Two Interviews, No Regrets: Talking About Putin’s Russia With a Former German Chancellor
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The first thing you notice when you walk into the office of Gerhard Schröder is the striking abundance of pictures of Gerhard Schröder.
A large painting of a younger Schröder behind the desk. An even larger painting of an even younger Schröder next to the door. A black-and-white photo portrait. A stylized art print. A smattering of colorful cartoons featuring him as the fist-banging, swaggering, “basta”-shouting chancellor he once was.
I was writing an article about how Germany got hooked on Russian gas over the past two decades and wanted to speak to Mr. Schröder, the man who popped up nearly every step of the way: as German chancellor from 1998-2005, as a lobbyist for Russian-controlled energy companies since then and as the personal friend of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia throughout.
Mr. Schröder had not talked to any media outlet since the war in Ukraine started — and with it, the almost universal outrage at his refusal to distance himself from Mr. Putin and resign from his lucrative positions for the gas pipeline operator Nord Stream and the Russian oil company Rosneft. But after weeks of back and forth, I was invited to meet him in his home city, Hanover, for our first conversation on April 11.
He and his wife greeted me in matching forest green pantsuits. I remarked on them.
“Coincidence,” the former chancellor grumbled.
“Green is the color of hope,” his (fifth) wife, Soyeon Schröder-Kim, beamed. She was a constant presence.
We sat down at the corner of a large glass table, a statue of former chancellor Willy Brandt — a Social Democrat like Mr. Schröder and the architect of Ostpolitik, Germany’s engagement policy toward the Soviet Union about half a century ago — watching over us.
From the start, it was clear that Mr. Schröder wanted to talk, to explain himself, to tell his country why he was right — and everyone else wrong — to resist calls to condemn Mr. Putin.
“I know you’re here to talk about the past,” he said, as he handed me a pile of notes about his recent, and fruitless, effort to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv. “But I’d also like to talk about the present.”
So we talked. I was allowed to record. And I was surprised by how frankly Mr. Schröder spoke.
Unlike many German politicians, he readily accepted the ground rules of The New York Times: He would not get to “authorize” any quotes before publication. Since we spoke German throughout, I offered to show him my English translations — his wife, a trained translator, had expressed concerns about “translation mistakes” — but I also made clear that we would not accept edits that altered the meaning of the quote.
None were asked for.
Three days after our first conversation, I returned to Hanover with the photographer Laetitia Vancon. We had another conversation, which ended with a lunch of seasonal asparagus and two bottles of white wine. (His wife brought out one but he demanded a second — we were four people after all.)
“Why The New York Times?” I asked him at one point, curious why he had not picked a German newspaper to break his silence.
“The New York Times admitted that it was wrong over the Iraq war; I respect that,” he told me and smiled. The implication was clear: He had been right, famously keeping Germany out of the war. (In a 2004 assessment of the publication’s reporting on the lead-up to, and the early stages of, the Iraq War, Times editors found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been.)
So if it was right to admit past mistakes, was there anything he had gotten wrong over Russia?
“No,” he said defiantly, insisting that on energy, Russian and German interests were aligned.
But, I pressed him: His good friend Vladimir had started a war and was accused of ordering war crimes. How did that feel? Did it feel right to stay loyal to him?
It was the only time he got annoyed.
“We’re not doing a psychologizing interview here,” he said, raising his voice. “Then we’ll leave it there.”
I shifted the conversation back to the war, which he condemned but also qualified.
“We have this situation, which I have to say is not just one-sided,” he said.
I had heard this a lot in Germany — “it’s not one-sided” — not least among my own parents’ friends. The idea that NATO had been cornering Russia after the reunification of Germany and Europe was not all that uncommon in Germany before the war.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Russian oil embargo. European Union countries are likely to approve a phased embargo on Russian oil, sealing a long-postponed measure that has divided the bloc’s members and highlighted their dependence on Russian energy sources. E.U. ambassadors expect to give their final approval by the end of the week, officials said.
On the ground. The Ukrainian military said that Russia was deploying forces normally based in the far east of its territory to the main battle front in Ukraine, a potential sign of the strain on Russian troops as they sustain heavy losses and face a well-armed resistance.
An evacuation. About 20 women and children were evacuated from Mariupol’s embattled Azovstal steel plant, the Ukrainian military’s last foothold in the city. It remained unclear how many civilians remained inside the plant, which has been under heavy bombardment.
An American casualty. Family members of Willy Joseph Cancel Jr., a U.S. citizen, confirmed that he had died fighting alongside Ukrainians. He is believed to be the first American killed in action. A Dane and a Briton have also died fighting for Ukraine since the start of the war, according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.
Even now, with fighting raging, some of Mr. Schröder’s views, about the need to give Mr. Putin a way to save face, are openly voiced. My ophthalmologist recently told me, “Let’s give him what he needs, for God’s sake, so we can end this war.”
Germany’s relationship with Russia is complicated, rooted both in centuries of cultural exchange and a traumatic history of war, which contributed to a Russia policy that has alternately been described as romantic blindness or open-eyed appeasement.
In Mr. Schröder’s office, prominently framed, is a birthday letter from the revered former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, another Social Democrat, dated April 4, 2014, less than two months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, praising Mr. Schröder’s legacy as chancellor, not least for “demonstrating understanding of the needs of our powerful neighbor Russia.”
The day before my article came out, I had one last phone call with Mr. Schröder to run through some factual questions. Before we hung up, I told him that this would not be a puff piece.
“You can be critical as long as you’re fair,” he said.
When the article was published online on April 23, it was picked up by every major German news outlet. The reactions were swift.
“The interview in The New York Times is pretty disturbing and it has to have consequences,” said Hendrik Wüst, a conservative governor of Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, urging the Social Democrats to kick the former chancellor out of their party.
The co-leader of the Social Democrats, Saskia Esken, called on Mr. Schröder to hand in his membership and said 14 local party chapters had filed for his expulsion. “Gerhard Schröder has been acting as a business man,” she said when asked about my interview. “We should stop thinking of him as an elder statesman, as a former chancellor.”
Politicians from across the political spectrum demanded that Mr. Schröder be put on the sanctions list and cut off from the tax-funded pension and perks former chancellors enjoy. (Only the far-right Alternative for Germany party applauded his defiance as “responsible and in the German interest.”)
I was inundated with messages. But I did not hear from Mr. Schröder until the day after the interview published. A WhatsApp message arrived from his wife with a polite request: “Could you send 2 copies to our office. In Hanover there is no Sunday edition of The NYT.”