The difficult legacy of brandt’s ostpolitik : why the spd and its chancellor look graciously on russia

For Scholz Russia becomes more and more a problem. There are historical reasons for this. Now, however, there are signs of a slight change of course on Scholz’s part.

Olaf Scholz has hardly any foreign policy experience so far, above all he hardly knows one so far: Vladimir Putin. While Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the phone with President Putin almost until the last day of her term in office about the Russian troop deployment on the border with Ukraine, and had gotten to know him over the years with all his tricks, only one telephone conversation has so far been handed down publicly from Scholz and Putin, on the 21st of September. December.

"Chancellor Scholz and President Putin agreed to continue the exchange," a meager press release noted afterwards.

Putin will have ensnared Scholz, perhaps with the previously good Russian cooperation with SPD chancellors. Scholz does not mention the name Gerhard Schroder as often as Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt. Schroder, nicknamed "Gas-Gerd" and head of the shareholders’ committee for the billion-euro Nord Stream 2 project plus chairman of the supervisory board of state-owned Rosneft, is probably the person in the SPD with the greatest influence on Putin – the former chancellor and lobbyist in Putin’s service is the face of the complicated Social Democratic relationship with Moscow.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s Minister President Manuela Schwesig is also fighting like a lioness for the pipeline, which ends in her state and promises economic benefits. Correspondingly, she is also cautious about concrete threats of sanctions.

Scholz has so far delivered a classification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project that is entirely in Putin’s favor: several times he described it as a purely private-sector project. A date for a first meeting with Putin has not yet been set.

How long can Scholz continue to classify Nord Stream 2 as a private matter??

Scholz tries to avoid using the word "Nord Stream 2" at all – as he did at Tuesday’s meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Chancellor’s Office – because it exposes his own wobbly course toward Moscow. After all, Scholz no longer rules out sanctions against, or a shutdown of, the pipeline in principle, should Putin allow his troops to invade Ukraine. On Tuesday, Scholz said, and this can be described as a slight change in his course, when asked whether an end to Nord Stream 2 was also on the table as an option, s at the PK with the NATO Secretary General: "This also includes that it is clear that it will have high costs, that everything must be discussed if it comes to a military intervention against Ukraine.".

The first cracks in the traffic light foundation are showing here, the Greens are getting restless. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) must fear having to bend on a softer SPD line; she is clearly in favor of more toughness against Moscow – and against Nord Stream 2. In the Scholz environment, they are already looking for solutions: He will have to revise his highly controversial classification of the Nord Stream 2 project. Scholz is just learning the pitfalls of foreign policy, every word counts. In mid-February, he will have to deliver one of the most important speeches of his career so far, at the Munich Security Conference.

However, everyone in the traffic light agrees on one thing: Even from the historical Greens, no weapons will be supplied to Ukraine that could be used against Russians.

The Scholz/Baerbock duo still believes in the Normandy chance

And both Scholz and Baerbock are counting on a revival of the Normandy format, if Russia and Ukraine talk to each other in the presence of Germany and France, perhaps the worst can be prevented, it would be a great success also for the German government.

Scholz plays the card for now: all options are on the table, but he says nothing specific. And, in the face of Russia’s insistence on its security and geostrategic interests, he brings up a fundamental debate on the future European order, similar to the two-year process of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), through which the two blocs of the East-West conflict agreed on binding rules and common ground to avoid new wars. But does Putin want that at all?

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  • The empire returns : what Putin’s plans the West must prepare for

One who also belonged for a long time to the Social Democratic club of Putin-understanders and supported many a gas deal is Sigmar Gabriel, the former SPD chairman and foreign minister was for a long time, like Scholz, in favor of dialogue without constant threats. Now he strikes distinctly different tones. No Social Democrat has ever held up a mirror to his own party as clearly as he did. "You only get your own strength in negotiations if you seriously counter the Russian threat of a military invasion of Ukraine," Gabriel says in an interview with the "Tagesspiegel" newspaper.

"Russia must know the price of war in Europe. Of course, Nord Stream 2 cannot come if Russia attacks Ukraine." Russia would thus destroy the preconditions for Germany’s approval of the pipeline project.

"Because it was always clear in the negotiations with Russia that the integrity and even the use of the pipeline through Ukraine would not be questioned by Russia. In this respect, it was never a purely economic project, but always tied to political conditions, which the Russian president always accepted," Gabriel emphasizes. Putin himself had assured him of that.

"I would really describe myself as a detente politician who seeks a balance with Russia". But when it comes to the threat of war, I have no understanding whatsoever." A country threatens its neighbor in the middle of Europe with a military incursion. "Kiev is only a good hour’s flight away from Berlin."

An old "forward-Debate, more topical than ever

Gabriel remembers well how his party openly discussed the right way to deal with this partner a few years ago. One person who has been advising the SPD for years not to entertain any false illusions about Vladimir Putin is the historian Heinrich August Winkler, himself a member of the party. In 2016, there was the aforementioned debate in the party organ "Vorwarts", which is still just as topical today.

Numerous SPD protagonists hold Willy Brandt’s flag high, believing in the constant magic of change through rapprochement. But in history, rarely anything is comparable. So Winkler wrote that the SPD should practice realism instead of wishful thinking in its Russia policy.

