Former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been accused of embarrassing Germany after he accused Ukraine of “sabre-rattling” in its stand-off with Russia.
It is not the first time that Mr Schroeder, a director for Russian energy companies and a personal friend of President Vladimir Putin, has raised eyebrows by publicly siding with the Kremlin.
He waded in at a sensitive time in Europe’s relations with Russia, with Moscow’s troop build-up on its western frontier with Ukraine leading to fears of an invasion.
Echoing Russia’s rhetoric, Mr Schroeder told a podcast that Moscow had no interest in attacking Ukraine and felt alarmed by the accumulation of Nato troops in Eastern Europe.
“Nato has not exactly been very restrained with exercises in the Baltic or Poland,” he said. “Naturally, that has effects on Russia’s thinking and threat assessment.
“I hope the sabre-rattling in Ukraine will be called off, because the things I’m hearing from there, including finger-pointing at Germany because of its sensible refusal to export weapons — that really takes the biscuit.”
Mr Schroeder’s remarks caused exasperation across the political spectrum in Berlin, where his Social Democratic Party is leading the government for the first time since he left office in 2005.
The party has a tradition of promoting dialogue with Russia, regarding the 1970s detente with the eastern bloc as one of its proudest achievements and a necessary step towards German reunification.
But Lars Klingbeil, the SPD general secretary, sought to distance the party from its former leader by blaming Russia for the current crisis.
“Anyone can give their view, but we are making the decisions as the current SPD leadership, together with Chancellor Olaf Scholz,” he told German television.
Norbert Roettgen, an opposition MP and chair of a parliamentary foreign affairs committee, said Mr Schroeder was “talking like a paid employee of Putin and the Kremlin”.
“Making accusations against Ukraine says it all. He should no longer be taken seriously and is just embarrassing,” he said.
Sandra Weeser, an MP from one of Mr Scholz’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, said Mr Schroeder was allowing himself to be used by the Kremlin.
She said his comments were “tragic and unworthy of a chancellor”.
Mr Schroeder, who was chancellor from 1998 to 2005, pursued close relations with Moscow and became a family friend of Mr Putin, once enjoying a sleigh ride in the snow with the Russian president and their wives.
In 2005, he became the first German leader to be invited to Russia’s Victory Day parade commemorating the Soviet victory over the Nazi invaders.
Politicians have invoked the memory of that conflict in recent weeks in defending Germany’s decision not to deliver weapons to Ukraine. Mr Schroeder’s successor as chancellor, Angela Merkel, also sought dialogue rather than confrontation with Russia.
But Mr Schroeder’s connections to Russia went deeper than this. Soon after leaving office, he joined the board of Russian energy giant Gazprom — only months after signing a deal for a pipeline with Mr Putin.
Today he is chairman of the board of directors at Rosneft, another energy company. He has remained friends with Mr Putin since leaving politics, warmly greeting him at the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
His pro-Russian pronouncements have frequently caused embarrassment for Berlin, including in 2020 when he questioned Germany’s findings that dissident Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet nerve agent.
Although he has called Russia’s annexation of Crimea a breach of international law, he described sanctions linked to that incursion as pointless and said there was no chance of Ukraine regaining control of the peninsula.
Mr Schroeder, 77, has defended his friendship with Mr Putin as a personal matter.