In June of this year, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier shocked the political and media establishment in Germany and other NATO countries when he criticized NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe, saying:“What we should not do now, however, is further inflame the situation with loud sabre-rattling and war cries. Anyone who believes that symbolic tank parades on the Alliance’s eastern border will increase security is wrong. We would be well advised not to deliver up any excuses for a new, old confrontation.”
Steinmeier instead called for dialogue and cooperation with Russia, just a few days before the July 8 NATO summit in Warsaw.
His comments reflected growing divisions within Germany’s ruling coalition over policy toward Russia with Steinmeier’s Social Democrats (SPD) backing a more conciliatory approach than Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Senior CDU members responded to Steinmeier’s words with fierce criticism and accused the Foreign Minister of being a “Putin apologist.”
During a meeting of the CDU leadership in Berlin, Volker Bouffier, Minister President of the German state of Hesse, called on Steinmeier to clarify his remarks, emphasizing: “We, actually, always agreed that we […] really protect NATO territory.”
However, this sentiment is not shared by the majority of the German population.
A representative survey by TNS Emnid in March 2016 found that over half of Germans (57 %) do not support sending German troops to defend NATO members such as Poland or the Baltic states if they are attacked by Russia. Only one out of three Germans (31%) think Germany should fulfill its obligations as a NATO member and stand in defense of Poland and the Baltic states.
Steinmeier’s comments drew sharp criticism and even ridicule from the political and media establishment but were well received by the general public.
Spiegel Online, one of the most widely read news sites in Germany, asked its readers what they thought of Steinmeier’s statement. About 90,000 people cast their votes in a Spiegel Online poll. More than 70% of them agreed that it was “an important signal for a rapprochement with Russia.” Only around 14% regarded it as a “sign of weakness towards the Kremlin” and 13% as a domestic political move.
There seems to be a huge disconnect in Germany between public opinion and the discourse in politics and media when it comes to Russia and NATO’s “sabre-rattling.”
Steinmeier and his SPD colleagues have realized this and are reportedly planning to exploit it in the 2017 German federal election.
According to a recent report by the German newspaper Die Zeit, the Social Democrats want to position themselves as the "peace party" in the coming elections:
“That means "no" to new sanctions against Russia, "no" to a heightened conflict with Vladimir Putin, and "yes" to further talks. In this way, the party aims to differentiate itself from Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). That the Social Democrats could attract angry pro-Putin citizens from the left and the right is part of the plan. But they don't want to get caught playing this double game.”
As Die Zeit notes, “the test phase to find out which Russian tone of voice best suits the party faithful has already begun.”
Steinmeier’s “sabre-rattling” comments should be seen in this context.
A few weeks after criticizing NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe, the German Foreign Minister laid out his plan for cooperation with Russia on arms control in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) in an article titled “Dialogue instead of Arms Race.”
As the FAZ published Steinmeier’s op-ed, all SPD members received an email with the same title from the party chair containing the electronic signatures of Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel.
“The old ghost of bloc confrontation seems to have reawakened,” they wrote, calling on their fellow Social Democrats to uphold the legacy and continue the work of SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt and his right-hand man Egon Bahr, the architects behind West Germany’s “Ostpolitik.”
Pointing out that no other party has supported German-Russian relations in a similar way, the SPD leaders stressed:
“Back then, we didn't allow ourselves to be diverted from our course, nor will we allow that to happen today.”
The email reads like a preliminary draft for the 2017 election campaign.
SPD deputy chairman Ralf Stegner already went on the record as saying: “A new policy of détente that eases tensions and concentrates on peace in Europe should be among our five big election platforms.” Stegner said he feels a “massive desire to deescalate tensions with Moscow” not only in the east of the country but also on his home turf in Schleswig Holstein.
With recent polls showing a drop in popularity to just 22%, the SPD is looking for ways to challenge the CDU/CSU faction, which is currently polling at 34%.
Developing some kind of Ostpolitik 2.0 that addresses the rising fears of a military confrontation with Russia makes a lot of sense.
