Courtesy Reuters

Germany’s Real Role in the Ukraine Crisis

Caught Between East and West

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 West could still help him save face. Her warning was firm from the outset: Russia would come under severe financial sanctions if Putin refused to comply. Yes, the sanctions would hurt Europe’s economy, but they would damage Russia’s economy far more—and he should not expect Germany’s pro-Russian businesses to veto the measures.


Early on, Germany and the United States agreed to resolve their tactical differences pragmatically, by writing separate but overlapping lists of sanction targets. Washington’s list sought to punish Putin—and, Russian officials alleged, to force regime change on Moscow. By contrast, Berlin’s list was specifically aimed at deterring future aggression in Ukraine and was set to expire after one year.


The unwonted activism of the Christian Democratic chancellor met with skepticism in the United States, in Europe, and certainly in Russia. Western critics thought that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her Social Democratic foreign minister, would never cross his political mentor and Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who is now on the Russian oil giant Gazprom’s payroll and has never publicly criticized Putin’s land grab. Yet when it came to Ukraine, Steinmeier broke from Schröder by repeatedly condemning Russia’s Crimea snatch as resolutely as Merkel did. 


Even more surprising was Merkel’s success in winning acceptance of financial sanctions from the German business lobby, which represents some 6,000 firms with 300,000 employees that depend on Germany’s annual trade with Russia. Even though sanctions would shrink German exports to Russia by 26 percent from mid-2013 to mid-2014, Merkel was able to persuade key executives that Europe’s security had to trump profits. 


Armed with Germany’s own example of tolerating economic pain to uphold Europe’s taboo on the forcible change of borders, Merkel then convinced her 27 partner states in the EU to do the same. France reluctantly suspended the planned delivery of two helicopter carriers to Russia. The United Kingdom subordinated the commercial interests of London banks and realtors to the commonweal. Even Hungary, despite its recent vaunted turn to Russia, chose not to be the odd man out. By rallying the EU countries to the common cause, Merkel got the union to unanimously agree to impose three rounds of sanctions on Putin’s wealthy inner circle.


The one constituency that Merkel did not court personally was the German public. Nonetheless, her actions—and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last July over eastern Ukraine—triggered a public debate that has transformed Germans’ views of Russia. Last April, polls showed that 49 percent of the country wanted Germany to serve as a neutral mediator between the United States and Russia. By December, however, 61 percent said that they supported Berlin’s increasingly sharp tone 
toward Russia.


WALKING THE WALK


The most urgent challenge to Western diplomacy after Russia annexed Crimea was to keep Putin talking rather than shooting. He was riding high on domestic applause, just as Ukraine was at the apex of its vulnerability. The interim Ukrainian government, appointed by the parliament after Viktor Yanukovych, the former president, had decamped to Russia, was weak. The long-neglected Ukrainian army was in a shambles. Up to 80,000 Russian troops were conducting maneuvers on Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders. Meanwhile, separatists in eastern Ukraine, led by Russian commanders, were seizing municipal buildings and declaring their allegiance to Novorossiya, or “New Russia,” the tsarist-era name for the region.


In this menacing atmosphere, Germany initiated talks in Geneva in mid-April with one central objective: de-escalating the conflict. In the short term, the talks induced Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to negotiate directly with his new Ukrainian counterpart, thereby acknowledging the Ukrainian minister’s legitimacy. More important, over the medium term, the meeting gave the West a pact with concrete provisions, however weak, on which it could hold Russia to account. Despite these results, however, some Western critics argued that the deal afforded Russia an illegitimate role in deciding its victim’s future and allowed the EU to dawdle on toughening sanctions. Some observers even accused Germany of appeasement.


Indeed, the Geneva agreement was not backed by any hard power to deter Russia from further dismembering Ukraine. Rather, the main reason Putin refrained from military action in the late spring of 2014 was probably his assumption that he could achieve his objectives without the use of force—by manipulating Kiev’s neophyte politicians and relying on the German business community to block the EU sanctions. The Geneva deal did, however, help inhibit a large-scale Russian attack during the critical month of May, allowing Ukraine to conduct a legitimate presidential election and giving its government and army precious time to regroup. The Ukrainian military, bolstered by volunteers and purged of at least some of its Russian agents, was able to resume its counteroffensive after a disastrous earlier campaign. By August, it had pushed the separatists back to their two core enclaves in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and was preparing to deliver the coup de grâce.


At that point, Putin drew a line in the sand. He would not let his proxies be defeated. Even as he continued to deny that Russian regular forces were fighting in Ukraine, he sent elite paratroopers there in what amounted to Russia’s first direct invasion of the country. In a few short days last August, 7,000 Russian troops overran at least five of Ukraine’s 15 brigades, according to the Potomac Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit research group. Kiev got the message and agreed to a truce. This time around, Germany was able to ensure that the pact contained the outline of a semipermanent cease-fire—and thus laid down clear markers for what Moscow needed to do to win relaxation of the West’s sanctions. 


By December 2014, Putin had stopped dismissing Western sanctions as a pinprick. The economic measures against Russia magnified the impact of the collapsing oil prices and closed off Western investment. By January, the ruble had dropped to half its value of a year earlier and capital flight had soared to an estimated $130 billion. Even Putin must now understand that Merkel’s early warnings were no bluff, and he has to reconsider the forces that his belligerence has unleashed. He has by now largely lost Novorossiya, where many Russian speakers have soured on his proxies’ arbitrary rule. Meanwhile, rather than buckling, Ukrainians have developed a much stronger national identity as a result of his actions. And in Russia itself, a recent public opinion poll found that two-thirds of Russians would not want their sons to be sent to fight in Ukraine. Moreover, the crisis is now undermining Moscow’s power elsewhere on the map, as Chechnya threatens to explode and as Russia’s longtime allies Belarus and Kazakhstan are slyly distancing themselves from their belligerent neighbor. 


