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Donetsk region announced plans for the creation of a breakaway ‘Donbass People’s Republic’ and
demanded an exchange of the “NATO spies” for captured Russian fighters. iii
Schroeder’s successor as Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was furious that her predecessor was flouting
convention and, in doing so, clearly allowing himself to be used as a tool of Russian propaganda. Her
anger and disdain for him were widely shared in the German media. The respected news magazine,
Der Spiegel, accused Schroeder of “making a mockery of Berlin’s foreign policy”:
“There’s nothing you can do about your relatives,” the magazine’s editorial commented, “but you
certainly have a choice when it comes to picking your friends. This sage wisdom also applies to
Gerhard Schroeder, the former German leader and confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He
himself can decide whom to embrace and with whom to celebrate his 70th birthday – after all, true
friends stick together, even in the toughest of times. Normally one would call this strength of
“But when it comes to Schroeder and Putin in the context of the Ukraine crisis, things are a little
more complicated. Gerhard Schroeder ought to know better. If the former German chancellor
believes he can continue with his friendship as if nothing has happened, it’s a mistake. Schroeder’s
own centre-left Social Democratic Party is currently the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Angela
Merkel’s government, which is frantically trying to prevent his friend Vladimir from carrying out the
policies of a power-drunk hegemon in Eastern Europe. In difficult times like these, a former German
leader should, at least publicly, keep a safe distance from Putin.”
Schroeder, a long-standing apologist for Putin who once even spoke of his friend as a “flawless
democrat”iv, certainly handed the Russian leader a useful propaganda gift with his birthday
photographs. They helped to divert attention from Putin’s proxy war in Ukraine and create the
impression that the Ukrainian crisis was just a hiccup, largely the concern of others and not
something that should be allowed to interfere in the naturally good relations between Germany and
Russia. Mr Schroeder had said as much only a couple of months earlier, claiming that Russia had
some justifiable “fears about being encircled”, referring to “unhappy developments” on the fringes
of what was once the Soviet Union and even comparing the Kremlin’s action in Crimea to his own
government’s support for NATO’s bombing of Serbian targets during the Kosovo crisis in 1999.
“We sent our planes to Serbia and, together with the rest of NATO, they bombed a sovereign state
without any UN Security Council backing,” he insisted. His comments quickly drew an icy response
from Chancellor Merkel, who described them as “shameful.”
Yet Gerhard Schroeder’s remarks and, indeed his understanding for Putin, are far from unique in
Germany. They have found an echo across much of the political spectrum, in many sectors and often
in the most surprising quarters. Sometimes this echo can be heard in remarks made by people who
genuinely believe them, more often by people who have been compromised or those who should
simply know better.
The reasons why the Kremlin is able to draw on such a significant reservoir of support in Germany
are many and complicated. What is clear, however, is that Mr Putin and his advisors have long
calculated that it would be well worth taking a serious interest in public opinion in Germany.