German regional politicians walk away from Russia

As Russia steps up its military attacks in Ukraine, many top regional leaders in Germany have rushed to revise their views on President Vladimir Putin.

The strongest reversal came from Michael Kretschmer, minister-president of the eastern state of Saxony. For years he has demanded an end to sanctions against Russia over tensions in Ukraine, and last year he ignored criticism over a one-on-one meeting in Moscow with Mr Putin.

“We got this man wrong…he fooled a lot of people,” Kretschmer said, nearly a week after Russia invaded Ukraine. “There is no excuse for having to invade another country – the situation is different today.”

The Saxon leader, of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), insisted it was important to maintain good contacts with Russia, but asked if he would be eager to see Mr. Putin soon, he said: “I don’t want to sit at a table with someone who doesn’t do something like that anymore. I don’t know what to discuss with him.

Saxony has always been proud of its ties to Mr Putin, who for four years until 1989 served as a KGB spy in the capital Dresden.

In January 2009, as Russia cut gas supplies to Ukraine and Western Europe, Mr Putin was welcomed to the Semper Opera House in Dresden to receive a “thank you medal” for his “combat for the good “.

Some of those who attended the event, a year after Moscow effectively annexed part of Georgia, recall the Russian visitor’s insistence that “Georgia and Ukraine can be protected without to join NATO.

Aggressor

Decades of post-war division gave Germans radically different perspectives on Russia.

A survey in early February showed that while 49% of all Germans saw Russia as the main aggressor in the clash with Ukraine, only 32% of people in the East felt that way. Instead, 43% of Easterners blame the United States and NATO’s eastward expansion.

The survey was not an exception but the rule: a 2018 poll showed that 72% of East Germans would like closer contact with Russia, 20 points ahead of West Germans.

Russia’s attack prompted swift questioning among politicians of all stripes, including members of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) involved in the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

After traveling 1,200 km under the Baltic Sea, the pipeline lands in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommen. Last year, when U.S. sanctions called the pipeline’s completion into question, state premier Manuela Schwesig stepped in with a public foundation.

Apparently, it was created to fund environmental causes in the area, such as tree planting, using €20 million in seed capital. While the state provided €200,000, the rest came from Nord Stream 2 AG, controlled by Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Critics pointed out that a separate business arm of the foundation was free to acquire the assets needed to complete the pipeline. This appeared designed to exploit a loophole in US pipeline sanctions that excluded public entities from any sanction.

Foundation

On Monday, Ms Schwesig, a staunch supporter of the pipeline and previous EU sanctions against Russia, announced she was liquidating the foundation.

On Tuesday, she was absent for health reasons from a parliamentary debate on the pipeline and the now defunct state foundation. But in a statement, she dismissed claims that she had been too close to Russia and Mr Putin.

“It’s nonsense,” she said. “I never spoke with President Putin and I never supported his actions against Ukraine.”

Opposition politicians begged to disagree, with one saying Ms Schwesig ‘until two weeks ago was an icon of Russian advertising’.

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