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Two Interviews, No Regrets: Talking About Putin’s Russia With a Former German Chancellor

I shifted the conversation back to the war, which he condemned but also qualified.

“We have this situation, which I have to say is not just one-sided,” he said.

I had heard this a lot in Germany — “it’s not one-sided” — not least among my own parents’ friends. The idea that NATO had been cornering Russia after the reunification of Germany and Europe was not all that uncommon in Germany before the war.

Even now, with fighting raging, some of Mr. Schröder’s views, about the need to give Mr. Putin a way to save face, are openly voiced. My ophthalmologist recently told me, “Let’s give him what he needs, for God’s sake, so we can end this war.”

Germany’s relationship with Russia is complicated, rooted both in centuries of cultural exchange and a traumatic history of war, which contributed to a Russia policy that has alternately been described as romantic blindness or open-eyed appeasement.

In Mr. Schröder’s office, prominently framed, is a birthday letter from the revered former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, another Social Democrat, dated April 4, 2014, less than two months after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, praising Mr. Schröder’s legacy as chancellor, not least for “demonstrating understanding of the needs of our powerful neighbor Russia.”

The day before my article came out, I had one last phone call with Mr. Schröder to run through some factual questions. Before we hung up, I told him that this would not be a puff piece.

“You can be critical as long as you’re fair,” he said.

When the article was published online on April 23, it was picked up by every major German news outlet. The reactions were swift.

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