Merkel's tougher Russia stance meets resistance in Germany

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: G20 leaders summit in Hamburg

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s Europe minister called on Monday for a new policy of easing tensions with Russia, adding to a chorus of voices pressing Chancellor Angela Merkel to moderate her hardened stance towards the Kremlin.

The conservative chancellor swung behind Britain after the poison attack on a former Russian double agent in England last month, expelling four diplomats despite uneasiness among a political class that is wary of confrontation with Germany’s giant eastern neighbor.

Europe Minister Michael Roth, a member of the Social Democrat party (SPD), said that while the European Union needed a united front on Russia, sanctions should aim to bring Moscow to the negotiating table.

“Anti-Russian reflexes are just as dangerous as naively… remaining silent over the nationalist-tinged policies of the current Russian leadership,” he wrote in Die Welt newspaper.

Many Western countries are pushing for a more assertive stance against Moscow over President Vladimir Putin’s backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, accused of using chemical weapons in the country’s civil war.

With extensive business and energy links to Russia, Germany has been cautious in its relations with Moscow, though Merkel’s tone has hardened over the four years since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Roth, whose party is junior partner in Merkel’s coalition, echoed comments from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier – a fellow Social Democrat – that “too much is at stake” for Germany to cast Russia as an enemy.

Opinion in the coalition is not necessarily divided along party lines. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, also a Social Democrat, has appeared to shift away from a conciliatory approach to Moscow while Alexander Dobrindt, a lawmaker for Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, has questioned the effectiveness of the sanctions against Russia.

The sequence of interventions, by Roth and Steinmeier from the SPD, and Dobrindt and former defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg on the right, highlight how Merkel’s diminished authority in her fourth and likely final term in office is limiting her room for maneuver.

Guttenberg, once tipped as a potential Merkel successor before his fall from grace in an academic plagiarism scandal, criticized the government for its policy towards intervention in Syria in the face of a cynical Russia.

“We make it easy for ourselves, letting the others do the dirty work,” he said of Merkel’s decision not to participate in missile strikes launched by the United States, Britain and France on Syria last week after its suspected use of chemical weapons.

“It is good that somebody still acts when someone kills children, innocent people,” he told mass-selling Bild newspaper.

Earlier, conservative Economy Minister Peter Altmaier echoed Merkel’s scepticism about the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project which will bring Russian gas to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine with which Moscow is at odds.

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