Armin Laschet, the newly elected leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, is coming under mounting scrutiny over statements he has made in the past defending Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime in Syria.
Mr Laschet, prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, beat rival Friedrich Merz in a digital leadership election on Saturday. He is seen as representing continuity with Angela Merkel’s moderate policies.
But in the past Mr Laschet, who has strong chances of succeeding Ms Merkel as chancellor after September’s Bundestag elections, has expressed views on Russia and Syria that put him outside the CDU mainstream and which have now come back to haunt him.
Omid Nouripour, a Green MP, said he had received countless messages from friends in eastern Europe and among the Syrian opposition expressing concern about Mr Laschet’s opinions.
“It’s bad enough that he has these views as governor of one of Germany’s federal states, but if he continues to espouse them as leader of the CDU then it’s a security risk for Germany, and Europe,” he said on Tuesday.
However, a person close to Mr Laschet insisted his views on foreign policy were orthodox CDU. “When it comes to Russia, the Middle East, and especially, transatlantic relations, he thinks the same way as Merkel,” he said.
One of the controversial interviews that have resurfaced in recent days is one he gave in March 2014, around the time Russia annexed Crimea, criticising what he described as the “marketable anti-Putin populism” that was spreading in Germany. He quoted Henry Kissinger as saying: “Putin’s demonisation is not a policy, but an alibi for the absence of one.”
The interview that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung established Mr Laschet as one of Germany’s most prominent Putinversteher or defenders of Mr Putin. In it, he noted that there were 1,200 companies in North Rhine-Westphalia that traded with or had invested in Russia, and stressed the region’s dependence on imports of Russian natural gas.
Four years later, Mr Laschet in a Twitter message said there was a lack of evidence to prove that Russia was behind the novichok attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018.
Observers have made the point that the governors of Germany’s 16 regions are generally more pro-Putin than the federal government, largely because of the influence of big companies in their states that have invested heavily in Russia.
The person close to Mr Laschet said that, unlike other regional leaders, such as Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, and Michael Kretschmer, the governor of Saxony, Mr Laschet had refused to travel to Russia to meet Mr Putin.
Mr Laschet has become much more circumspect since the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition activist, and the murder of a former Chechen fighter in a Berlin park in 2019, which the German authorities blamed on the Kremlin. Both incidents had, he told reporters last month, “badly strained” Russo-German relations.
However, he added that there was still scope to work with Russia on issues such as climate change, and on academic and economic exchanges. “We should stick to our guns but also look for areas where we can improve our relationship . . . and avoid triggering a new confrontation,” he said.
Perhaps his most controversial foreign policy intervention was in 2014, when he accused the US of supporting Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. At the time he frequently portrayed Mr Assad as a potential ally of the west in the fight against Islamist terrorism, and praised Russia for supporting the Syrian regime.
The person close to Mr Laschet said that in the 2014 Twitter message he was simply calling for a “more nuanced approach to the Syrian opposition, which was a lot more heterogeneous than people thought”.
But the re-emergence of the message has angered some in Syria. “Armin Laschet is pro Assad and pro Putin,” wrote Anis Hamdoun, a theatre director and former anti-Assad activist, on Facebook. “The very recent history is still teaching us over and over again that leaders who support dictators of other countries will only bring chaos to their own people.”
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon