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The President and Russia

President-elect Steinmeier that is: Did you think I meant someone else?

Just under a week ago, Germany’s parliamentary assembly elected Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the country’s new president. Steinmeier is a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the left-hand side of Angela Merkel’s governing coalition. He will take office next month. Until recently, Steinmeier, who is also a former German vice-chancellor, served as the country’s foreign minister.

Merkel’s coalition decided to back Steinmeier for the presidency late last year. He was, she said, an “outstanding candidate”.

Here (via the Daily Telegraph) is something that this “outstanding candidate” had to say last year.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke out against recent Nato military exercises in Poland and the Baltics, describing them as “sabre-rattling”.

“The one thing we shouldn’t do now is inflame the situation with loud sabre-rattling and warmongering,” the minister told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

“Anyone who thinks a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is wrong,” he said in excerpts released ahead of a longer interview to be published on Sunday.

“We would be well advised not to provide a pretext to renew an old confrontation.”

The reference to the tank parade was to the participation of some US combat vehicles in an Estonian independence day parade in Narva, an overwhelmingly ethnic Russian city in eastern Estonia which lies just across a river from Russia itself.

The Daily Telegraph:

Mr Steinmeier was speaking after Nato staged its largest war game in eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War earlier this month. Some 31,000 troops, including 1,000 from the UK, took part in Operation Anaconda, a 10-day exercise simulating a Russian attack on Poland.

Mr Steinmeier’s mention of “sabre-rattling” was a clear reference to Operation Saber Strike, another exercise currently under way in the Baltic states.

Operation Saber Strike is an annual US army-led exercise held since 2010. This year it is much larger than previously and will involve some 10,000 troops from 13 countries, including the UK…

Nato officials have been clear that the exercises are intended as a deterrent against Russian agression, and to reassure members along its eastern flank.

Three years previously Russia’s Zapad-13 (“West 13”) exercise had been on a rather larger scale.

The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss explained:

Though initially billed as a counterterrorism operation targeting “illegal armed groups,” Zapad-13 was very clearly aimed at fighting conventional armies on European soil. Which ones? Stephen Blank of the Jamestown Foundation has noted that the “simulated ‘terrorists’ were apparently Balts intent on mounting operations in Belarus against that government and on behalf of their supposedly oppressed ethnic kinsmen.” (Moscow propaganda usually has it that independent Baltic states with pro-European and pro-American bents are the modern-day embodiment of Nazi regimes insufficiently grateful for their “liberation” and occupation by the Red Army.)

An estimated 70,000 soldiers took part in Zapad-13, three times the number given in advance to NATO by the Russian government, although this year, contrary to reports in the Polish press, Russia did not simulate a nuclear strike on Warsaw, as it has in the past. Seventy thousand troops, however, imply quite lot of “terrorists” in need of vanquishing by land, air or sea. Included in the order of battle were a Belarusian amphibious landing force, Russian paratroopers and Spetsnaz (special forces), and 10,000 paramilitary troops from Russia’s Interior Ministry as well as unmanned aerial vehicles for targeting and damage assessment.

Interestingly Steinmeier supports a gentler line on Russian sanctions than does Merkel.

Reuters, reporting last June:

The European Union should gradually phase out sanctions imposed against Russia over the Ukraine crisis if there is substantial progress in the peace process, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was quoted on Sunday as saying.

His comments reflect divisions within Germany’s ruling right-left coalition over policy toward Russia. Steinmeier’s Social Democrats (SPD) back a more conciliatory stance toward Moscow than Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc.

Merkel has repeatedly said that sanctions imposed against Russia can only be lifted once the peace agreement to end the conflict in Ukraine is fully implemented, not only partially.

Shortly after Steinmeier was selected as the coalition’s presidential candidate, Peter Korzun wrote an approving piece for the (ahem) Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation. Here’s an extract:

 Russia and Germany have been going through hard times in their relationship but Mr. Steinmeier has made a significant contribution to prevent it from sliding to the lowest ebb. The would-be president boasts good working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Personal chemistry and is a very important factor for improvement of relations.

In 2008, Steinmeier initiated the concept for a German-Russian partnership for modernization. He often visits Russia to supervise the pet project. The foreign minister is an honorary doctor of Ural Federal University, where he is a frequent visitor.

So there we are.

It’s perhaps just as well that Germany’s presidency is largely ceremonial.

The same cannot be said for the role of German foreign minister.

Here (via Reuters) is Sigmar Gabriel, Steinmeier’s successor (and another member of the SPD), speaking in Munich today:

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Germany remained committed to reaching the NATO target, but that it would be hard to boost its defense budget quickly by the 25 billion euros ($26.5 billion) that would be required. Germany now spends about 1.2 percent of gross domestic product on the military.

The NATO spending target is 2 percent of GDP.

Angela Merkel has been Germany’s chancellor since 2005. 

Reuters:

[Gabriel] called for a broader approach that also addressed security risks such as climate change, and said Germany should get credit for the 30 to 40 billion euros it is spending to integrate over a million refugees, many of whom were displaced as a result of failed military interventions of the past.

I’ll just let that stand there. 

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