Tell me you'll be mine forever, Vlad. Photographer: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA
Tell me you'll be mine forever, Vlad. Photographer: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA

On a day when the U.S. and the European Union put together additional (if lame) sanctions on Russia, and pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine were holding hostage German monitors representing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder gave President Vladimir Putin a very public hug.

Schroeder was celebrating his 70th birthday in St. Petersburg at a party hosted by Nord Stream AG, the Russian-led natural gas pipeline consortium whose shareholder committee he has headed since leaving office in 2005. Putin was the guest of honor.

Schroeder has shilled for the Russian leader for years, once describing him as "a flawless democrat." Lately, Schroeder has defended Russia's actions in Ukraine, comparing them to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's actions in Kosovo. The world, he has said, should understand Russia's need to be "big and strong" again.

Although Germans are probably the most sympathetic of Europeans to Russia's positions on Ukraine, photographs of a grinning Schroeder embracing Putin were too much for many of them. An editorial in Der Spiegel described the public hug as "tasteless." Andreas Schockenhoff, the deputy chief whip of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, characterized Schroeder's actions as "completely irresponsible," undermining German policy efforts and providing propaganda for Putin.

For a German ex-chancellor to defend Russia as it destabilizes a neighboring country using the same justifications for intervention as Nazi Germany did in the 1930s is worse than tasteless and irresponsible; it's grotesque. Yet Schroeder's actions also reflect a strong current in German policy towards Russia.

Despite the excellent speech Merkel gave early in the Ukraine crisis, Germany is in the camp of EU countries that oppose meaningful sanctions against Russia and instead stress diplomacy and engagement which, on their own, are clearly ineffectual.

There are many reasons for this reticence, and Schroeder's own history with Russia illustrates most of them: an over-reliance on Russian natural gas and oil; heavy German financial commitments in Russia that would be vulnerable to retaliation; and decades of nurturing an "Ostpolitik " predicated on the idea that Russia can be nudged into the European mainstream through engagement. Imposing major economic sanctions would mean acknowledging the end of that policy.

In fairness, Schroeder's Social Democratic Party -- now part of a ruling grand coalition -- has left its former chief behind on the Russia question. Its leaders are warning their old friends in Moscow that they are losing their strongest ally in Europe.

It is also true that Germany has far more at risk than the U.S., and not just economically. "One of the German points I sympathize with is that we have to think about both Ukraine and Russia. What if sanctions are effective and Putin is pushed out? A disintegrating Russia is something we just don't have the tools to deal with," said Constanze Stelzenmueller, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, who nevertheless favors a tougher response.

At the same time, the "green men" who took Crimea, and who Putin eventually admitted were Russian soldiers, are now spread across eastern Ukraine. Local thugs directed from Russia are kidnapping, and in some cases murdering, people who don't agree with them. It is now patently obvious that Putin's goal is to sever eastern Ukraine from the control of the central authorities without having to invade. Yet the EU remains unwilling to impose sanctions that have any chance of stopping him.

This week may prove to be a decisive point in the Ukraine crisis, when it became clear that the U.S. and especially the EU wouldn't risk economic losses in order to check Putin's destabilization and subordination of his neighbors, making him free to act short of a full invasion. If that happens, Schroeder's hug with Putin will be the symbol.

To contact the author of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor of this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net