Why isn't the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, on the latest list of oligarchs to be hit with Russian sanctions? That was the question asked by the Wall Street Journal last week. After all, Mr. Schröder is one of Vladimir Putin’s “most important oligarchs” and a “Trojan horse” for Russian interests in the heart of Europe, the writer argued.
While Mr. Schröder’s relationship with the Russian leadership seems mercenary at times, this latest name-calling belies a basic misreading of Germany’s relationship with Russia. That relationship is broad and complex, and could be summed up by the Russian president himself. “Between Russia and America lie oceans...Between Russia and Germany lies a great history,” Mr. Putin proclaimed when he visited Berlin in 2011.
Alongside that history is 40 years of Russian gas heating German homes, business ties worth billions, millions of immigrants and Germans of Russian ancestry. Not to mention geographic proximity. There's even a special word for German politicians and business people who sympathize with Russia: "Russlandversteher," which translates as “people who understand Russia.” They can be found across the political spectrum and from corner shops and sausage stands to the most senior levels of government and business.
All of them condemn the most egregious actions attributed to the Russian government – from assassinations in the EU to the bombing of hospitals in Syria, through covert military attacks on neighboring countries and information warfare. But thanks to long-running bilateral sympathies, they are sometimes “understanding.”
That means debate in Germany about Russia tends to avoid the "good-versus-evil" extremes that are seen in countries such as the US. Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal's provocative piece was the first time anybody suggested that former chancellor Schröder should be placed on a sanctions list.
The subtler truth is that the German foreign ministry’s tone has changed recently. In January, former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested lifting sanctions on Russia if a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine held. He complained that US sanctions had a detrimental impact on Germany, too.
And this week, the country’s new top diplomat, Heiko Maas, conceded that Russia was a “difficult partner” but said it was an important to “remain in dialogue.” However, when it comes to the poisoning incident in the UK, Germany took the EU line: Russia has some explaining to do. It remains to be seen whether Germany's sympathizers eventually take an even tougher line.
Cathrin Schaer is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]