HomeEurope‘We failed’ on Russia: Top German Social Democrat offers mea culpa

‘We failed’ on Russia: Top German Social Democrat offers mea culpa

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Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) “failed” to see Russia’s aggressive intentions, bargained away trust by ignoring warnings from Eastern Europe and maneuvered Germany into dangerous energy dependency, the party’s co-chief acknowledged Tuesday.

In a striking mea culpa speech in Berlin, Lars Klingbeil, one of the two leaders of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD, said that the party’s long-standing theme that security and stability in Europe could be achieved “only with Russia” had been wrong. “Today, it is a matter of organizing security from Russia,” he added.

Speaking at Social Democrat headquarters, Klingbeil said his party had long been driven by the consensus “that close relations with Russia are good for us … However, we failed to recognize that the framework conditions for this relationship changed long ago.”

“The Russian regime around Putin had become increasingly repressive and aggressive, even revisionist. In our search for common ground, we overlooked what separated us. That was a mistake,” he said. “We clung to an image of Russia that was shaped by the past but had long since ceased to show the present.”

Klingbeil’s remarks are significant since the Social Democrats have directed Germany’s fortunes as a ruling party for most of the past 25 years, first under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, then for 12 nonconsecutive years as a junior partner to center-right leader Angela Merkel, and finally under Scholz’s chancellorship since the end of last year.

The self-critical words are also a break from Scholz, who last week self-confidently claimed that he “always” knew about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions to use energy as a weapon; and Merkel, who has claimed that she did nothing wrong with her Russia policies.

Crucially, Klingbeil acknowledged that his party did not listen sufficiently to Eastern European partners like Poland or the Baltics, which have long warned about the threats posed by Putin and which strongly pushed back against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which was nonetheless pursued at the behest of Merkel, Scholz and other senior politicians before being shelved just days ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This has led to a massive loss of confidence. Especially in recent years, when Russian policy became more aggressive, we should have listened more to our partners,” Klingbeil said.

In the same vein, the SPD co-chief criticized the decision of past governments — under significant influence of his party — to make Germany and resultingly parts of the EU hugely dependent on Russian energy supplies.

“Yes, we have benefited from this economically for many years. But we have paid dearly for this success. We have made ourselves vulnerable,” he said. “The one-sided development of the import infrastructure with Russia, the lack of diversification. The political blockade of LNG terminals, the sluggish expansion of renewable energies. This policy was one-sided. It was not sustainable. We misjudged the security dimension of our energy supply.”

Klingbeil also acknowledged that the party’s long-standing concept of “Wandel durch Handel” (“change through trade”) — meaning that the forging of ever-closer trade and energy links would help transform autocratic countries like Russia and China into more democratic and trustworthy partners — does not work if it is not accompanied by “a political agenda” that examines and critically reflects such ideas.

“As long as nothing fundamentally changes in Russia, Russia cannot be a serious partner. Only then can there be joint action on climate issues or disarmament,” Klingbeil said. “The sanctions against Russia will remain in place until the last Russian soldier leaves Ukraine.”

The SPD has a long history of taking a softer line on Russia, notably through the Ostpolitik of former Chancellor Willy Brandt, who sought diplomatic engagement with the Soviet Union and communist Eastern European countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Klingbeil concluded his speech by saying he did not want to immediately present guidelines for a new Russia policy, arguing that this should also be done in coordination with European partners.

Yet he also emphasized that Germany “should play a leading role in creating a new peace order in Europe and maintaining a rules-based order in a world in upheaval.”



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