Germans wary of Merkel's tough line on Russia

Germans wary of Merkel's tough line on Russia
Russian-speaking tourists visit the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park in Berlin which commemorates the 80,000 Red Army soldiers killed in the battle of Berlin in 1945.

BERLIN - In Berlin's immaculate Treptow Park, a towering statue of a Soviet solder holding a German child on his arm and stamping on a Nazi swastika reminds Germans of the debt they owe Russians.

Willie Kern, a pensioner visiting the poignant memorial to the 80,000 Red Army soldiers killed in the battle of Berlin in 1945, looks at the well-tended gardens there and says he views Russian President Vladimir Putin as a dictator.

Yet Germany should hold back in punishing Russia too harshly for its annexation of Crimea and for the increasingly violent crisis in eastern Ukraine, he says.

"The aggression against Russia always comes from the West, Germany should exercise restraint," said Kern, adding Germany's place is between the United States and Russia. "Why do we always have to establish democracy throughout the world? The citizens are supposed to decide," he said.

Despite tough rhetoric from Chancellor Angela Merkel and the threat of economic sanctions on Russia beyond the visa bans and asset freezes already in effect, Kern's cautious views are reflected in the wider population.

While almost half of Germans want Berlin to act as a bridge between the West and Russia, those in former Communist eastern parts are more sceptical about further sanctions, polls show.

With their misgivings articulated by left-wing politicians, including Gregor Gysi, a leading member of the Left party, who has accused Merkel of supporting "fascists" in Ukraine's government, some still harbour warmth towards Russia.

Add strong business ties and a growing disillusionment with the United States since the snooping scandal exposed by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, and the result is a deep ambivalence among voters over Berlin's response.

Some 49 per cent of Germans want Berlin to be a mediator between NATO and the EU and Russia, a poll by Infratest dimap showed this month. Only 45 per cent think Germany should position itself firmly in the western alliance. "The majority of Germans ... want to see themselves as between the West and Russia, as building a bridge of understanding," said Infratest pollster Reinhard Schlinkert.

They are reluctant to enter a geopolitical conflict with Russia which could drive up energy prices, he added.

Some polls have put support for economic sanctions at just 38 per cent.

This is partly down to business. About 6,200 German companies deal with Russia, and bilateral trade totals some 76 billion euros. Economic sanctions, say firms, would hurt Europe's biggest economy.

But it's not all about money.

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