them too

Germany has a slew of potential candidates for Russia sanctions

Protestaktion gegen Schröders Engagement bei Rosneft
Taking on the nation's "Russia-splainers." Source: DPA

Why isn’t the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, on the latest list of oligarchs to be hit with Russian sanctions? That was the question asked by the Wall Street Journal last week. After all, Mr. Schröder is one of Vladimir Putin’s “most important oligarchs” and a “Trojan horse” for Russian interests in the heart of Europe, the writer argued.

While Mr. Schröder’s relationship with the Russian leadership seems mercenary at times, this latest name-calling belies a basic misreading of Germany’s relationship with Russia. That relationship is broad and complex, and could be summed up by the Russian president himself. “Between Russia and America lie oceans…Between Russia and Germany lies a great history,” Mr. Putin proclaimed when he visited Berlin in 2011.

Alongside that history is 40 years of Russian gas heating German homes, business ties worth billions, millions of immigrants and Germans of Russian ancestry. Not to mention geographic proximity. There’s even a special word for German politicians and business people who sympathize with Russia: “Russlandversteher,” which translates as “people who understand Russia.” They can be found across the political spectrum and from corner shops and sausage stands to the most senior levels of government and business.

Klaus Mangold The ‘Mr. Russia’ of German business The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper once ran a story about Mr. Mangold, a former chief of Daimler and ex-head of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations. The paper called him: “The Mr. Russia of German business.” He has plenty of contacts and investments in Russia, and reportedly a great relationship with Mr. Putin. Mr. Mangold has said he supports political action through trade. He is now the head of the TUI travel group and has brought about many deals between Russian elites and European companies – including reportedly helping Russian tycoon Alexey Mordashov buy majority shares in TUI. Source: DPA
Alternative for Germany A useful party The Alternative for Germany, a party of the populist far right, has long been friendly with Russia. The head of the AfD's youth wing, Markus Frohnmaier, is an enthusiastic advocate for a better relationship between Germany and its eastern neighbor. He argues that the EU’s sanctions on Russia have only a negative impact. Most recently, AfD members traveled to Crimea and Syria. But toeing a softer line also has support on the other end of the political spectrum. The opposition Left Party has repeatedly criticized EU sanctions. In a declaration in February they urged a repeal, saying Russian sanctions “cause even more problems than they solve.” Source: Imago
Russia Today State media in Germany RT, the state-funded media organization, has been classified as a “foreign agent” in the US. British media watchdogs have warned RT more than a dozen times, and French President Emmanuel Macron accused the channel of spreading “deceitful propaganda” and “defamatory untruths.” In Germany, the head of RT, Ivan Rodionov, argued his organization is no different than any other state-funded organization, such as Deutsche Welle or the BBC. Source: Reuters
Peter W. Schulze Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute Mr. Schulze, a political scientist, heads a think tank based in Berlin that was co-founded by Vladimir Yakunin, a Russian businessman and associate of Mr. Putin who is rumored to have held a high rank in the KGB. Mr. Yakunin is also on the US’ sanctions list. Funding sources for the institute are opaque but some German media have suggested that Mr. Yakunin invested over €20 million in the institute. One German newspaper argued that locals say the think tank is an “instrument of Moscow’s hybrid warfare.” In a letter to Handelsblatt Global Mr. Schulze denied any influence of the Russian government. Instead, DOC "is committed to maintaining its independence from any government or political influence," he states. Source: DoC / CHLietzmann
Wolfgang Kubicki + Frank Elbe Lawyers, advisors, lobbyists, politicians? In November the UK's Guardian newspaper sighted an email that linked Wolfgang Kubicki (pictured), a senior member of the Free Democrats in Germany, with lobbying for the Nord Stream pipeline project, the same project that Gerhard Schröder oversees now. The same email also involved Frank Elbe, a former German ambassador to Poland, India and Switzerland. Both men denied they were involved in any lobbying activity and just doing their jobs as lawyers and advisors. Source: DPA
Matthias Warnig Old friends with business interests in common A former spy for the East German government, Mr. Warnig has known Vladimir Putin since he was a civil servant in St Petersberg. The two are apparently still close friends. That association is also linked to business interests: Mr. Warnig is head of the board at Rusal, the world’s largest aluminum company, and also the head of the much-criticized Nord Stream 2 project. Mr. Warnig is notoriously media-shy which is why this picture of him exiting a reception for Mr. Putin, together with Gerhard Schroeder, from 2014 caused so much consternation in Germany. Source: DPA

All of them condemn the most egregious actions attributed to the Russian government – from assassinations in the EU to the bombing of hospitals in Syria, through covert military attacks on neighboring countries and information warfare. But thanks to long-running bilateral sympathies, they are sometimes “understanding.”

That means debate in Germany about Russia tends to avoid the “good-versus-evil” extremes that are seen in countries such as the US. Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal’s provocative piece was the first time anybody suggested that former chancellor Schröder should be placed on a sanctions list.

The subtler truth is that the German foreign ministry’s tone has changed recently. In January, former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel suggested lifting sanctions on Russia if a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine held. He complained that US sanctions had a detrimental impact on Germany, too.

And this week, the country’s new top diplomat, Heiko Maas, conceded that Russia was a “difficult partner” but said it was an important to “remain in dialogue.” However, when it comes to the poisoning incident in the UK, Germany took the EU line: Russia has some explaining to do. It remains to be seen whether Germany’s sympathizers eventually take an even tougher line.

Cathrin Schaer is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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