The difficult relationship between the SPD and Russia – politics

How does the Social Democrats feel about Russia? It depends on who you are talking to in the SPD. This is illustrated by the example of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, one of the few pressures that Germany has in light of the growing risk of war in the border region of Ukraine. For Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the pipe remains primarily a “project in the private sector”. But he also says, with explicit reference to the pipeline, “that it is clear that there will be high costs, that everything will have to be discussed if there is a military intervention against Ukraine.”

The new Secretary General Kevin Kühnert believes that the pipe conflict in Germany should finally be resolved, he wants a “political peace” on this issue. To the surprise of many in his own party, he is in line with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a friend of Putin, who works for the pipeline company and according to his critics is known for his lobbying work for Russia. Remarkably little is heard from the chairmen, Lars Klingbeil and Saskia Esken.

Things are fortunately confused in the parliamentary group: SPD foreign politician Nils Schmid says: “We are now in a phase where we also need a deterrent.” When it comes to sanctions, a possible end to Nord Stream 2 is “of course on the table”. His parliamentary colleague Michael Roth, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, clearly speaks of “Russian aggression” against Ukraine. For Ralf Stegner, former party leader and member of the parliamentary group since the parliamentary election, there is too much “saber rattling” in the debate. And faction leader Rolf Mützenich is already mentally outlining a security order where NATO is no longer needed. At the same time, hope in Ukraine rests on this military alliance in recent weeks.

The relationship with Russia has been the subject of debates in the SPD for years, and it is complicated. But now it’s been Chancellor’s party for a month and a half. The internal unrest in dealing with Russia can no longer be hidden and makes the SPD a difficult partner – both in the traffic light government and among its international allies. Everyone has trouble recognizing where they stand with the SPD.

Willy Brandt’s relaxation policy characterizes the party to this day

The positions reliably alternate between the desire to show clear boundaries on the one hand to President Vladimir Putin and on the other to show understanding for Moscow and to find solutions without constant threatening gestures. The latter view is still shaped by Willy Brandt’s Eastern policy, which in difficult times had chosen a relaxation with Moscow. An entire generation of policy enthusiasts joined the SPD because of Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Nils Schmid says: “There is a longing in the party for a policy of peace and relaxation.” It only affects the realities of today.

The SPD missed its last opportunity to clarify its position on Russia. In 2018, the party had just continued the grand coalition with the Union, the new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tried to force a tougher approach. At the beginning of his tenure, he accused Russia of behaving “increasingly hostile”. The poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK, shook the relationship. But in his SPD, Maas had to justify his harshness towards Moscow.

Some feel branded as “Putin understanders”.

The party leadership with Andrea Nahles as chairman could have given more space to the debate. But in the end, Maas’ critics were only called for moderation, and the foreign minister in turn had to reassure that he was still willing to enter into dialogue with Moscow. This was particularly important for Manuela Schwesig, Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Nord Stream 2 arrives on their shores. For historical reasons, the view of Russia is different in the eastern countries, it is less fixed on an enemy image. Martin Dulig, SPD Eastern Commissioner and Minister of Economy in Saxony, agrees. “We must move away from equating all those who are in favor of good relations with Russia with those who understand Putin.”

In the party, the desire is expressed to finally clarify the positions. “We need to talk more about foreign policy again, we have done that too rarely. This also applies to us in the SPD,” says Ralf Stegner, for example. “This could happen at a convention.” Relations with Russia should be discussed there. Dulig also wants to speak: “We need to find ways within the SPD to discuss how to deal with Russia.” Chancellor Scholz could also use this opportunity to explain where his boundaries go.

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