Putinversteher – those who profess to understand Russia’s leader – is a phenomenon that can be found across political dividing lines in Germany and, at least in the political discourse, has major, even polarizing significance. The word Putinversteher has entered the German vernacular. In 2014, the term was nominated for the ugliest word title at a competition that promotes linguistic awareness in the field of the German language. Words and terms that go against the principle of human dignity or democracy may be entered in the competition. This includes formulations that are discriminatory toward some segments of the population, even obfuscatory or misleading.(1) In the European context, the understanding and attitudes toward Russia’s politics of hegemony are a characteristic only of Germany – which is surprising, as Germany is generally considered a champion of democratic values. Germany has many well-known people who are public defenders of Russian interests. Attempts are made to explain Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist policy – in mild terms, not incomprehensibly. 

The media and the public

In November 2014, Putin had an opportunity to openly express his positions in an interview to the public ARD TV channel. The journalist who interviewed him gave him softball questions and basically fed him talking points. Putin warned that anti-Russian sanctions would have consequences for Germany, too, and claimed that international law had not been violated in the Ukrainian conflict; he expressed “great concern” for the ethnic cleansing that he said was threatening Russians in Ukraine. Putin, who was not rebutted by the journalist, expressed “concern” that Ukraine was “tending” down a neo-Nazi path.(2) Yet the German media can also be critical. For instance, a debate developed over the fact that German self-styled experts have become popular on Russian state media. For instance, on the Russian propaganda site Ukraina.ru, some “German political scientist” with the odd name of Kert Maier writes that “Putin-Verstehen is prohibited in Germany.” There is no known political scientist by that name in the German research community. Again and again, we hear of a phantom professor named Lorenz Haag as well. This “German professor” is cited particularly often by the Russian state news agency TASS: Haag says what Russians want to hear from Germany. One headline, for example: “Crimea and Russia’s situation understood in Germany.”(3) The Russian TV channel Russia Today launched a German-language online channel in mid-November. It is a coarse mix of propaganda and conspiracy theories.(4)

Mindsets are changing among Germany's population. In April 2014, the public opinion research institute Allensbach, well-known in Germany, conducted a public opinion poll that showed that Russia’s public perception has grown much worse since the recent events in Ukraine. About 55 percent of respondents saw Russia as a threat and only 10 percent as a trustworthy partner. And 75 percent of people considered the relations between the two countries to be disrupted. There are fewer people who consider it important and wise to continue close cooperation with Russia. On the other hand, many take a significantly understanding attitude to the issue of annexation of the Crimea. Most – 41 percent – consider the events terrible and the moving of Russian borders to be unacceptable, but an entire 33-percent segment say they understand the annexation and even see good points to it. In addition, the survey shows that Russia’s image is not at all negative to the core. A heavy majority of the people say they have an appreciation for the political importance of Russia and the strong national pride and hospitality of the Russians.(5)

Understanding attitudes can be found in all political camps

The most influential news source in Germany, Der Spiegel, asked the question already in March: is Germany a country of Russia-apologists? The sympathy with regard to Russia is very palpable.(6) And indeed, it isn’t just figures on the political periphery like post-communists and Euroskeptics that try to outdo each other in trying to understand and rationalize Putin’s aggression. Even figures from the political mainstream make weighty pronouncements on the topic. This gibes with German foreign policy, the fundamental principles of which are dialogue and repaying Germany’s debts of the past (“shadows of the past”). Germany prefers a cautious and soft quality in its foreign policy. Those who do not simply acquiesce to Russia’s imperialistic policy are quickly labelled Cold Warriors or hawks. Germany’s clear Western orientation makes no difference here. Lately, major rifts have developed in transatlantic relations due to spy scandals. In addition, the Obama myth has long dissipated – even in the German public sphere, where the US president was considered a charismatic emissary of peace. The resurgence of anti-Americanism can significantly strengthen the aspiration or even yearning to understand Russia – and Putin.

