Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master at this game. Even as the sanction spiral concocted by the US and the EU is supposed to strangle his ambitions for the Ukraine, whatever they may be, and as the threat of war or civil war is hovering over the country, he set up a photo op of incomparable ingenuity. And his confidant, ex-Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder stepped in it with gusto, sanctions be damned.
Here is Schröder, laughing heartily, eyes closed in dedication, as he greets Putin. The photo shows Schröder from the front, Putin’s balding noggin from behind. It was taken Monday evening after Putin had climbed out of the limo that had pulled up at the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Schröder was waiting for him. The occasion was a reception in honor of Schröder’s 70th birthday. It was hosted by Nord Stream AG.
The story is redolent with peculiar aromas. As Chancellor from 1998 to 2005, Schröder had labored to push Germany into a deal on a subsea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. The deal was signed during the last moments of his administration in October 2005. Then he switched jobs, seamlessly transitioning from Chancellor of Germany to special confidant of Putin and to Chairman of the Board of Directors of Nord Stream, which would own the pipeline. Gazprom owns a controlling 51% stake of Nord Stream.
The new pipeline system has since deepened Germany’s utter dependence on Russian natural gas. Very inconvenient at the moment. Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller was also hobnobbing at the party.
Among the prominent guests was another ranking German politician, Erwin Sellering, Prime Minister of the State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, member of Schröder’s center-left SPD. After getting booted out of government in 2005, the party dominated the opposition until earlier this year when it made a pact with the victorious CDU/CSU and re-entered government as part of the Grand Coalition.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who personally isn’t best buddies with Putin, unlike Schröder, treads her own fine line: she is trying to put superficial pressure on Putin to get him to back off in the Ukraine, but she doesn’t want to harm the special German-Russian business relations, which go back to Adam and Eve. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea is already water under the bridge. The issue now is the rest of the Ukraine. Russia’s neighbors that are EU members, such as Poland and the Baltic States, are profoundly worried about any illusions of grandeur Putin might entertain.
The magnificent city of St. Petersburg was an ideal location for the impeccably timed party and photogenic display of affection between Schröder and Putin: it’s where Putin earned his first stars in politics in the 1990s, after he got out of the KGB.
Couldn’t Schröder at least act like an elder statesman and pretend to support the foreign policy of his government, in which his party is playing an important role? Couldn’t he keep his close relationship with Putin out of the limelight for just a little while? Nope. Not Schröder.
He’d already gotten into hot water when he mused last month that he understood Putin, who was simply trying to “consolidate” Russia. Putin’s “fear of being surrounded” motivated him. He was thinking in terms of “history,” that he wanted to be at “eye level” with the West. And famously in 2004, while still Chancellor, Schröder said on TV that he was “convinced” that Putin was a flawless democrat.
Maybe Schröder should be added to the ever-growing but otherwise ineffectual sanctions list.
Sellering too got lambasted in Germany for his trip to Russia. In defending himself, he explained that it was important “in difficult times” not to break the “thread of conversation.” Everything possible must be done “so that there is a peaceful solution.” So he’s in St. Petersburg for two days to work on his peaceful solution, tie some more business knots, and prepare for a German-Russian economic conference to take place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern at the end of September, sanctions be damned.