RD Interview: Professor Peter Schulze explains why Germany’s foreign policy toward Russia continues to be a topic of hot debate within the nation’s political establishment, and outlines what we might expect to see in the Russian-German relationship over the short-term.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, stands behind Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and talks to Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier prior to the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, March 16, 2016. Photo: AP

The Russian question continues to hang over German domestic politics, where the relatively hard line stance of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party over the past two years is now showing signs of softening. Recent statements by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the rival Social Democratic Party (SPD), have generated expectations that Germany could be moving towards a more active policy of reconciliation with Russia.

Moreover, Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel also made plans to come to Moscow (before that visit was canceled as a result of the Brexit vote), a possible sign of further German political outreach to Russia. But is the SPD really going to use the Russia question as a way of distancing itself from Angela Merkel’s CDU?

To answer that question and to find out how the Russian question is influencing German politics, Russia Direct recently sat down with Peter Schulze, professor of Political Science, International Relations and Russian Studies at Georg August University in Goettingen, Germany. From 1992 to 2003, he ran the Moscow office of the Freiderich Ebert Stifutung – the political foundation affiliated with Germany’s Social Democratic Party. Professor Schulze is also a co-founder, along with Vladimir Yakunin, the former head of Russian Railways, and Walter Schwimmer, the former general secretary of the Council of Europe, of the Dialogue Of Civilizations Research Institute Berlin, which officially opened in the German capital on July 1.

Professor Peter SchulzeRussia Direct: There have been reports in the German media about the Social Democratic Party (SPD) trying to differentiate itself from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as far as Germany’s Russia policy is concerned. Do you see any signs of it?

Peter Schulze: If the SPD would differentiate and distinguish themselves from the official Angela Merkel CDU line… it would be a way of coming out of the mess in which we are at the moment. Unfortunately, they can’t go that far, because nobody at the moment, especially the Social Democrats, would dare to move out of the grand coalition and ask for new elections, because both parties would suffer tremendously, but the SPD even more so.

Therefore, it is a kind of posturing for the next elections in September next year. I can only hope that the Social Democrats are going to put their act together and develop a design for a new German – and that also means European – Eastern policy, especially targeting Russia and Ukraine. That would mean putting the elements like partnership, compromise, and foreign and security policy based on interests on the agenda.

RD: Do you really think that one can move from the current situation to a partnership over the course of a year? Hardly likely.

P.S.: Why should that be unlikely? The stumbling block is not Moscow. The stumbling block is Merkel and her party, because they are hardliners in a certain way. I think, if there is a chance of reaching out, Moscow would respond. But the chances that Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Social Democrats are getting the message across are only then realistic and capable of catching fire, if there would be a positive reception by the public. And here comes a real problem, because the media are in between, and they are fully opposed to any reconciliation with Moscow.

RD: Why is that the case?

P.S.: The media in Germany were relatively lukewarm to friendly to Russia in the 1990s, because there was still the feeling that Russia and the Soviet Union helped in the reunification case much more than the British and the French. Therefore, the shadow of Mikhail Gorbachev was towering over German politics. And up until 2008 or so, the relationship with Russia was relatively friendly, pragmatic, based on partnership. There was no problem about it. That generally reflected the moods of the population of Germany.

But then it changed. And it changed not because of the Social Democrats, but because the government in Germany changed. That was the end of the first grand coalition of 2005-2009. Then came the liberal-conservative government, in which the liberals (the Free Democratic Party, or FDP) played the moderating role. They hindered the hard line against Moscow. I mean Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle – I think, it was one of his good deeds, and it was remarkable, that he was not attacked for that severely even among hardline Christian Democrats.

Then came the second grand coalition, in which Social Democrats were the junior partner. And they could not fight against prevailing tendencies. From 2012 onwards the media took a very sharp turn, accusing Russia of everything possible, especially the Russian president.

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RD: Is the German media an independent player in all this?

