Not many people were offered the opportunity to shake Vladimir Putin's hand at his swearing-in ceremony. The leader of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, was there to congratulate the Russian President. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also waited to offer his boss his hand. But he had to wait in turn behind the former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.
In a sign of the closeness between Schröder and Putin, the former Chancellor was placed in the first row at the ceremony, which was attended by some 5,000 people. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to make do with a seat behind him.
Putin won the Russian election with 77 percent of the vote in the election in March. The OSCE criticized the overly controlled legal and political environment that the vote took pace in. He will not be allowed to run for office again at the next elections in 2024, according to Russian law as it currently stands.
Putin has now been leader of the world’s largest country for 19 years and political scientists describe the political system he has built as a “one man network” in which people only have the president to thank for their positions of authority.
And right in among the handful of Russians at the top of Moscow's power table is Schröder, who led Germany from 1998 to 2005 as head of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Schröder built up a close friendship with Putin while he was still in power and took up a job at a subsidiary of Russian state-owned gas company, Gazprom, almost as soon as he was voted out of office. Since 2017 he has been head of the executive board at Rosneft, the state oil company, showing his growing influence in Moscow.
Schröder wasn’t the only prominent German at the swearing-in ceremony, though. Matthias Warnig, a former officer in the feared East German Stasi, waited behind him for the chance to shake Putin by the hand.
Despite his dubious past, Warnig is CEO of Nord Stream AG, the company that is building gas pipelines from Russia to Germany. The first of those pipelines has already been built. But construction on Nord Stream 2 faces stiff resistance from the EU and states in Eastern Europe. East European countries fear the pipeline will make Germany too dependent on Russian gas.
In a further signal on Monday that Moscow sees Germany as its key interlocutor in the west, the Kremlin announced within minutes of the end of the ceremony that Chancellor Angela Merkel would be coming to Moscow on an official visit.
Merkel’s visit comes at a time of high tension between Nato and Russia. Key Nato powers accuse Russia of breaches of international law, including supporting chemicals weapons use in Syria and using a nerve agent to attempt to kill a former spy in the UK.
Putin for his part has charged the US with following an ever more aggressive foreign policy which is aimed at toppling his regime.
The prominent positioning of German guests at Monday's ceremony and Merkel's visit both seem to indicate that Putin sees Germany as the key to breaking the ice on the Siberian frost which has crept over East-West relations.
Germany is after all the only foreign country Russia's strongman knows well as he was stationed near Dresden as a Cold War intelligence agent and speaks excellent German.
But that doesn’t always make relations with Berlin straightforward. While the German public are often more reluctant to follow a hawkish line towards Moscow than the British or US electorates, Schröder has been heavily criticized back home for his cosiness with the Kremlin.
And although Merkel has put more time and patience into maintaining a dialogue with Moscow than any other western leader, she was also the main architect of EU sanctions after Putin annexed the Crimea in 2014.
Moreover, Germany’s new Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has taken a considerably tougher line on Moscow than his predecessors. “Russia is unfortunately acting ever more aggressively,” he said in an interview with Spiegel, before directly blaming Moscow for “the first chemical weapon attack on European soil since the end of the Second World War."
Like Schröder, Mass is a member of the SPD, the party that invented the concept of Ostpolitik (normalization of relations with the USSR) in the 1960s. Putin might have the ear of some in the older SPD generation, but he still has much to do to convince those in power in Germany to follow suit.
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