Is it acceptable for a person to be sympathetic towards or have an understanding for Russia's actions in Crimea? Are Moscow's claims justifiable? Did the West provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin? For weeks, this debate has dominated the public discussion in Germany like no other. Generally, foreign policy remains a niche topic for experts. Russia has proven to be the exception.
The Crimean crisis has been the main issue in newspaper editorials and the topic of discussion on talk shows for weeks now. On websites, Crimea is leading in clicks and has emerged as the dominant issue in Internet forum discussions. Nothing, it seems, is as polarizing as the question of whether Moscow's annexation of Crimea was a justifiable reaction to NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe or if it was acting in violation of international law, thus making any sympathy for the move unacceptable.
Those expressing understanding for Russia's move are clearly dominating the Internet forums and talk shows. One former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, even declared that the situation in Ukraine is dangerous "because the West has gotten so terribly worked up about it." The question of whether Putin's actions were legitimate didn't even seem to interest him. "I find it entirely understandable," he said. Another former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, admitted that he himself hadn't always respected international law.
The long line of general forgiveness extends from Philipp Missfelder, the foreign affairs spokesman for the parliamentary group of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, to German feminist intellectual leader Alice Schwarzer, from the left-wing to middle-class households and even deep into the conservative camp. Armin Laschet, who heads Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has even warned against anti-Putin populism. Be they people who simply romanticize Russia, those with a penchant for realpolitik, those nostalgic for the Soviet Union or just armchair leftists, there are so many people seemingly sympathetic to the annexation that many are scratching their heads and asking if Germany is a country of Russia apologists.
The soft-heartedness for Russia's iron hand has many origins -- some historic, some current, some idealistic and others material. The most obvious are the interests of business, because companies want to continue trading with Russia and therefore oppose sanctions. Other influencing factors include fears of a new cold or even hot war, historic ties to Russia and anti-American sentiment that is widespread in Germany. There's also no doubt a romantic idealization in Germany of the land of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And it's not as if Germans are familiar with any Ukrainian writers.
In an editorial titled, "Why I understand Putin despite everything," Schwarzer, who is Germany's best-known feminist writer, tries to empathize with Moscow's macho man. She describes Ukraine as a "bridge country that leans halfway toward the West and halfway toward the East," and argues, "that's how it should have remained." She accuses the Western media of reporting in lockstep (critically against Russia, of course) and defends Putin's "readiness to defend himself with an iron hand." After all, she writes, "it wasn't all that long ago that Nazi Germany invaded Russia" and murdered millions of children, women and men.
Still, German war guilt is just one reason Putin is enjoying a large degree of support in Germany.
Do Eastern Germans Have Stockholm Syndrome?
In the states that were part of East Germany, one encounters a bond with the former occupying power that at times borders on Stockholm syndrome. Gregor Gysi, the head of the Left Party and former head of the successor party to East Germany's communists which preceded the Left Party, is a strong articulator of this sentiment. He argues that Germany and its allies aren't behaving any differently and that criticism of Russia's actions is hypocritical. The Russians' belief in military answers is "the same thinking that has and continues to predominate in the West -- just think of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya," he says.
Drawing moral parallels between the West and the East is a favorite pastime of the Left Party. Gysi's party ally, deputy chairwoman Sahra Wagenknecht, has been campaigning for public acceptance in Germany of the referendum in Crimea. She argues that the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation is the direct result of Berlin's failed Russia policies.
Generally, the public doesn't take much notice of foreign policy statements made by the Left Party. But that didn't necessarily apply when Gysi took Chancellor Merkel to task in parliament in mid-March for her Russian policies, saying, "Anything NATO and the EU could have done wrong they did do wrong." As the respected Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper recently noted, one can reasonably assume that Gysi and Wagenkencht have more supporters on the issue of Russia at the moment than they do voters.