Ex-chancellor Schroeder as a friend of Putin

The Social Democratic politician Gerhard Schroeder, German chancellor from 1998 -2005, has long been considered a close friend of Putin. Right after leaving office, when Christian Democrat Angela Merkel succeeded him, Schroeder took a job with Nord Stream AG, where the Russian Gazprom holds the majority (51%) stake. By doing so, Schroeder linked himself directly with the gas pipeline project that he had always favoured during his time as chancellor. Schroeder earns close to 250,000 euros a year. Gazprom has a principle of supplementing basic salaries with bigger bonuses and benefits – this helps pad the 7,750 euro chancellor’s pension. The friendship between the men started in 2001 when they celebrated Russian Christmas together in Russia.
When Schroeder turned 60 in 2004, Putin arrived in Schroeder’s hometown of Hannover with an entire Cossack choir. There’s a new word in Russian since that time that describes buying someone in the West for one’s own interests. The word is shroderisatiya – Schroederization“(7). Schroeder’s sympathies for his Russian friend became known in 2004 when he was still chancellor. In a TV interview, in response to a well-known host’s question –“Do you consider Putin a true democrat?” – Schroeder answered: “I think so – I'm convinced he is.” Amid the Ukraine crisis, in April 2014, Germany’s ex-chancellor, in Putin's back pocket, and economic lobbyist Putin celebrated Schroeder's 70th birthday in St. Petersburg. Officially, it was a Nord Stream AG event.(8) Without clearing it first with his party leaders, CDU politician Philipp Mißfelder also attended. In fact, Mißfelder had previously been considered a proponent of transatlantic relationship. He has increasingly and systematically established contact with lobbyists in the Russian economic sector. At the end of 2007, he castigated Putin’s “dictatorship in Russia,” which allegedly tended in Germany to influence Schroeder’s actions for the benefit of Gazprom. It isn’t evident that the Moscow regime has democratized in any way since that time; but Mißfelder’s mindset has undergone an astonishing change since that time. It seems he has become a disappointed transatlanticist. Now – even now that Russia has occupied Crimea – being a fairly pragmatic party careerist, he has gone on the record - even now that Russia has annexed Crimea – as a committed member of the Putinversteher. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Mißfelder warned about “demonizing the situation.” Even after the start of the Crimea crisis – on 19 March – he consented to be elected the chairman of the German-Russian forum, which had been criticized as pro-Russian.(9) 

One of the members of the board of the forum is Vladimir Yakunin, who is the head of Russian state railways and is in Putin’s inner circle. Yakunin has repeatedly condemned what he says is the moral decline of the West. On 20 March, the US placed sanctions on the ultraconservative Yakunin and banned him from entering the country. In Germany, he continues to speak out shamelessly – as at a “peace conference” held on 23 November in Berlin. A magazine had invited friends of Putin from different political camps, including from the rightist populists and extremists and conspiracy theorists. The free press wasn’t welcome there. Also speaking at the conference was SPD politician Egon Bahr, who had turned 92. In 1963, as advisor to then chancellor Willy Brandt, Bahr developed a term that continues to be influential and which explains the large number of Social Democratic Putinversteher. “change through rapprochement,” which was the basis of Eastern policy in the 1960s and 1970s.
Besides Bahr, the onetime chairman of the SPD Matthias Platzeck, who was the prime minister of Brandenburg state from 2009-2013, ventured an opinion in a widely watched Russia-themed panel show that the West should meet Putin in the middle. He thinks demonization is no help. The media has quoted Platzeck as saying that the annexation of Crimea by Russia should be legalized, but he says this was taken out of context. He says what he meant was that the annexation should be regulated under international law after the fact so that it would be acceptable to everyone.(10)  Back in May, Platzeck invited Yakunin to a “friendly conversation” at Berlin hotel. His influence in Germany as opening doors to the Russian economy, as the chairman of the Russia-Germany forum, is now being limited due to pressure from Angela Merkel. And Platzeck’s fellow party member, Foreign Minsiter Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has taken him to task for his Crimea statements.

German Chancellor Merkel and Brandenburg State Premier Platzeck attend opening day of ILA Berlin Air Show in Selchow near Schoenefeld south of Berlin, 11 September 2012. Photo: Scanpix

All parties, and not just the ones on the political fringe, are looking for understanding. For instance, the deputy head of the Bavarian conservatives, the CSU, Peter Gauweiler, refuses to express unequivocal support for Ukraine. “We support partnership relations with Kyiv, but Moscow is just as much a part of Europe,” said Gauweiler at a political congress in March 2014. “And we won’t allow European-minded Russia to be separated from Ukraine and others. We support cooperation with Moscow.”(11)

This shows the real face of German and Russian relations. Germany as a practitioner of soft power, the engine of the European economy and world export champion puts great importance on the mutual relations in the world economy. The economic sanctions against Russia thus have the most impact on Germany, as it has the closest economic relations with Russia. Experts fear that the sanctions could have harsh consequences for the economy and the labour market. From machinery and agriculture to cars – important goods are exported to Russia. Energy policy is considered “privileged.” German companies have excellent business relations. The lobby group “Ostausschuss der deutschen Wirtschaft” (the German economy’s Eastern committee) doesn’t especially want to hear criticism of the Kremlin.

