The Former Chancellor Who Became Putin’s Man in Germany

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Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany, at his home in Hannover, April 14, 2022.  (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)

Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor of Germany, at his home in Hannover, April 14, 2022. (Laetitia Vancon/The New York Times)

HANNOVER, Germany — On the evening of Dec. 9, 2005, 17 days after Gerhard Schröder left office as chancellor of Germany, he got a call on his cellphone. It was his friend President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Putin was pressing Schröder to accept an offer to lead the shareholder committee of Nord Stream, a Russian-controlled company in charge of building the first undersea gas pipeline directly connecting Russia and Germany.

“Are you afraid to work for us?” Putin had joked. Schröder might well have been, given the appearance of possible impropriety; the pipeline he was now being asked to head had been agreed to in the final weeks of his chancellorship, with his strong support.

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He took the job anyway.

Seventeen years later, the former chancellor, who recounted the events himself in a pair of rare interviews, remains as defiant as ever.

“I don’t do mea culpa,” Schröder said, sitting in his sprawling light- and art-filled office in the center of his home city, Hannover, in northwestern Germany. “It’s not my thing.”

With Putin now waging a brutal war in Ukraine, all of Germany is reconsidering the ties with Russia that — despite years of warnings from the United States and Eastern European allies — have left Germany deeply reliant on Russian gas, giving Putin coercive leverage over Europe while filling the Kremlin’s war chest.

That dependency grew out of a German belief — embraced by a long succession of chancellors, industry leaders, journalists and the public — that a Russia bound in trade would have too much to risk in conflict with Europe, making Germany more secure while also profiting its economy.

Schröder was far from alone in that conviction. But today he has become the most prominent face of that long era of miscalculation, not only because he expresses no regret but also because he has profited handsomely from it, earning millions while promoting Russian energy interests.

His close ties to Putin have made him a pariah in his own country, where many now criticize him for using his clout and connections over the past two decades to enrich himself at the expense of Germany.

In the interviews, Schröder, 78, spoke with undiminished swagger, cracking jokes but arguing in essence that, well, if he got rich, then so did his country. When it came to Russian gas, everyone was on board, he pointed out, mocking his detractors over copious amounts of white wine.

“They all went along with it for the last 30 years,” he said. “But suddenly everyone knows better.”

Schröder scoffed at the notion of now distancing himself personally from Putin, 69, whom he considers a friend and sees regularly — most recently last month, in an informal effort to help end the Ukraine war.

Schröder refuses to resign from his board seats on Russian energy companies, despite calls to do so from across the political spectrum, not least from Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a fellow Social Democrat, who worked closely with Schröder when he was chancellor.

Distancing himself now, Schröder said, would lose him the trust of the one man who can end the war: Putin. Even so, after all of his years of close relations with Putin, he walked away with nothing during his one brief interlude trying to mediate in the Ukraine conflict.

It is hard by now to avoid the impression that Schröder is useful to the Russian leader as a cat’s paw to further his own interest in hooking Germany on cheap Russian gas.

Germany’s reliance on Russian gas surged to 55% before Russia’s attack on Ukraine began in February, from 39% in 2011, amounting to 200 million euros, or about $220 million, in energy payments every day to Russia.

It has helped make Putin perhaps one of the world’s richest men, has buoyed his otherwise feeble economy, and has enabled and emboldened him to pursue his aggression in Ukraine.

Even as Putin was massing troops on the Ukraine border last fall, Schröder visited the Russian leader in Sochi.

A cellphone photograph that Schröder showed me from that visit shows the two men smiling at each other, Putin in red hockey gear and Schröder in a light-blue shirt and blazer. Asked what they talked about, he said, “Soccer.”

Schröder distanced himself from the war but not from Putin. I asked about the by-now notorious atrocities in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. “That has to be investigated,” Schröder said, but added that he did not think those orders would have come from Putin but from a lower authority.

“I think this war was a mistake, and I’ve always said so,” Schröder said. “What we have to do now is to create peace as quickly as possible.

“I have always served German interests. I do what I can do. At least one side trusts me.”

That side is not the German side.

Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine began, the entire staff of Schröder’s parliamentary office resigned in protest, including his chief of staff and speechwriter of 20 years, who had been with him since his days as chancellor.

He relinquished his honorary citizenship in Hannover before his home city could strip it from him — something it last did, posthumously, to Adolf Hitler. When even the soccer club Borussia Dortmund, which Schröder has supported since he was 6, demanded a strong statement on Putin from him, Schröder canceled his membership.

Calls for his expulsion are growing louder among Social Democrats, too.

But Schröder is undaunted. He remains chair of the shareholder committee of Nord Stream, reportedly earning about $270,000 a year, and served as head of the supervisory board of Nord Stream 2, which built a second pipeline connecting Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea, until it was shuttered before the war.

Three weeks before Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, Gazprom — the Soviet energy ministry turned Russian state-controlled gas company, which owns 51% of Nord Stream and all of Nord Stream 2 — announced that Schröder would join its board, too. (Schröder would not say whether he would accept the nomination.)