"Leonid Brezhnev wanted to secure the borders in Europe by treaty in the 1970s, Vladimir Putin wants their revision – even by force."History should be tried to explain. Do not transfigure them. The principle of "change through rapprochement," which Egon Bahr proclaimed in July 1973 at the Protestant Academy in Tutzing, had been able to prove itself "because the decisive partner, the Soviet Union, after Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, had become a power that was no longer interested in revolutionary change in Europe, but in maintaining the status quo, i.e., in preserving the sphere of influence created in 1945."

The SPD’s mistakes in Phase II of Ostpolitik

At the time, Winkler divided Social Democratic Ostpolitik into two phases, and in Phase II lies, so to speak, the nucleus of the criticism of an increasingly ruthless state leadership, which is still hesitant today. With the success of Brandt’s and Bahr’s Ostpolitik, West German social democracy thereafter relied exclusively on the reasonableness of the party and state leaders of the Eastern bloc, with whom it also later attempted to weave a network of "security partnerships" out of opposition in a kind of side foreign policy.

"There was little understanding for radical dissident criticism of the regime in the SPD of the 1980s. A fundamental change in the system forced from "below" was considered unthinkable."The disdain shown by leading Social Democrats toward the civil rights groups of the communist states is still a largely suppressed chapter in the party’s recent history.

Mutzenich sees it differently from the historian Winkler

At that time, Rolf Mutzenich, today’s parliamentary group leader and driver of a dialogue-oriented policy toward Russia, answered him in the "Vorwarts". He criticized that the difference to today was not the unpredictable Putin and his renaissance of Russian great power fantasies, but rather that "only a few actors in the Eastern and Central European countries are willing to support efforts in favor of dialogue and detente in addition to security policy initiatives."

Willy Brandt, Egon Bahr and Helmut Schmidt would have had weighty allies in Europe at that time. And the fact that some Social Democrats saw "troublemakers" in the burgeoning democratic movements of Eastern Europe in the second phase of the policy of detente cannot, by implication, mean that they should refrain from taking steps toward detente in today’s highly explosive situation. "A new policy of detente would be more important today than ever before."

It would be reckless and irresponsible not to make offers to the Russian side in favor of arms control, troop disengagement, modernization partnerships and joint institutions. This was no ingratiation with Putin, "but on the contrary a sovereign and well-considered policy in favor of solid relations."

Scholz once wanted more toughness toward Moscow

This retrospective is important for understanding the current field of tension, also in the traffic light coalition. In 2018, as finance minister and vice chancellor, Scholz and then party and parliamentary group leader Andrea Nahles supported new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s tougher course toward Russia, which was met with incomprehension and criticism in parts of the SPD.

During the election campaign, however, Scholz avoided foreign policy conflicts with his own party, and even showed understanding for the fact that parliamentary group leader Mutzenich and party leader Norbert Walter-Borjans delayed the decision on the acquisition of combat drones for the Bundeswehr, which SPD experts had spent years preparing. The party is also divided on the issue of nuclear sharing, the stationing of American nuclear weapons in Germany as a deterrent against Russia.

What is also often forgotten: Brandt was also negotiating from a position of military strength at the time; armaments spending in the social-liberal coalition rose to four percent of gross domestic product. At the same time, Brandt’s partners in Warsaw and Moscow also had a strong interest in guaranteeing the borders in force at the time, while Moscow itself seriously violated the European postwar order with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

However, immediately after Russia’s occupation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, younger Social Democratic foreign policy experts had already tried to make clear to him the difference to the current situation in a conversation with the then still living Ostpolitik mastermind Egon Bahr. One of them said: "You were lucky, Egon, your partners in Moscow were predictable and reliable. Ours today are neither."

Union: SPD slipping into foreign policy irresponsibility

But as chancellor party the SPD stands now differently in the focus – and lurches. Former party deputy Ralf Stegner rages against "armchair heroism". Spirals of aggression would not lead to viable solutions. "Whoever relies on detente and peace policy, on change through rapprochement 2022, on common security, is simply not a naif."

SPD Secretary General Kevin Kuhnert recently called for an ultimate end to the intra-German political dispute over the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea gas pipeline. It was a different question whether and in which coordination with partners Germany would impose sanctions against Russia, should the Ukraine conflict escalate. "But everything in me resists it", that conflicts are brought about "in order to be able to bury projects in this way, which were always a thorn in the eye", he said, alluding to the opposition of, say, the Greens to the pipeline that would bring more Russian gas to Western Europe.

More on the topic

Foreign Minister meets Lavrov in Moscow Baerbock for early peace talks in Ukraine conflict

Vice chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group Johann Wadephul also refers to Kuhnert, accusing Scholz of not rallying the SPD behind the government line in the field of foreign and security policy: If Kuhnert is in all seriousness warning against conjuring up a crisis caused by Russia’s military buildup on the border with Ukraine, "then that is a sign that the governing SPD party is slipping into foreign policy irresponsibility," Wadephul warns: "At some point, that will rebound on German foreign policy."

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