Why Are So Many German Leaders Soft on Putin’s Aggression?

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Germany's Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel, Berlin, Germany, April 20, 2016. Alexander Motyl writes that Germany’s Socialists appear increasingly committed to doing everything possible to appease Russian imperialism. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

On June 15, Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak informed NATO that Ukraine had suffered 623 battle deaths in its war with Russia in 2016.

This astoundingly large figure—which amounts to three to four deaths per day—demonstrates conclusively that Russia and its proxies have no intention whatsoever of adhering to the Minsk accords.

The number also demonstrates the price Ukraine is willing to pay in order to defend itself—and Europe—from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Socialists appear increasingly committed to doing everything possible to appease Russian imperialism.

The roots of their indifference to international norms and human rights may go back to the days of Ostpolitik. They certainly go back to 2005, when then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder—who called Putin a “flawless democrat” at the height of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004—left his job in Berlin to become a highly-paid functionary of Russia’s deeply corrupt, state-owned energy company, Gazprom.

Since his move came immediately after his chancellorship ended, Schröder must have negotiated the terms of his new job while still in office. Unsurprisingly, Schröder has consistently turned a blind eye to Putin’s fascism and imperialism while defending Russia’s energy interests and supporting the continuation of Europe’s energy dependence on Russian gas.

Sigmar Gabriel, the Socialist Democratic Party chairman, has been especially outspoken in his pro-Putin remarks. Think about what this means. Putin has dismantled democracy in Russia and replaced it with a dictatorial system centered on himself and his personality cult. Putin has also started wars in Georgia and Ukraine, violated international norms and terrified all of his neighbors—from Kazakhstan to Belarus to Finland.

It doesn’t require much imagination to see the similarities with a certain German dictator who, back in the 1930s, dismantled democracy, replaced it with a dictatorial system centered on himself and his personality cult, started wars, violated international norms and terrified his neighbors.

And yet, despite the obvious similarities, Gabriel—who represents Germany’s Socialists—remains committed to supporting Putin and his regime. That’s not just appeasement. That’s a complete betrayal of everything democratic socialists claim to stand for.

It’s also a repudiation of the European Union’s vaunted “European values.” The EU, minus its values, is just a bunch of inward-focused countries who share a few buildings and procedures and a currency.

It’s the values—the commitment to democracy and human rights and the rejection of imperialism and colonialism—that make the EU special and worth preserving. In effect, German Socialist support of Putin is a rejection of Europe.

That’s far worse than Brexit, as the British are rejecting the EU’s procedures, not its values. If the EU ever collapses, blame Germany’s pious-sounding Socialists above all.

Pro-Putinite tendencies are also evident in Germany’s authoritative, left-leaning newspaper Die Zeit . In a recent article, its editor-at-large, Theo Sommer, discusses a variety of mass killings in the recent past—from Hiroshima, Nagasaki and My Lai, to the Holocaust and Armenian genocide, the Battle of Verdun and the wars in Yugoslavia.

Stalin’s mass murders of Ukrainians, Russians, Crimean Tatars and everybody else aren’t on Sommer’s list. He’s too smart not to know, so the omission is obviously one of design. So much for Die Zeit’s courageous stand for human rights.

What’s the moral of Sommer’s blindness for Germany’s young people? If a genocide is inconvenient to your agenda, ignore it.

But Gernot Erler, Berlin’s Russia man and, of course, a Socialist, takes the cake. “Our highest priority is to maintain consensus within the EU,” Erler recently said in reference to the possible easing of EU sanctions against Russia. “If a price has to be paid, then we should be ready” to pay it.

Now, just what price did Erler have in mind? He provides no answer, but Poltorak does: Ukrainian lives—623 in the first half of 2016, probably 1,250 in all of 2016, and many, many more to follow.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.