggestion that she is some sort of lackey of Schroeder or Putin, keeping the pipeline going is in Germany’s energy interests.
It’s an argument that makes Hockenos sigh in despair. “Germany has shown no foresight when it comes to energy security. The thing to do was to find alternatives, including gas sources from other countries, which have been developing since 2014, as well as moving to electrification,” he explained. “I was against Nord Stream 2 from the start. I kept writing about it, but beyond a certain point you can’t repeat yourself, then you shut up.
The latest crisis with Russia has reopened the debate, however, and patience even among German politicians sympathetic to Moscow is running out.
“The problems he creates for Scholz internationally are unacceptable,” SPD veteran Rudolf Dressler told Der Spiegel. “Being on Putin’s payroll as a former chancellor: doesn’t look good.”