As Professor Filip Kovacevic has pointed out, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier is not a “Putin apologist” or “pro-Russian,” as some of his public statements might suggest, quite the contrary.
In fact, Steinmeier has often put American interests over German interests during his career. The same applies to many of his SPD colleagues, but taking a “pro-Russian” stance could pay off for the Social Democrats in the 2017 German federal election.
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern’s Minister President Erwin Sellering was the last Social Democrat who ran a Russia-friendly election campaign. Inviting former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and pleading to abolish sanctions immediately played well with the electorate in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Sellering won by a large margin. His election campaign could serve as a model for future campaigns.
However, if the Social Democrats decide to go ahead with their plan, they are going to face a lot of criticism not only from Merkel’s CDU and other parties, but also from the media. Nothing illustrates this better than the report by Die Zeit, which is a prime example of the anti-Russian propaganda that is prevalent in German media:
“How long can the SPD maintain its deference to Russia if Vladimir Putin continues the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria, or finds a new way to escalate the situation in Eastern Ukraine?”
When one asks leading Social Democrats this question, they seem as clueless as ever.“
German media is even more hostile towards Russia than American or British media. This has been particularly apparent in the reporting on Syria and Ukraine.
Running a Russia-friendly election campaign is going to be an uphill battle, so it remains to be seen if the Social Democrats can really pull it off and challenge Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party in the next federal election.
Christoph Germann- BFP Contributing Author & Analyst
Christoph Germann is an independent analyst and researcher based in Germany, where he is currently studying political science. His work focuses on the New Great Game in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. You can visit his website here
 “Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on relations between NATO and Russia,” Federal Foreign Office, 19 June 2016: https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2016/160619_BM_Bild_am_Sonntag_engl_version.html.
 “CDU-Politiker attackieren Steinmeier als “Putin-Versteher”,” Reuters, 20 June 2016: http://de.reuters.com/article/deutschland-russland-nato-union-idDEKCN0Z60XC.
 “Frayed Partnership - German public opinion on Russia,” Bertelsmann Stiftung/Institute of Public Affairs, 22 April 2016: https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/en/our-projects/strengthening-and-connecting-europe/news/stress-test-for-german-russian-relations/.
 Vanessa Steinmetz, “Nato-Kritik des Außenministers: "Keine Ahnung, wo Steinmeier plötzlich den Mut hergenommen hat",” Spiegel Online, 21 June 2016: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/leser-reaktionen-auf-steinmeiers-russland-zitat-a-1098959.html.
 Fabian Klask, “SPD: Where Is It Headed?,” Die Zeit, 8 November 2016: http://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2016-11/spd-russia-peace-harmonization-election-campaign/komplettansicht.
 Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “Dialog statt Wettrüsten,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26 August 2016: https://www.spd.de/aktuelles/detail/news/dialog-statt-wettruesten/26/08/2016/.
 Ibid., Klask.
 “Umfrage - SPD fällt auf tiefsten Stand seit drei Monaten,” Reuters, 6 November 2016: http://de.reuters.com/article/deutschland-wahlen-umfrage-idDEKBN1310GR
 Andreas Rinke and Erik Kirschbaum, “A third of Germans fear war erupting with Russia over Ukraine, Syria: poll,” Reuters, 26 October 2016: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-germany-idUSKCN12Q2GN.
 Filip Kovacevic, “The Leaked Montenegrin Government Files: Part II – the U.S. Agents of Influence within the German Government,” NewsBud, 29 September 2016: http://www.newsbud.com/2016/09/29/the-leaked-montenegrin-government-files-part-ii-the-u-s-agents-of-influence-within-the-german-government/.
 Markus Kompa, “Doppelagent Steinmeier enttarnt,” Telepolis, 5 October 2014: https://www.heise.de/tp/news/Doppelagent-Steinmeier-enttarnt-2411623.html.
 Ibid., Klask.
 Alexey Khlebnikov, “Russia is now monitoring the world’s mass media for bias,” Russia Direct, 25 February 2015: http://www.russia-direct.org/analysis/russia-now-monitoring-world%E2%80%99s-mass-media-bias.