When the German chancellor speaks to Vladimir Putin by phone, the Russian president is always extremely polite. People familiar with the calls say that his voice it rather soft and that the tone is less preachy than in his public appearances. Putin usually speaks a few sentences of German as a greeting before switching to Russian, with an interpreter then jumping in to translate.
The chancellor has spoken to the leader of the Kremlin on the phone a total of eight times since the Russian attack on Ukraine, sometimes alone and at others together with French President Emmanuel Macron. At times, the conversations are at the initiative of Putin and at others the impetus comes from Scholz.
These telephone calls have followed the same pattern for long stretches since the beginning of the war: The chancellor criticizes the brutal actions of Russian troops, he calls for an end to hostilities and blames Moscow for the global consequences of the war. Putin, in turn, justifies the invasion, speaks of self-defense and casts all the blame on Kyiv.
During the last bilateral telephone conversation in mid-May, however, Putin uttered a sentence that made the chancellor and his advisers sit up and take note: During the 75-minute conversation, Putin said that both sides had made mistakes. Both sides? Meaning Putin, as well? Were they just empty words or was the Russian president serious?
Moments like this strengthen the chancellor's conviction that it was right to continue speaking with the Kremlin leader by phone. Scholz wants to confront Putin again and again about what he has unleashed with his order to invade Ukraine around the world. And he wants to sound out whether Moscow will at some point abandon its grotesque ideas of a diktat peace, no matter how small the chance. That, at least, is how many in Berlin describe it.
The question of talks with Russia are extremely sensitive because it touches on a taboo. There are several reasons for this, the war being just one of them. Vladimir Putin is continuing the attacks with unchanged brutality, and the West is supporting Kyiv with heavy equipment and billions in financial assistance. Many in Berlin feel that seeking out contact with Moscow at this point in time is reckless.
Are Talks Pointless?
Secondly, there is Putin himself. The common line of argument is that as long as Putin continues to cling to his imperial fantasies, it will more or less be impossible to speak on reasonable terms with the Kremlin leader. They argue that a man who built a war on lies and worked for years to deceive the West can simply no longer be trusted. In Poland and the Baltic states, for example, Scholz's and Macron's telephone calls with Putin are dismissed as being "pointless."
The legacy of Germany's Russia policies also plays a role. Many believe that Germany still hasn't properly processed the naiveté with which several successive German governments sought to build bridges to Moscow. No one wants to be caught in the act of once again engaging in dialogue with Putin's regime – which could make it look like nothing has been learned. Instead, most parties involved are seeking the maximum possible distance from Russia. In recent days, Germany's chancellor has stressed that pressure must be "maintained" on Putin. The message: This isn't the time for rapprochement.
Nevertheless, officials in Berlin have recently been thinking about what future relations with Russia might look like. There are many issues that need to be discussed beyond the war in Ukraine. What about other conflicts in which Russia plays a central role: Syria, Libya or nuclear negotiations with Iran, for example? Is it still possible to negotiate with the Russian government on climate policy? Or would that be a diplomatic upgrade that shouldn't be considered for Putin in view of the war crimes against Ukrainian civilians ?
Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony with the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party
On the one hand, it's about realpolitik; and on the other, it's about morality.
Michael Kretschmer, the governor of the state of Saxony with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), says the main goal must be ending Russia's "barbaric war of aggression in violation of international law" as quickly as possible. As part of that, he says, attempts at talks with the Kremlin are also indispensable, "but from a position of our own strength and with clear messages." Kretschmer, who is also the deputy national head of the CDU, argues that Germany and the West need a long-term strategy for Russia. "The German government must clearly state how it envisions relations with Russia in the future," he says, "also with a view to a possible post-Putin era."
A recent event underscored just how thin the ice is that Chancellor Scholz has been skating on. In mid-June, his foreign policy adviser, Jens Plötner, made an appearance at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. The career diplomat publicly reflected on how he thought Germany should deal with Russia in the future. Few bothered to listen to the entire talk – taking one sentence out of context was easier, and it quickly went viral on social media. "You can fill a lot of newspaper pages with 20 Marders," Plötner said of the possible delivery of German infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, "but there are somehow a lot fewer articles about what our relationship with Russia might look like in the future."
The criticism the chancellor's adviser had to endure didn't just come from the opposition. This is a "continuation of Germany's mistake of restraint with regard to Ukraine in favor of a positive relationship with Russia," scolded CDU foreign policy expert Norbert Röttgen. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Defense Committee in parliament with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), tweeted that Plötner's statements revealed the kind of "thinking that got us into this terrible situation in recent decades" in the first place.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 15: Since the visit, there have only been phone calls.Foto: Sergey Guneev / imago images/SNA
It was, of course, careless of him to express such thoughts publicly. On the other hand, it's part of every diplomat's job description to play out scenarios and consider options for talks. As bad as war is – and Russia's actions in Ukraine are indeed barbaric – it's always necessary to prevent even worse from happening: humanitarian catastrophes, an expansion of the war to other countries, a nuclear escalation. That's why the Russians and Americans maintained contact throughout the Cold War and the German government negotiated with the Afghan Taliban for years, even though they had thousands of lives on their conscience.