Long before Putin, there was Gorbi

Amid the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – 9 November 2014 – Gorbachov had a chance to enter the spotlight again. Unlike in Russia itself or the Baltics, in Germany Gorbachov is still considered a hero and one of the framers of German reunification. He is affectionately known as Gorbi. For many years, the 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate was considered a Putin critic. But he has done an about-face for some reason. In Berlin, Gorbi, who had repeatedly criticized Putin for leading Russia away from democracy, expressed not only criticism of the West. He also reserved praise for the master of the Kremlin: “I am completely certain that today Putin is protecting Russia’s interests better than anyone else.”(12) Gorbachov himself is a major proponent of Russian traditions of derzhava. He also said in Berlin that Crimea belongs to Russia. He also believes that the Soviet Union could have been saved even after the August 1991 putsch. 2011. In a long interview published by Der Spiegel in 2011, he said: “We just started reforming it [the Soviet Union] too late. [---] The USSR Was destroyed against the will of the people [---].“To the question what would be better if the USSR were still around, he said: “You don’t understand it. Over the decades, everything had grown intertwined: culture, education, language. We built cars in the Baltics, planes in Ukraine, and today we can’t get by without each other. And 300 million people – this was a plus, too.”(13)

Germany’s attitude toward Gorbachov, including the question of his role in Germany’s reunification, shows what German-Russian relations are actually like. The question isn’t about economic interests. The fact that Gorbachov opened the road to Germany’s reunification puts German politicians in his debt – even in the age of Putinist hegemony. Moreover, many politicians think that Russia could become more modern and democratic with Germany’s help. Or in even more polarizing fashion: whoever criticizes Russia harshly threatens European security and freedom. The rallying cry “stability at all costs!” can be heard from every party. Time and again, Crimea is equated with Kosovo, due to which the fundamental contradiction between these interventions becomes blurred: In Kosovo, NATO intervened only after the UN Security Council had tried for a long time to solve the conflict without success and with hundreds of thousands of Kosovars having fled from their homes. No one annexed Kosovo. Anti-Western thinking on the left and right is an unfortunate German tradition that many thought had fallen into oblivion.(14) It appears that only Chancellor Angela Merkel is not allowing herself to be bothered by the Putinversteher and is moving increasingly clearly on to an anti-Putin course. t On 26 November she said in Bundestag that the annexation of Crimea was “completely unforgivable.” Moscow is a threat to the peaceful order in Europe.”(15) Many Putinversteher who think Germany should take stick to its line on the issue don’t seem to get it.

(1) http://www.focus.de/panorama/welt/gesellschaft-putin-versteher-fuer-unwort-des-jahres-2014-vorgeschlagen_id_4259526.html (accessed on 24th November 2014).

(2) http://www.welt.de/vermischtes/artic- le134404272/ARD-verwandelt-sich-in- Putins-Kreml-TV.html (accessed on 20th November 2014).

(3) http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/ russland-medien-zitieren-angeblic- he-deutsche-experten-a-999692.html (accessed on 20th November 2014).

(4) http://www.handelsblatt.com/unterneh- men/it-medien/russia-today-wir-sind- die-kreml-marionetten/11016084-2.html (accessed on 25th November 2014).

(5) Vrd „Allensbach-Umfrage, Mehrheit der Deutschen sieht Russland als Gefahr“, 16.4.2014, http://www.zeit.de/politik/ deutschland/2014-04/deutsche-russland-allensbach-umfrage (accessed on 20th November 2014). 

(6) http://www.spiegel.de/international/ germany/prominent-germans-have- understanding-for-russian-annexation-of- crimea-a-961711.html (accessed on 20th November 2014).

(7) http://www.focus.de/politik/ausland/ politik-der-russland-deutsche-sei- te-3_id_3838201.html (accessed on 25th November 2014). 

(8) http://www.zeit.de/politik/2014-04/ Geburstag-Schroeder-Putin (accessed on 25th November 2014). 

(9) http://www.stern.de/politik/deutschland/ putin-versteher-in-der-cdu-missfel- ders-moskau-connection-2108271.html (accessed on 25th November 2014).

(10) http://www.zeit.de/politik/aus- land/2014-11/platzeck-russland-ukraine (accessed on 26th November 2014).

(11) http://www.br.de/nachrichten/politischer- aschermittwoch-2014-102.html (accessed on 25th November 2014).

(12) http://www.spiegel.de/international/ germany/prominent-germans-have- understanding-for-russian-annexation-of- crimea-a-961711.htm l (accessed on 25th November 2014).

(13) „Es waren wirklich Idioten“, Interview mit Michail Gorbatschow, in: Der Spiegel, 33 (2011), S. 98-102, here S. 100-102.

(14) http://www.zeit.de/politik/aus- land/2014-03/russland-krim-anne- xion-gysi-schroeder (accessed on 26th November 2014).

(15) http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutsch- land/angela-merkel-scharfe-kritik-an- russland-in-der-ukraine-krise-a-1005054. html (accessed on 26th November 2014).

Dr. Florian Hartleb
is Research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Brussels and lecturer at different German universities