Regional German politicians back away from Russia

Saxony has always been proud of its connections to Putin

As Russia steps up its military attacks in Ukraine, many leading regional leaders in Germany have rushed to revise their opinion of President Vladimir Putin.

The loudest u-turn has come 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 shrugged off criticism for a one-on-one meeting in Moscow with Mr Putin.

“We were wrong about this man...he fooled many people,” said Mr Kretschmer, nearly a week after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “There’s no excuse for having to invade another country – the situation is different today.”

The Saxon leader, from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), insisted that maintaining good contacts to Russia was important, but asked if he would be anxious to meet Mr Putin again soon, he said: “I don’t want to sit down at a table with someone who does something like that anymore. I don’t know what to discuss with him.”


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

In January 2009, as Russia throttled gas supplies to Ukraine and western Europe, Mr Putin was welcomed back to Dresden’s Semper Opera House to collect a “medal of thanks” for his “battle for good”.

Some of those who attended the event, a year after Moscow effectively annexed part of Georgia, remember the Russian visitor’s insistence that “one can protect Georgia and Ukraine without Nato membership”.


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

A survey in early February showed that while 49 per cent of all Germans saw Russia as the main aggressor in the standoff with Ukraine, just 32 per cent of easterners felt that way. Instead 43 per cent of easterners blame the US and Nato’s eastward expansion.

The survey was not an exception but the rule: a poll in 2018 showed that 72 per cent of eastern Germans would wish for closer contacts with Russia, 20 points ahead of western Germans.

Russia’s attack has prompted a rapid rethink among politicians of all hues, including members of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) involved in the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

After running 1,200km under the Baltic Sea, the pipeline comes ashore in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommen. Last year, when US sanctions called into question whether the pipeline would ever be completed, state premier Manuela Schwesig stepped in with a public foundation.

Ostensibly it was set up to finance environmental causes in the region, such as tree-planting, using start capital of €20 million. While the state provided €200,000, the rest came from Nord Stream 2 AG, controlled by Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom energy giant.

Critics pointed out how a separate, commercial arm of the foundation was free to acquire assets needed to complete the pipeline. This appeared designed to exploit a loophole in US sanctions against the pipeline that excluded state-owned entities from punishment.


On Monday Ms Schwesig, a steadfast defender of the pipeline and previous EU sanctions on Russia, announced she was winding up the foundation.

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

“That is nonsense,” she said. “I never talked with President Putin and never supported his actions against Ukraine.”

Opposition politicians begged to differ, with one saying that Ms Schwesig “until two weeks ago was a Russian advertising icon”.