Germany's Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel is due to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, according to media reports. There is, however, opposition within the Grand Coalition.
The regional German newspaper "Rheinische Post" said that the purpose of the vice chancellor's trip had to do with bilateral economic ties. The Ministry of Economic Affairs, however, did not confirm the visit. Gabriel last visited Putin in October 2015.
Gabriel's visit comes at a difficult time: The EU had placed Russia under economic sanctions following the Ukraine crisis. But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had recently questioned that course of action, saying that there should be a greater sense of rapprochement between the European Union and Russia instead of "saber-rattling."
Vice Chancellor Gabriel, who, like Steinmeier, is a Social Democrat (SPD), appears to agree with that assessment. Despite sanctions keeping trade between the two nations at a low point, the minister of economic affairs seems to aim to improve relations - amid international support for extending the sanctions by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond.
Russia: a bone of contention in the Grand Coalition
Gabriel's visit will not be welcomed by Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) either. The majority coalition partner continues to hold on to the status quo with regard to Germany's policy towards Putin. The CDU and SPD have long-standing differences in their attitudes towards Russia, dating back to the Cold War.
Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said he would like to depart from the Grand Coalition amid growing support for right-wing movements in Germany
Some have also criticized Gabriel for taking a new course against Russia in order to start campaigning for next year's general elections in Germany. Gabriel had publicly suggested a departure from the Grand Coalition after the vote.
The CDU's parliamentary group leader Volker Kauder said in response to the announcement of Sigmar Gabriel's impending trip that he expected everyone in government "to stick together in this matter."
Kauder added that there were grounds for concern that "Russia may not be abiding by the Minsk Protocol," which specifies the terms of the peace between Russia and Ukraine after civil war broke out in Ukraine in 2014 following Russia's earlier annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
ss/kl (AFP, Reuters, dpa)