Prominent figures in Germany are coming under increasing pressure to publicly distance themselves from Vladimir Putin amid accusations that they are bringing shame on the country and themselves.
The range of so-called Putin-Versteher (Putin-understanders) – those who have sought to explain or justify the Russian leader’s actions – include figures from the far-left Die Linke and the far-right AfD, as well as members of the Social Democrats and some conservatives who have tried to keep him on side in the interests of their constituents and German energy security.
“Putin-Versteher are on the precipice,” the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Sunday (FAS) said, listing an array of German politicians it said were now paying the price for having mistakenly thought they could “tame Vladimir Putin with empathy and friendly accommodation”.
The tabloid Bild went further, describing a range of politicians as “Putin Streichler” – or Putin caressers – saying over the past 20 years these included not just former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, but the former Social Democrat foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now Germany’s president, the former state leader of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, and Angela Merkel, who it accused of pushing the building of Nord Stream 2 and holding back with sanctions even amid widespread evidence of Kremlin misbehaviour.
But the invasion of Ukraine has marked a turning point, with analysts concluding that many politicians had been stunned into a change of heart.
Germany’s former defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer implied that some Germans, including herself, had taken a shamefully naive approach towards Putin’s politics.
“I’m so angry at ourselves for our historical failure,” she wrote on Twitter. “After Georgia, Crimea and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin.”
But many German politicians actively courted Putin, most prominently Schröder, who went out of his way to emphasise the Russian leader’s harmless clubbability.
Schröder, who is reportedly recovering from coronavirus, was called upon at the weekend to condemn the invasion or face being thrown out of the Social Democratic (SPD) party over his close business ties to Russian energy companies Gazprom and Rosneft.
In its strongest appeal yet to Schröder, Lars Klingbeil, the SPD’s co-head, a former close ally, urged him to cut all business ties with Putin. “This war starts with Putin and Putin only, and therefore it can be the only logical conclusion that you cannot do business with an aggressor, a warmonger,” Klingbeil said.
Rainer Arnold, a former MP and an SPD member who was the parliamentary group’s spokesman on defence between 2002 and 2018, went further, appealing to Schröder to “save the SPD and you yourself further sustained embarrassing and excruciating debates about your egotistical engagement with Putin, a man whose interests are just as egotistical as well as inhuman”.
Schröder, who had previously referred to Ukraine’s request for arms as “sabre rattling”, on Thursday called on the “government in Moscow” to end the conflict “as soon as possible” saying it was not in Russia’s security interests to pursue the conflict. But he stopped short of mentioning Putin or referring to a war.
Others associated with Nord Stream 2 appear to be rapidly distancing themselves from the project, which was halted by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, (also of the SPD) last week in direct response to the invasion.
Within the far-left Die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht has admitted she was wrong to insist Russia was not planning to invade Ukraine. Insiders have said she had been forced into a rethink, particularly over sanctions, which she has rejected in the past.
Stephan Protschka of the AfD told the FAS he felt “deeply deceived” by Putin, which elements of his party have admired for standing up to the “imperial west”. He told the paper he had, at most, expected there to be a trade war between Russia and the west and had accordingly “stocked up with wood” for his oven heater in order to brave an energy crisis. “I had had a degree of understanding for the way in which Putin felt he had been driven into a corner,” he said. “But now my understanding has run out.”