Ostpolitik

Social Democrats toughen stance on Russia

German flag and russian flag
Germany's relations with Russia are increasingly frayed. Source: Fotolia

In the 1970s, the détente policies of Chancellor Willy Brandt’s social-liberal coalition toward the USSR played a key role in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end. The Neue Ostpolitik (“new eastern policy,” or Ostpolitik for short) is still regarded as a triumph of German diplomacy.

Looking back on that era today, the success story that was Ostpolitik has turned to historical ballast, at least for Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). The glorification of “change through rapprochement” has become a burden for the SPD’s foreign policy. But the party is divided. In the new East-West conflict – between an authoritarian Russia led by Vladimir Putin and the liberal democracies of Europe – mainstream Social Democrats fail to recognize that Moscow still wants to weaken and divide the EU, its member countries and its institutions.

But a new generation of Social Democrat foreign policy officials has taken over, most of whom do not put Russia on a pedestal. Those newcomers are headed by Heiko Maas, the foreign minister. The even-tempered 51-year-old had little diplomatic experience when he took over, and still shies away from the self-important tones that many foreign ministers use when explaining the world. But even in his inaugural address, Mr. Maas signaled that he wants to step out of the shadow of his SPD foreign minister predecessors, Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He is now proving this on the issue of Germany’s Russia policy, which is highly sensitive for the SPD.

“The question our EU partners ask about our Russia policy is always: Will Germany break ranks?”

Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats

Mr. Maas sees Russia as a power that “defines itself more and more in demarcation, even partial opposition to many in the West.” When the Americans and British accused Moscow of refusing to help clarify the poison attack on the Russian-British double agent Sergei Skripal, Mr. Maas supported Western allies with a vehemence that few in the SPD’s old guard were accustomed to.

The Social Democratic establishment reacted quite differently in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, where deputies sharply criticized Mr. Maas’ tougher line on Russia. But the new foreign minister (a mentee of Oskar Lafontaine, a fiery orator and onetime leader of the Social Democrats) has the political savvy and contacts within his party to shake off such attacks with ease.

Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesman for the SPD, said it is important that Germany “remain in dialogue with Russia, but it is just as correct to draw the whole picture.” For Mr. Maas, German foreign policy can only be successful in a European context, especially with Russia and Turkey. On Monday, he reiterated that Russia was a “difficult partner” as it kept vetoing UN resolutions to condemn Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

The new foreign-policy influencers within the SPD don’t want a fundamental reorientation of Russia policy. What they do want is a different tone, a clearer language that breaks down European reservations about German-Russian initiatives and signals to Russia that Berlin sees itself as an immovable part of the West, according to Mr. Schmid.

Pipes are loaded onto a vessel in the northern port of Mukran
Nord Stream 2 no longer channels the SPD's vibes. Source: Reuters

The SPD should take this issue of mistrust more seriously, particularly in the sensitive issue of energy supply, Mr. Schmid said. He thinks Germany should integrate the Nord Stream 2 project into EU natural gas policy and coordinate with the Eastern Europeans. The latter are concerned how the new pipeline, due to run from northern Russia to Europe via the North Sea, will bypass their turf and cost billions of euros in lost gas transit fees.

That is a marked difference from the past, when the SPD were steadfast in their support of gas imported from beyond the Urals. In his term as foreign minister, Mr. Gabriel did not miss a chance to emphasize the importance of Nord Stream 2. The fact that the SPD is now thinking aloud about how to defuse the pipeline dispute, and to dismantle suspicions toward Germany in Eastern Europe, is a break with the past and the cautious approach of Ostpolitik.

Moritz Koch is a senior correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin. Jeremy Gray is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: koch@handelsblatt.com, j.gray@handelsblattgroup.com

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