Two former German chancellors have spoken out in defence of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Helmut Schmidt, who led a Social Democrat government at the height of the Cold War, dismissed the sanctions targeted at Russian individuals as "nonsense" and said that he could well understand President Vladimir Putin's actions in Crimea. His remarks follow a critique of the West's strategy towards Ukraine by fellow Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, who has compared the Russian annexation of Ukraine with NATO's intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
Mr. Schroeder's sympathy for the Russian position has provoked accusations of self-interest and that he is spreading Russian propaganda; the former German chancellor who led the country from 1998-2005 is known to be a personal friend of the Russian leader and is currently chairman of Nord Stream, the operator of the Baltic gas pipeline linking Russia with Germany. During the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Schroeder played a key role in supporting the use of force in deterring Serbian aggression in Kosovo. Yet in forcing Ukraine to choose between Europe and Russia, he argues the West has made a mistake.
Self-interested or not, Mr. Schroeder's criticism is echoed by a high-profile political opponent, Helmut Kohl, a Christian Democrat former chancellor and political mentor of the current chancellor Angela Merkel. Earlier this month, Mr. Kohl lamented the bulldozing Western policy in Ukraine. "The upheaval in Ukraine was not handled intelligently. There's also been a lack of sensitivity with our Russian neighbours, especially with President Putin."
The skeptical commentary from some leading German political figures is a warning to Washington that the most powerful European state is ambivalent about, if not indifferent to Ukraine, nor does it share the black and white view of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Indeed, a recent poll commissioned by Spiegel, the German news magazine, found that 54 per cent of Germans accepted the Russian annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli while 55 per cent said that Crimea was part of Russia's sphere of influence. It strongly suggests that Ms. Merkel's strong backing for European sanctions is a political gambit and does not fully reflect German attitudes – notably Ostpolitik, the consensus policy of engagement with Russia which started with Chancellor Willy Brandt during the Cold War and which continued with Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl.
Some would argue that Germany, like Mr. Schroeder, is speaking with its wallet. Its business interests are knitted closely to Russia through oil and gas pipelines, as well as manufacturing alliances. To his acute embarrassment, Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens AG, found himself hijacked into a photo call this week during a long-scheduled meeting in the Kremlin with the Russian president. Others have been more forthright, including Johannes Teyssen, the chief executive of E.ON AG, the utility which is a leading customer of Gazprom and has invested €6-billion ($9.1-billion) in Russian power generation. In a recent interview with Spiegel, Mr. Teyssen said that the company had a 40-year relationship with Russia and the Ukraine political crisis was "no reason for concern."
Indeed, Germany is not alone in having developed complex business relationships with Russia. American interests too are exposed, notably those of ExxonMobil which operates one of the largest foreign join ventures in Russia, Sakhalin 1, producing huge volumes of oil in Eastern Siberia. The American oil major hopes to do more, having signed further joint venture agreements with Rosneft, the state oil company.
Underlying the commercial argy-bargy is something more fundamental, however. There is genuine concern among an older (and some would say wiser) generation of politicians that the aggressive courting of Ukrainian nationalists by Brussels, Ottawa and Washington may be mistaken. German social democrats worry that the nationalist putsch in Kiev was backed heavily by far right and anti-semitic groups. The support in recent years given by Washington to uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East appears in retrospect naive and in some cases clumsy and even disastrous.
Several weeks after he penned it in the New York Times, the commentary from Henry Kissinger, another Cold War veteran, about the events in Ukraine and the proper response seems apt. He notes that Ukraine has only been independent for 23 years, had been part of Russia for hundreds of years and under some form of foreign occupation since the 14th century. It should never be allowed to join NATO. "Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West," he wrote. "But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side's outpost against the other – it should function as a bridge between them."
That is probably what the old Cold Warriors and most sensible people want. From where we are now, it is not clear how we get back to that path.