The war in Ukraine exposed the void within the German Social Democrats (SPD) – the centre-left party that leads the current government. SPD Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been on the defensive for weeks as more damning news continues to emerge about the seemingly close ties between senior SPD officials and the Putin regime. Scholz’s initial reluctance to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine angered opposition politicians in Germany and European allies. Chancellor’s criticism say his party has a “Putin problem”.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the SPD’s biggest headache has been the relationship between former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Schröder is not just a personal friend of Putin – he is also a top lobbyist for Gazprom, the largely state-owned Russian gas giant. Schröder’s refusal to sever ties with Putin or step down from any of his roles in Russian energy companies has made him an outcast.
The latest scandal to rock the SPD concerns Manuela Schwesig, the minister-president of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Schwesig held several high-level positions in the SPD, including as family minister, and was once considered a rising star in the party. Now leaked documents appear to have revealed her efforts to get the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline through. This has led to accusations that she is a Putin puppet.
Nord Stream 2 was built to double the amount of gas imported into Germany from Russia. The pipeline ended in the state of Schwesig, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. After the United States, led at the time by Donald Trump, imposed sanctions on the project, Schwesig reportedly set up a front organization to help Russian contractors evade sanctions.
For his part, Schwesig championed Nord Stream 2 as a way to create new jobs in one of Germany’s poorest regions. She was far from the only one supporting the project. In September 2021, Schwesig was applauded in the German Bundestag when she claimed that anyone questioning Nord Stream 2 must surely be a lobbyist for the US shale gas industry.
So how did we get here? Commentators have sought to blame this mess on post-war German history. “Since 1945, the Germans have been taught only one option: surrender to the Russians,” says an author in Politics. Meanwhile, a writer from Spectator pin the so-called “Putin problem” of the SPD on the “Putin problem” of the partyOstpolitik‘ 1970s, led by West German SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt.
In truth, there is a world of difference between the old Ostpolitik at the height of the Cold War – when Brandt entered into talks with the Soviet Union, which led to improved relations with the USSR and Stalinist-era East Germany – and today today.
To begin with, Brandt at least had a coherent foreign policy. His goal was to bring East and West Germany closer together. He felt that greater economic cooperation would eventually undermine the Communist government in the East. There is no ideology, not even a foreign policy strategy, behind the SPD’s more recent policies toward Russia. Rather, Schwesig and others were motivated by short-term economic pragmatism. Germany just needed gas and needed Russia to supply it.
Ostpolitik was also introduced at a time when defense was still considered extremely important. In the 1970s, the German military was still under construction, while newer governments on all sides let it deteriorate – a problem Germany is only now facing. And while Nord Stream 2 and the SPD’s proximity to the current Russian government have strained Germany’s relations with Eastern European countries, Brandt’s strategy Ostpolitik laid the foundation for greatly improved relations with Poland, officially recognizing its borders.
It is of course difficult to know what Brandt would have said about today’s war in Ukraine. Most likely, he would have understood the importance of defending the sovereignty of Ukraine. After all, the purpose of his Ostpolitik was to strengthen Germany’s sovereignty at a time when it was still an occupied country.
By contrast, German policy in recent years has avoided any mention of the word sovereignty. Instead, senior SPD officials justified Germany’s reliance on Russian energy with empty phrases and signs of virtue. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was SPD foreign minister when Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014, is typical in this regard. In February 2021, he defended Nord Stream 2 on the fallacious grounds that “we must never forget the historical dimension of the project”. He basically tried to portray the pipeline as a form of atonement for Nazi Germany killing over 20 million people in the former Soviet Union. He has since admitted that it was a error have ever supported the pipeline.
Apart from the most egregious cases, like Schröder and Schwesig, the SPD’s real problem is not that it is too closely tied to Putin or Russian affairs. On the contrary, it is hampered by its lack of political clarity. Scholz, like Angela Merkel before him, expected to be able to govern simply by following the opinion polls. But Germany is deeply divided over how best to respond to the war in Ukraine. In recent polls, 45 percent of Germans favor the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine, while a roughly equal number oppose it. Of course, this varies depending on the party you support. While more SPD voters say they are skeptical of aid to Ukraine, support for Ukraine is strongest among Green voters and Free Democrat voters. These two parties are part of the current government coalition.
All of this put Scholz under tremendous pressure. As a weak and unpopular leader, he tries to please all parties. This rendered him unable to lead and left his party in a difficult situation. He is not a Putin minion, he is simply leading a very confused and unprincipled government.
Sabine Beppler Spahl is dopeCorrespondent in Germany.