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How the big beasts got it wrong
Leading German politicians are trying to wash their hands of responsibility for Russia's aggression in eastern Europe.
The “big beasts” of German politics during the Merkel era have given emotional speeches and interviews in recent weeks decrying Vladmir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
What they would rather that we forget: many of them spent years seeking to undermine western sanctions against Moscow over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its arming of separatists in the Donbas.
Here’s a look at some of the key German actors, what they said at the time, and what they are saying now.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD)
Steinmeier, now serving his second term as President of German, was Foreign Minister from 2013 to 2017. In this role he repeatedly made clear that he was sceptical about using sanctions to punish Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
The SPD man tried to put the brakes on EU sanctions from the very beginning.
In November 2014, when Donbas separatists broke the terms of the first Minsk Deal by announcing their own elections, Steinmeier said he opposed tighter sanctions.
“Should it be our goal to bring Russia down economically? My unequivocal answer is: ‘No.’ That is not, was not and must not be the purpose of sanctions,” he said.
Two years later, when Russian-armed separatists were still firing at the Ukrainian army in Donbas, Steinmeier signalled that wanted to weaken a key pillar of the EU’s sanctions regime.
The sanctions were only supposed to be lifted once Kyiv regained full control of its eastern border. But Steinmeier declared in 2016 that the sanctions should be “phased out”, saying that “an all or nothing approach won’t bring us any further.”
Political analysts worried at the time that Moscow would read Steinmeier’s words as a sign that Berlin wasn’t serious about Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Weakening the sanctions “will send the message to Moscow that the destabilisation of countries in the common neighbourhood, including via military action, will have very limited or no consequences,” Stefan Meister of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote.
Steinmeier is also distrusted by the Ukrainians due to a road map to peace that bears his name. In 2015 he came up with the ‘Steinmeier Formula’ which proposed the immediate establishment of semi-autonomous states in the Donbas after local elections had been held.
This proposal was popular in the Kremlin, who saw it as a way to weaken Kyiv’s control over its eastern regions. But hesitant attempts by the Ukrainian government to go along led to street protests and accusations of surrender.
Steinmeier was also an avowed backer of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would have brought gas directly from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea.
As recently as last year he tried to justify the pipeline by saying that Germany had a duty to foster good relations with Moscow due to the crimes of the Wehrmacht. The pipeline could be a “last bridge” to Russia at a time when it was ever more isolated, he insisted.
In recent weeks we have seen a very different Steinmeier. The President has condemned what he calls Putin’s “totalitarian madness” and his “ever bloodier destruction.”
But for the Ukrainians, Steinmeier’s previous role hasn’t been forgotten. Kyiv’s outspoken ambassador Andrij Melnyk sarcastically calls him “the bridge builder” and has snubbed invites to the Schloss Bellevue.
Critics have circulated pictures of Steinmeier fondly touching arms with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the 2016 Munich Security Conference.
The media have started to ask critical questions too. Der Spiegel said this week that Steinmeier should ask himself “why he romanticised the rulers in Moscow for so long.”
“Germany’s entire Ostpolitik has failed: and one name which is barely mentioned is responsible for it: Frank-Walter Steinmeier,” wrote Cicero magazine.
Sigmar Gabriel (SPD)
Gabriel - SPD leader between 2009 and 2017, Economy Ministry from 2013 until 2017 and Foreign Minister in 2017 - was the most aggressive advocate of normalising relations with Moscow after the Crimea annexation.
Looking back at statements he made at the time, it is clear that he saw cheap gas imports as a higher priority than Moscow’s breaches of international law.
At a meeting with Putin in Moscow in his role as Economy Minister in 2015, he could barely bend over far enough in his attempt to please his host.
Newspaper reports from the time describe how Gabriel thanked Putin for taking the time to meet him, saying that “you have a lot to do these days, especially with the conflict in Syria.”
At that point Russian forces were supporting the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad as he flattened the city of Aleppo, a bloody battle which had just unleashed the largest refugee crisis to hit Europe since WWII.
Turning to Ukraine, Gabriel commented conspiratorially that “there are forces in Europe and America who are profiting from the fact that this war is being continued” and made clear that he favoured an immediate lifting of some EU sanctions.
The real reason why Gabriel was in Russia was to discuss the Nord Stream 2 project, which he said would help avoid “interference from abroad” in the two countries’ energy cooperation.
Throughout his time as a government minister Gabriel called for sanctions to be lifted despite Russian failing to implement the terms of the Minsk Deal, which was agreed between Moscow and Kyiv in 2015.
Speaking before the European Council was to meet to discuss an extension of its sanctions programme in 2016, Gabriel said that “we all know from our experience that isolation doesn't help at all in the long run. In the end, only dialogue helps.”
Meanwhile a secret meeting with Putin when he was Foreign Minister caused a mini scandal. In June 2017, Gabriel met with the Russian leader in St Petersburg in a meeting arranged by Gerhard Schröder (Nord Stream board member) and which Gabriel declared to be “private” - i.e. he refused to discuss what the three men talked about.
The Green party called the meeting a “monstrous affront” to the EU and demanded to know whether they had discussed sanctions and energy imports.
How times have changed.
In the build up to the Russian invasion Gabriel (now retired from politics) spoke out in favour of arms deliveries to Ukraine even before this became government policy. He has since conceded that Germany “overestimated the peace dividend of its energy policies” but said that the CDU were just as much to blame as the SPD.
Angela Merkel (CDU)
The German Chancellor was always careful to avoid the perception of closeness to Putin.
But a look back at her policies from today’s perspective leaves the impression that she was too passive in allowing the likes of Steinmeier and Gabriel to push for accommodation.
According to a recent article in Die Zeit based on insider interviews, the then Chancellor told associates in 2014 she was “neutral” on whether to give the green light to construction of the North Stream 2 pipeline - even though Putin had just marched his troops into the Crimea.
Insiders told Die Zeit that Gabriel was determined to see the gas line built - he wanted cheap Russian gas for German industry and believed that close economic ties would moderate the Kremlin. Merkel conceded to his position even though her senior advisors warned against it.
The same article states that Putin directly lied to Merkel before he marched his troops into the Crimea, telling her he had no plans to annex the Black Sea peninsula. Nonetheless there was no rethink in strategy in the Chancellery. A year later Merkel persuaded Barack Obama not to deliver weapons to the Ukrainians.
She also repeatedly stated that Nord Stream 2 was a private project that she would not interfere with. Even after Russian dissident Alexei Navalny was brought to Berlin to recover from an assassination attempt, she repeated that the pipeline would still be built.
Since the beginning of the war Merkel has chosen to remain silent. She released a statement on February 24th describing it as a “blatant breach of international law” and has refused to comment further since.