Since 2017, he has also presided over the board of the Russian oil company Rosneft, earning another $600,000 a year, according to public records, on top of his monthly $9,000 government stipend as former chancellor.

Schröder’s entanglement with the Russian president and Kremlin-controlled energy companies overshadows all he achieved in seven years as chancellor, from 1998 to 2005, a pivotal period of leadership when he was lauded for refusing to join the United States in the Iraq War; giving immigrants a regular path to citizenship; and putting in place far-reaching labor market overhauls that would pave the way for a decade of growth under his successor, Angela Merkel.

That legacy has been permanently tainted.

But even his fiercest critics acknowledge that Schröder’s close and lucrative dealings with Russia are also emblematic of his country’s decades-old approach of engagement with Russia. Lobbied aggressively by Germany’s export industry and cheered on by labor unions, successive chancellors, including Merkel, collectively engineered Germany’s dependency on Russian energy.

“Schröder is the tip of the iceberg,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former ambassador to the United States and veteran diplomat. “But there is a whole iceberg below him.”

The Long Shadow of Ostpolitik

Schröder was born in 1944, a year before World War II ended, and never met his father, who fought for the Nazis and was killed on the eastern front when the future chancellor was only 6 months old. The horrors that the Nazis inflicted on the Soviet Union, where 27 million people died, weighed heavily on his youth, he said.

Schröder joined the Social Democrats when he was 19 and was studying law during the 1968 student rebellion that challenged the silence of their parents’ generation over Germany’s Nazi past.

A year later, when Schröder was 25, Willy Brandt became postwar Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor, ushering in a new policy of engagement with the Soviet Union that became known as Ostpolitik.

The guiding rationale of Ostpolitik was “Wandel durch Handel,” or “change through trade,” and would become a defining pillar of successive Social Democratic-led administrations, including Schröder’s two decades later.

To this day, a statue of Brandt is prominently displayed in one corner of Schröder’s office. Schröder’s two children were both adopted from Russia.

“All of these things influenced my relationship with Russia very early on, and as chancellor, I actually tried to continue it that way,” he said.

When it came to pipelines, Schröder was not the first. They were being built between Germany and Russia even during the Cold War. Under Brandt, Germany signed a major pipeline project with Moscow in 1970.

His successor, Helmut Schmidt, chancellor for the rest of the 1970s and the early 1980s, oversaw an expansion of the pipelines, including another big project known as the West Siberia Pipeline.

Although that pipeline was uncontroversial in Germany, it was not without critics abroad — namely, the United States. The Soviets had already invaded Afghanistan and would soon push the Polish government to quash anti-Communist protests and impose martial law.

“Basically, since the 1960s, cooperation with the Soviet Union and later with Russia has been a constant,” Schröder said.

“They got the money, and they delivered the gas,” Schröder said of the Russians. “Even in the toughest times of the Cold War, there were never any problems.”

The Pariah

With the criticism of him mounting this year, it has gotten lonely for Schröder at home. He recently took up playing the piano. Outside his house, a police car is keeping watch day and night. Many of his old Social Democratic party friends have disavowed him.

But if there is one place where Schröder still seems to be appreciated, it is Russia.

Putin spoke fondly of Schröder in February during a joint news conference with Scholz, the current German chancellor, who visited the Kremlin in a last-ditch effort to avert war.

“Mr. Schröder is an honest man whom we respect and whose goal is first and foremost to promote the interests of his own country, the Federal Republic of Germany,” Putin said. “Let German citizens open their purses, have a look inside and ask themselves whether they are ready to pay three to five times more for electricity, for gas and for heating. If they are not, they should thank Mr. Schröder because this is his achievement, a result of his work.”

On Russian state television, Schröder is frequently cited as a Western voice of reason, proof of the Kremlin’s contention that Europe’s current leaders have sold their countries’ interests out to a “Russophobic” United States.

But to Putin’s critics, Schröder is the epitome of a craven class of Western politicians who enable Putin by financing and legitimizing the Kremlin.

After Putin’s main domestic rival, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned in 2020 in what the German government, among others, said appeared to be a state-sponsored assassination attempt, Schröder publicly played down the matter in the German news media.

Asked about it in the interviews, he noted that Navalny had been convicted in Russia. Last month, Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony after being found guilty by a Russian court of large-scale fraud and contempt. I pointed out that he had been poisoned. “Yes, but by whom?” Schröder replied.

After he came out of a coma after being poisoned, Navalny told Bild, a German tabloid, that Schröder was “Putin’s errand boy who protects murderers.”

Still, Schröder holds to his unwavering belief that peace and prosperity in Germany and Europe will always depend on dialogue with Russia.

“You can’t isolate a country like Russia in the long run, neither politically nor economically,” he said. “German industry needs the raw materials that Russia has. It’s not just oil and gas; it’s also rare earths. And these are raw materials that cannot simply be substituted.

“When this war is over,” Schröder said, “we will have to go back to dealing with Russia. We always do.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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