But in the relationship with Russia, all diplomatic activities have come to a grinding halt. With the exception of Scholz and Macron, no Western politician is really speaking with Putin any longer. When U.S. President Joe Biden wants to gauge the Kremlin leader's mood right now, he checks with the German chancellor or the French president. Washington's only reliable line to Moscow at the moment runs through Berlin and Paris. The American president might regularly telephone with his Russian counterpart, but he does so largely to prevent a nuclear escalation.
The only diplomats still talking to each other are Scholz's adviser Plötner and his Russian counterpart Yuri Ushakov. The talks are sobering, however; beyond the contacts between the Chancellery and the Kremlin, German diplomats are in a state of idle. Neither Russia's ambassador in Berlin gets appointments at the Foreign Ministry; nor is the German ambassador in Moscow, Géza Andreas von Geyr, received by Russian government representatives. In Berlin, there is talk of a "zero hour" for diplomacy.
The longer the war goes on, the louder the calls for negotiations grow. "Germany and Europe need a long-term strategic perspective on how to deal with Russia and Putin's regime," says, for example, FDP Secretary General Bijan Djir-Sarai, a politician who doesn't exactly have the reputation of being pro-Russian. "I am not one of those who say in principle that there should be no more talks with important figures in the Russian leadership. Even if we don't like the people we talk to, it is right and important to keep such channels open." But, he adds, the message must be crystal clear: "We're not neutral – we're on Ukraine's side."
Outside of parliament, in the foreign and security policy community, the debate has already advanced. Some there are openly advocating direct talks with Russia. "We must seek contact with Moscow, if only to protect our own security," says Wolfgang Richter, a retired colonel and researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He notes that the risk of military incidents is "very high" on the long NATO borders with Russia and Belarus, where many solders are facing each other. "This necessitates exchanges on security issues with Russia," he says. "You have to talk and keep military contacts to prevent or de-escalate incidents. We can't make that dependent on whether or not Putin is still in office."
One retired soldier asserts that "the pressure will increase to feel out when a cease-fire will be possible. And that has to be negotiated." It's clear, he says, that Ukraine's independence as a state cannot be at stake. "In contrast, Ukraine's neutrality with realistic security guarantees could be an option worthy of consideration." Richter adds: "It may be painful, but you have to accept that the other side also has security interests. And then you have to see if compromises are possible."
Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, believes the situation has reached a critical point. Talks must "be guided by two principles," he says: "Ukraine must decide. And Germany must not try to go it on its own. The biggest danger is that we now come up with our own plan again. That already failed in Minsk, even though the intentions were good."
Sharing a Stage with Putin?
Another, very special date, is also inching ever closer.
In June, when the chancellor welcomed the U.S. president and other G-7 leaders at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, news broke that Vladimir Putin had accepted Indonesia's invitation to attend the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November.
Sharing a stage with Putin? Not everyone at Schloss Almau was convinced that it still makes sense to attend the G-20 in Bali considering that development. According to reports, the two Germans in particular, Chancellor Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, pushed for a unified line. It goes: We accept the challenge.
Von der Leyen said it is important to "tell Putin to his face what we think of him." Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi did claim that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had ruled out physical attendance by the Russian president – but who knows what else will happen between now and November? "Viewed from today," Chancellor Scholz said at the G-7 in Elmau, "the decision of the states that gathered here would be that they go there." Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had already previously agreed to attend the G-20 summit.
Annalena Baerbock, German foreign minister
Political adviser Benner believes a meeting with the Russian ruler could present an opportunity for world leaders. "Putin should be clearly confronted at the G-20 summit," he says. "The war belongs on the table as an issue. In parallel, we need to convince as many countries in the G-20 as possible of our positions. There will be no understanding of these positions if we simply boycott the summit because Putin is coming."
But preparations for the meeting of the G-20 foreign ministers, which took place in Bali at the end of last week, showed just how complicated this has become.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had promised the Indonesian hosts in advance that he would attend, after which the G-7 countries consulted on how they should proceed with the sensitive meeting. Some expressed doubts about whether they would travel at all. Others suggested demonstratively leaving the meeting room when Lavrov was to speak. Such "walk-outs" in protest occur time and again at the United Nations.
The Germans, currently chairing the G-7, on the other hand, insisted that they would not let Lavrov's rhetoric go unanswered with regard to emerging economies. After all, many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America believe Putin's narrative that Western sanctions are to blame for skyrocketing energy and food prices.
A decision was made to confront Lavrov with the Kremlin's lies. The G-7 countries prevailed upon the Indonesians that a member of their circle would speak directly after the Russian foreign minister. It was also agreed with the Indonesians that no G-7 representative would have to sit next to Lavrov. The idea was to avoid anything that suggested any kind of proximity.
When the foreign minister meeting finally happened on Friday, though, Lavrov didn't give them the chance. Originally, Baerbock had been assigned with the job of confronting the Russian foreign minister's statements on behalf of the G-7. Ultimately, though, Lavrov left when Baerbock started to speak, avoiding confrontation.
Later, the German foreign minister said: "The fact that (he) spent a large part of the negotiations not in but outside the room underlines that there is a not a millimeter of willingness to talk on the Russian side."
Baerbock, for her part, wants to keep a distance from Russia. She rules out negotiations with Putin because of the Russian atrocities in Bucha and other places: "That says everything about the fact that you can't negotiate with this Putin right now," Baerbock told DER SPIEGEL in an interview last week. "He is all about annihilation. Even of children."