Gysi's words probably would have drawn applause from conservative politician Alexander Gauland as well, if he were still in parliament. Gauland spent many years as an influential politician with Merkel's conservative CDU. Today he's a senior official with the euro-critical, conservative, Alternative for Germany party (AFD). The upshot of what he has to say about Russia in an interview given in Potsdam isn't that far off from Gysi's position.
A Yearning for Past Relations
In contrast to Gysi, though, his sympathies for Germany don't originate with any kind of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. In fact, they go back even further, to the era of Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, who pursued diplomacy of balanced power with Russia during the 19th century. Gauland reminisces on good Russian-German relations during the times of the czars, the joint battle against Napoleon and the support provided by the Russian government during the establishment of the German state in 1871, the German Reich. It was a time in which the world's great powers divided the world up amongst themselves.
From this perspective -- and Gauland's viewpoint intersects here with that of the Left Party -- Russia's annexation of Crimea was perhaps illegal, but not necessarily illegitimate. Gauland says that NATO, following the end of the Cold War, was not focused on establishing a new framework for peace, preferring to expand eastwards instead. In response, Gauland says, "the Russian president opted for an old czarist tradition: that of collecting Russian soil." Western arguments hewing closely to categories of "formal international law," he says, are too short sighted.
This point of view is not easily compatible with the idea that there should be a stable peace framework in Europe. Couldn't the Austrians just as well insist that a referendum be held in South Tyrol, the German-speaking province in northern Italy? "If South Tyrol wants to vote on the Brenner Pass border, it can't be prevented," Gauland says. Wouldn't that be a problem? "One is allowed to ask whether if all borders in Europe are sacred," Gauland believes.
It is difficult to imagine that SPD éminence grise Klaus von Dohnanyi would question the inviolability of European borders. Dohnanyi is a conservative Social Democrat and enjoys widespread respect among CDU politicians as well. He is the personification of Germany's political center.
Is the Problem Russia or America?
In an interview at a hotel in Berlin, Dohnanyi says that it wasn't wise of Putin to annex Crimea. It would have been better, he continues, if the Russian president had used the referendum results to force Ukraine to become neutral. Nevertheless, he believes that the West must show Russia respect.
Dohnanyi's understanding for Russia is one side of his worldview. The other is his criticism of the United States. "The Americans often don't have a sense for diplomacy and for Europe's geopolitical problems," he says. The longer one listens to him, the greater the impression becomes that the Americans are the problem and not the Russians. "What has the situation produced? The situation has produced an attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO," he said in a talk show.
His sympathy for Putin is not just limited to foreign policy. It is often combined with the conviction that a more-or-less authoritarian ruler is necessary to govern Russia and keep the country together. "Who could govern this country much differently than Putin does?" Dohnanyi wonders, adding that the Americans don't understand that. The West, Dohnanyi believes, doesn't have a realistic view of Russia. "We are not practicing realpolitik," he says.
As a consequence of so much understanding for Russia, the interests of Eastern European countries are often ignored. During a recent appearance on a German talk show, a Ukrainian journalist insisted on her country's right to self-determination. "I don't feel particularly good about how you speak about Ukraine, as though the country didn't even exist," she said. Dohnanyi responded: "You can't simply remove yourselves from a zone of influence." He also imputed that worries over Putin's expansionist policies in the Baltic countries and Poland were "also influenced by the US." That, he added, is "understandable, but not wise."
The current situation is reminiscent of the second phase of Germany's Ostpolitik -- West Germany's policy of normalizing relations with East Germany and Eastern Europe -- in the 1980s. At the time, Eastern European freedom movements believed they were being pushed aside as obstacles to rapprochement, as German historian Heinrich August Winkler has written. Today, it is the Ukrainians who are being sacrificed on the altar of sympathy for Russia.
When the Polish government imposed martial law in 1981 and stepped up its fight against the opposition, the US initiated sanctions against the Soviet Union and Poland. Then-German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the SPD refused to join out of his deep desire for reconciliation, as he wrote in his memoirs. Today, Schmidt is more succinct in his assessment of sanctions against Russia. They are, he said recently, "dumb."