Germany must reassess policy towards Russia, China -ruling party chief

BERLIN, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Germany should reassess its long-held strategy of seeking to bring about change in authoritarian societies through rapprochement given developments in Russia and China, the co-head of the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) said in an interview.

Lars Klingbeil's comments reflect soul-searching in the SPD, which historically has sought closer engagement with Russia, over the right approach towards the Kremlin amid fears of a fresh Russian attack on Ukraine.

Some analysts say the soft stance of many in the party on Russia is holding Chancellor Olaf Scholz back from taking a stronger position. Klingbeil denies that, stressing that everything is on the table in case of an attack.

Scholz is in the unusual situation of being head of a three-way coalition but not of his own party.

The two junior coalition parties, the Free Democrats and Greens, have long advocated getting tougher on Russia.

"We haven't found a convincing way to deal with authoritarian states," said Klingbeil. "I wonder if the decades-old concept of trying to bring about change in a country through closer ties and economic relations is still relevant.

"When you look at Russia, you simply have to acknowledge that the domestic situation has massively worsened in recent years," he said, alluding to a crackdown on opponents of President Vladimir Putin by security services.

For many years, German foreign policy has been based on the precept of "Wandel durch Handel" - change through trade - or "Wandel durch Verflechtung" - change through interconnection - reflecting the belief that deepening economic and other ties can foster political change.

Critics say Germany has been naive and focused on its short-term gain rather than long-term geostrategic interests.

Europe's largest economy has become highly dependent on Russian natural gas, potentially limiting its room for manoeuvre in the current stand-off between the West and the Kremlin.

SPD leaders have come under fire for continuing to describe a pipeline project intended to bring more Russian gas to Germany but bypassing Ukraine as a "private commercial project" that should not be singled out for sanctions.

Klingbeil said the new coalition nonetheless wanted to diversify Germany's energy supply, for example by building terminals to import liquefied natural gas.

Scholz signalled his support for the construction of LNG terminals when he was finance minister and deputy chancellor in the previous government, but little progress was made.

Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Writing by Sarah Marsh; editing by Mark Heinrich

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