P.S.: The media is as independent as in many other countries. If you are run by the state, or you are run by the oligarchs, or by big corporations, it, of course, makes a difference. But in the end, media plays according to the tone that is prescribed. It is quite interesting that from the time of the demise of the Soviet Union and the beginning of Russia up to 2002, the media was lukewarm. Not enthusiastic, but not anti-Russian. Because it had to respond to the very warm feeling towards Russia among the German population.

But then it changed. And one of the fundamental changes was that Social Democrats were voted out of power, they lost interest in shaping foreign security and economic policy. And another element was that from 2008 onwards, new members of the European Union were undermining the German influence in formulating the design of the Eastern policy of the Union. And these are the members who are most hostile towards Russia up to today.

RD: I heard that the turning point was the failure of the Moscow protests of 2011-2012 and the Kremlin policies that followed, that these were perceived as the turning point by German society.

P.S.: The Duma elections of 2011 were only the straw that broke the camel’s neck. The tendency of becoming more and more hostile started in 2009-2010.

RD: Do you see any signs of a change in the recent weeks in the statements by the Social Democrats? I heard the speech of [SPD politician] Gernot Erler in Berlin at the OSCE Security Days conference and then again at the OSCE Annual Security Review, and he did not use any of the usual harsh rhetoric regarding Russia when he spoke about the Ukraine crisis.

P.S.: Well, Gernot Erler belongs to the most reflective and competent foreign policy experts in the Social Democratic Party. He knows Russia very well, he studied in St. Petersburg. He is the coordinator of the relationship with Russia and he is a representative for the OSCE Chairmanship this year. He belongs to the group within the SPD that is fed up with this kind of situation, which doesn’t lead to anything apart from a new conflict.

RD: And Foreign Minister Steinmeier came under severe criticism for his statement criticizing NATO actions vis-à-vis Russia. Was that unusual?

P.S.: This was expected. If you jump out of the convoy then, of course, you are a loner and you are accused of not playing according to the rules. And the rules are set by the transatlantic community of experts and politicians who dominate the foreign policy in Germany.

RD: Is the Brexit referendum going to have any effect on Germany’s Russia policy?

P.S.: I don’t think so. It will have much greater effect on the Baltic States, Poland and Romania. Because they have basically lost the transmitter of American influence in Europe. And they are very nervous at the moment. But it doesn’t affect German economic and security policy very much. Only in the way that we really get to the new design of the European Union. And this is again a trauma for Polish politicians that France, Germany, Italy and maybe a couple of other founders of the European Community are getting their act together and deciding to create a kind of political project called “core Europe.”

RD: Is Russia going to be a polarizing element in the next German electoral campaign? Or an issue at all?

P.S.: Russia itself cannot be a polarizing element and has no way of interfering in the electoral campaign. If it does, it would immediately backfire tremendously and damage the forces that will try to come to an agreement with Russia and recreate partnership again on a sound basis.

But if the Social Democratic Party picks up the idea of developing a new modernized Eastern policy as [former German chancellor] Willy Brandt and [former SPD politician] Egon Bahr did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, then of course all the transatlantic forces in Germany would immediately sound alarms and fight against it tooth and nail.

RD: One of the accusations that are frequently leveled against Russia is that it supports the radical left and radical right in European politics and, thus, interferes in the internal political developments of the European countries nurturing pro-Russia radicals. Is this going to be a factor at all?

P.S.: I don’t think so. This is a bad behavior, and they have probably learned this bad behavior from the previous American administrations in supporting the [Nicaraguan] Contras and any right-wing military coup in Latin America [during the Cold War].

RD: But is the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) going to use Russia in any way in its electoral campaign?

P.S.: Maybe. But covered in German interests. There is one politician in the AfD who is now attacked in the media tremendously – his name is Alexander Gauland. He often does not behave in a civilized way. But in the field of foreign policy he cherishes the old Bismarckian idea that “a bird can only fly with two wings.” Which means that Germany as a Middle European power has to look to the West and look to the East. This is the old policy of Egon Bahr [who helped shape Germany’s Ostpolitik strategy]. The United States is our genuine partner, but Russia is there as well. And we need to consider whatever is right and good for the national interest. It is a kind of balanced policy, which is stable.