Germany’s Real Role in the Ukraine Crisis

Caught Between East and West

Courtesy Reuters

In his discussion of German foreign policy’s supposed drift eastward, Hans Kundnani (“Leaving the West Behind,” January/February 2015) suggests that Germany has resisted imposing sanctions on Russia over its undeclared war with Ukraine—a sign, in his view, that Germany might once again desert the West in a flirtation with Russia. That interpretation is little more than an urban legend. True, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has resisted blunt sanctions and has taken every opportunity to negotiate with Moscow in her efforts to de-escalate the fighting in Ukraine. But her approach is supporting sanctions, not opposing them—and it certainly is not appeasing Moscow.

From the start, Merkel has played an impressive role in responding to the Ukraine crisis. In fact, her actions have allowed Germany to assume geopolitical leadership of Europe for the first time since 1945. Dropping her customary style of leading from behind, Merkel immediately declared Russia’s armed takeover of Crimea to be unacceptable in Europe’s hard-won “peace order” of the past 70 years. Like U.S. President Barack Obama, she sensibly rejected putting Western boots on the ground in a theater where Russia enjoys overwhelming military dominance. She also agreed with Obama that in order to counter Russian aggression, the West had to gamble on pitting its long-term financial might against Russia’s short-term military muscle.

When it came to implementing this strategy, Merkel took charge of Western diplomacy—a task that Obama, fully occupied with other world crises, essentially outsourced to Berlin. Merkel was the one Western leader who still had Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ear, partly because she speaks Russian (which she learned in her East German school days) and partly because Germany has been Russia’s best Western friend ever since Moscow peacefully withdrew its forces from eastern Germany a quarter of a century ago. As the Russian takeover of Crimea progressed last March and April, Merkel remained in constant phone contact with Putin, counseling him to pull back from Ukraine while the

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