“I don’t want to encourage a third world war and especially not calls for more money for arms for NATO,” Schmidt, 95, was cited as saying in an interview with Germany’s best-selling Bild newspaper today.
“But the danger that the situation intensifies as in 1914 is growing day by day.”
Schmidt, who was German chancellor from 1974 to 1982, and fellow Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, who held the post from 1998 to 2005, have warned against imposing sanctions on Russia and moves by the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to forge closer ties with Ukraine.
The interventions by past chancellors highlight the dilemma in Germany over how to deal with Russia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, 59, a Christian Democrat who grew up in communist East Germany and rules with the SPD as junior partner, has taken a harder line in threatening to intensify EU sanctions if Ukraine’s May 25 elections are disrupted.
SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 58, has stressed the diplomatic initiative, visiting Kiev and Odessa this week in an attempt to broker talks between the government and separatists.
Some SPD members, including Schroeder, favor a policy of greater engagement with Russia and hark back to SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which normalized Cold War ties with the East Bloc starting with the USSR.
This policy under Brandt, who was chancellor from 1969 to 1974, was dubbed “Wandel durch Annaeherung” or change through rapprochement.
A poll last week showed 70 percent of Germans have “no sympathy” for what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine.
The May 7-8 TNS Emnid poll in Focus magazine surveyed 1,009 people and didn’t give a margin of error.
Schroeder, who once labelled Putin “a flawless democrat,” was appointed chairman of Nord Stream AG, which built and operates a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany, within three months of leaving office.
He was criticized last month for celebrating his 70th birthday with Putin in St. Petersburg, a meeting Schroeder said he used to lobby for Russian help to free OSCE monitors taken captive in Ukraine.
The monitors were subsequently released.
Schmidt was born a month after World War I ended in 1918.
He served with the Nazi Wehrmacht in World War II on the eastern and western fronts and was taken prisoner by British forces in 1945.
“Europe, the Americans and also Russia are behaving in the way that the author Christopher Clark, in his book that’s very much worth reading, describes the start of World War I: like sleepwalkers,” Schmidt said, according to Bild.
Jan Techau, head of the Brussels office of the Carnegie Endowment, disputed Schmidt’s comparison with 1914.
“We don’t have those kind of blind military alliances that drag countries into war, no country now calculates that war would be good thing as in 1914, and the U.S. has made it clear to both Ukraine and Moldova they it won’t get involved militarily,” Techau said in a telephone interview.
“We are living in an age of nuclear deterrence, which means this can’t escalate like in 1914.”
Schmidt also said that the European Commission, the EU’s executive, has been wrong to seek closer ties with Ukraine and with Georgia.
“A reminder: Georgia is outside of Europe,” he said.
“This is megalomania, we have no business being there.”
In a March 26 interview with Die Zeit newspaper, Schmidt was quoted as saying that Russia’s actions in Crimea were “understandable” and the situation in Ukraine is “dangerous because the U.S. and Europe are getting so terribly worked up.”
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March, and Ukrainian officials blame their neighbor for fomenting the separatist movement that is roiling the country’s eastern regions.