A PERSISTENT MYTH

Given that Germany has played such an essential role in the Ukraine crisis, why do so many pundits continue to believe that Germany resisted sanctions and might even defect from the West? 


Four reasons come to mind. First, Merkel’s effort to win support for sanctions within her grand coalition, Germany’s pro-Russian business lobby, and the EU operated so smoothly that the evolution seemed to happen automatically. Second, outsiders tend to misunderstand how foreign policy is shaped in Germany, and they often conflate opinion polls and TV talk shows with state strategy. Yet German foreign policy remains an elite affair that is resolved within a notably stable centrist consensus. 


Third, observers often misunderstand Germany’s unique role in forging common policy among the EU’s 
28 member states. Berlin regularly helps build consensus by digging into its deep pockets, of course. But as a true believer in the European dream of integration, it also does so by lending a sympathetic ear to the smallest, as well as the biggest, members and formulating ways to blend varied interests. This unique role is the reason Polish and Norwegian policy experts call Germany the EU’s “indispensable nation,” and why the German state secretary, Markus Ederer, has described his country as Europe’s CFO—short for “chief facilitating officer.”


The fourth reason Germany has failed to get the credit it deserves can be traced to the latent fear—which persists even 70 years after 1945 and despite the deep repudiation of Hitler’s crimes by today’s German citizens—that the Germans could again succumb to their old anti-Western and antiliberal temptations. But evidence to support such worries is hard to find. On the contrary, well-coordinated Western sanctions, the Ukrainian armed forces’ resolute defense of their homeland, and Merkel’s patient diplomacy have so far produced the least worst outcome—one that no optimist could have dreamed of when Putin annexed Crimea one year ago.


ELIZABETH POND is a Berlin-based journalist who has covered Germany and Ukraine for 30 years. She is the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification and The Rebirth of Europe.

KUNDNANI REPLIES:

Much of Elizabeth Pond’s account of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the Ukraine crisis is accurate. In particular, Pond is of course correct to argue that Merkel has supported, rather than opposed, sanctions against Russia. In fact, I acknowledged that point at the outset of my essay. But Pond perhaps oversimplifies the recent evolution of Berlin’s policy toward Moscow—as the German strategy shifted in response to Russian actions in Ukraine and to public opinion within Germany over this past year—and exaggerates the degree of consensus within Germany on this subject. Most important, Pond misunderstands the significance of the German response to the Ukraine crisis to my broader argument about Germany’s relationship with the West.


My essay neither claimed that Germany “resisted” the imposition of sanctions against Russia, as Pond suggests, nor accused Berlin of “appeasing Moscow.” Rather, I explained that after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Germany was initially reluctant to impose sanctions. German policymakers insisted on dialogue with Russia and the need for a political solution, and they took some time to accept that Russian expansionism required more than a purely diplomatic response. Although Germany subsequently supported sanctions, it did resist other measures that could have deterred further Russian aggression and reassured NATO members near Russia’s borders. There was never any question of putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, but Germany also opposed a permanent NATO presence in the newer member states of the alliance, which provoked anger in countries such as Poland.


Nevertheless, I acknowledged the pressures that Merkel faced and wrote that she “had to walk a fine line.” In that sense, I agree with Pond that Merkel has shown leadership. I am not convinced, however, that Merkel broke with her usual leadership style in her response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea; rather, the cautious, step-by-step approach she has taken seems to be typical. I also acknowledged that Merkel ultimately helped persuade other EU member states, such as Italy, to go along with the sanctions. But Pond is wrong to suggest that Merkel convinced the United Kingdom to do so; the British government was, for better or worse, more hawkish toward Russia from the start than the German government.


Pond argues that “outsiders tend to misunderstand how foreign policy is shaped in Germany.” She is correct to describe German foreign-policy making as “an elite affair.” But this process has changed somewhat over the past decade, as German foreign policy has become increasingly responsive to domestic pressures—or “domesticated,” as the German political scientist Sebastian Harnisch has described it. German politicians are now constrained by public opinion in ways that are different from the past. As a result, opinion polls—which, incidentally, Pond also cites—matter for state strategy. This is particularly the case with regard to Russia, a subject on which Germany is deeply divided. In fact, in December, a number of well-known Germans, including the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the former president Roman Herzog, signed a petition calling for the German government to “integrate,” rather than “exclude,” Russia. Moreover, the business sector’s lobbying has also increasingly constrained German foreign policy—particularly on Russia but also on China.


Above all, my argument was not that Berlin’s response to the Ukraine crisis shows that Germany is pivoting away from the West. What I contended was that the Westbindung is now a choice rather than a necessity, and it has weakened in the 25 years since reunification. As a result, it is now possible to imagine a post-Western German foreign policy emerging in the long term—despite Germany’s response to the Ukraine crisis rather than because of it. In particular, Germany’s relationship with China, which Pond does not mention in her response at all, will ultimately prove more significant in this respect than its relationship with Russia. In short, it is too soon to judge whether Germany 
is “leaving the West behind.”

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