Bad Taste: Ex-Chancellor Parties with Putin

A Commentary By

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and Gerhard Schröder embrace on Monday in St. Petersburg at a reception in honor of the former German chancellor's 70th birthday. Zoom
DPA

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) and Gerhard Schröder embrace on Monday in St. Petersburg at a reception in honor of the former German chancellor's 70th birthday.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine threatens to escalate, but that didn't stop former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from celebrating his 70th birthday with Vladimir Putin on Monday. By doing so, he is making a mockery of Berlin's foreign policy.

There's nothing you can do about your relatives, but you certainly have a choice when it comes to picking your friends. This sage wisdom also applies to Gerhard Schröder, the former German leader and confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He himself can decide whom to embrace and with whom to celebrate his 70th birthday -- after all, true friends stick together, even in the toughest of times. Normally, one would call this strength of character.

But when it comes to Schröder and Putin in the context of the Ukraine crisis, things are a little more complicated. Gerhard Schröder ought to know better. If the former German chancellor believes he can continue his friendship as if nothing has happened, it's a mistake. Schröder's own center-left Social Democratic Party is currently the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's government, which is frantically trying to prevent his friend Vladimir from carrying out the policies of a power-drunk hegemon in Eastern Europe. In difficult times like these, a former German leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin.

Dialogue, including with Putin, must continue, and the West must take Moscow's interests into account. It is also perfectly fine for Gerhard Schröder to be friends with Putin -- that's his business. But hugging and chumming it up at a party in St. Petersburg against the backdrop of current events is simply tasteless. The event, held in honor of Schröder's 70th birthday on Monday night, was hosted by Nord Stream AG, a subsidiary of Russian gas monopolist Gazprom. The former chancellor is the chairman of the shareholders' committee of the company, which operates a gas pipeline that directly links Russia and Germany.

Former Chancellors Should Support German Foreign Policy

Putin violated international law by annexing Crimea. People have died in the occupied cities of eastern Ukraine and representatives of international organizations have been detained. Fears of war are growing and Schröder's friend Putin seems to be pleased by much of what is happening. Germany and the West have reacted by applying mild sanctions to Putin's entourage.

No one is Berlin is interested in a serious conflict with Putin. The hope is that Moscow will finally come round and pursue politics of de-escalation and true dialogue, instead of engaging in a power play reminiscent of the darkest hours of the Cold War. That would be a reasonable, defensive line, that should be used to prevent hardliners both in the East and the West from further exacerbating the situation.

In times like this, a former chancellor should support his country's foreign policy and not demonstratively seek to thwart it, or make a mockery of it, as Schröder has done.

Of course, Putin loves all this, and will believe that his nationalist, hardliner old KGB-style stance has been vindicated. Schröder's behavior, on the other hand, is making the former chancellor seem awfully puny. He's acting without instinct and appears to have forgotten that, as Germany's former leader, he is still obliged to maintain a statesman-like responsibility for his country.

If the former chancellor were to exercise his influence more productively, by trying to get some sense across to his friend Putin, it would be helpful. He may be doing this behind the scenes, but there is no sign whatsoever of this. That's a shame.

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