Angie the Good Cop

Why Germany can’t afford to get tough on Russia.

Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

BERLIN — Germany has long taken the easy path with foreign policy — content to write checks for international engagements while leaving the heavy lifting to its allies in Washington, Paris, and London. Today, there’s no such luxury: Germany is now the pivotal player in the Ukraine crisis. And the world is watching.

Berlin’s relations with Moscow are complex, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relations to Russian President Vladimir Putin even more so. Yet the ball is now in Germany’s court, and its instinct to pursue diplomacy is right.

Not so long ago, of course, it would have been the United States calling the shots, with Germany following along like the humble, reliable ally it had been. But the tables are turned. Washington is paying the price for having neglected Europe for years, tapping the phones of the continent’s leaders rather than engaging them in serious consultation and policymaking. Its high-handed dealings with Russia since the end of the Cold War have served to alienate and radicalize the country, which is just part of the explanation for the current disaster in Crimea.

As for the European Union, its foreign-policymaking apparatus is still not up to the task of diffusing such a high-level crisis involving the transgression of state sovereignty in Europe itself. So it falls to Germany, the de facto leader of the European Union today — another role it never wanted.

The dilemma at hand is not that a bellicose Germany might abuse this newfound authority, but rather that it’s not up to the task.

Since Merkel took office nine years ago, she has avoided formulating a farsighted, proactive foreign policy, choosing instead to muddle from crisis to crisis, following the lead of either the United States or her European allies. Big visions and bold gestures aren’t her style, admittedly, but Germany has mostly shirked the responsibility that comes with its magnitude of economic clout and geostrategic position. Relations with Russia are no exception.

But Germany’s unenviable position isn’t Merkel’s doing alone — not by any means. The current paucity of options and even Russia’s irrational, self-destructive seizure of Crimea has its roots in the post-Cold War policies of the 1990s, when there was a window to rethink Europe and create structures that would supersede those of the East-West conflict.

Indeed, just prior to that time, it was the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev who envisaged a "common European house" from the Atlantic to the Urals in which the United States and Canada would also have rooms. In 1989 he told the Council of Europe that a European security system encompassing all of Europe would undermine the old logic of "alliance against alliance."

But rather than pick up on ideas of a pan-European security architecture — for example, by beefing up or restructuring the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) — the United States and its European allies maintained NATO, their Cold War military alliance and a flagrant red flag for Russia. Moscow objected every step of the way while NATO expanded eastward from 1999 to 2009. In 2008, the alliance promised NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine — and later that same year, Russia invaded Georgia. Whether justified or not, Moscow sees NATO as an enemy — a threat to its national security and one creeping ever closer to its borders. Putin and his associates couldn’t have made their concerns more public, time and again. Yet their cries were ignored.

The result was a Europe divided — with poor, dysfunctional states like Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova floating in limbo between the Western alliance and Russia. Out of neglect, the OSCE fell into disrepair and became the best argument for never going down a pan-European path.

So now negotiators, in Berlin and elsewhere, are faced with a Russia largely outside institutional structures other than the United Nations and the G-8. As far as the Germans are concerned, U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal to boot Russia out of the G-8 is a move in exactly the wrong direction: Russia has to be brought to the negotiating table, its concerns addressed (where they are legitimate), and a time table established for its withdrawal from Crimea.

Germany maintains closer relations to Russia than any other country in the European Union. Germany is Russia’s third-largest trade partner; only 10 countries sell more to Germany than does Russia. And with trade increasing between the countries each year, the two countries naturally depend on each other. Germany exports BMWs, machinery, and chemicals to Russia, while Russia sells Germany over a third of its natural gas and oil. This translates into influence — the kind the United States simply doesn’t have.

Merkel and Putin have known each other for 14 years now, and they are said to talk frankly — Merkel in German, Putin in Russian (even though they each are fluent in the other’s native language), both occasionally interrupting their interpreters to distinguish finer points. The two have a shared history — the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — even before they met, though on opposite sides of the ideological barricades. Merkel was the daughter of a Protestant pastor raised in communist East Germany. Putin was in the KGB when he lived in the GDR, working out of Dresden.

Yet, Merkel also has had a testy relationship with Putin. In office, she has differed pointedly from her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who, as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, brazenly cozied up to Putin — even going so far as to call him a "spotless democrat." The Social Democrats in general, following in the spirit of their Cold War-era Ostpolitik, have been more eager than German conservatives to reach out to Russia — and look the other way on human rights violations (indeed, just as they did during the years of the normalization policies in the 1960s and 1970s).

Merkel is cut from a different cloth from her current coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party. From the time she took office in 2005, she pledged to be tougher with Russia and China on human rights — something that has happened to a degree, at least compared with Schröder. Putin’s authoritarian style, macho persona, and old-school mentality obviously grate on Merkel, but Berlin has kept up good relations with Russia nevertheless. This is paying off now.

The person who may make the difference is not Merkel, but rather Germany’s newly renamed foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. A Social Democrat, he was Schröder’s chief of staff; as foreign minister in Merkel’s first government, from 2005 to 2009, Steinmeier struggled to distance himself from his former boss’s coddling of Putin, while at the same time keeping Russia in play. When Steinmeier reassumed his post in the current government in late 2013, he promised a more substantial German foreign policy — though without giving many details. Little did he know how quickly he’d be put to the test.

When Steinmeier and the E.U. negotiating team brokered a deal in Kiev in late February — including the formation of a national unity government — it looked like he was off to a promising start. Indeed, a bracing rebuke to "Fuck the E.U."

But in hindsight, the terms of the deal may have precipitated Putin’s Crimea gambit. The new Ukrainian government didn’t include a single Russian-speaking native, though Russian speakers account for a third of Ukraine’s population. In fact, the government included several members of the far-right, Ukrainian nationalist Svoboda party in key positions. Shortly after the deal was struck, the armed rightists "protecting" the parliament pressured the legislature to rescind a law guaranteeing the special status of the Russian language in Ukraine’s east and south.

Because no one else can do it, the Germans have another chance. Berlin’s most recent proposal is to establish an ad hoc contact group for negotiations and an OSCE fact-finding mission to evaluate the claims of human rights violations on the ground. Putin approved both measures on the phone with Merkel. These are solid steps in the right direction and typically German: engagement rather than isolation. The Russians have to be given room to back down, reasons Berlin, which is ultimately in Moscow’s best interests. This makes far more sense than the hysterical threats and doomsday scenarios coming out of Washington. The specter of sanctions can maximize leverage, but nothing would aggravate the crisis and solidify the Russian presence in Crimea more than involving NATO or otherwise militarizing the situation.

What we haven’t heard from Merkel or Steinmeier are demands that the interim government in Kiev be reshuffled, the extremists replaced at once by representatives from the Russian-speaking regions, and Russian re-established as an official language.

A concrete date for internationally supervised nationwide elections in May would underscore the government’s temporary nature and the country’s unity. This could then set the stage for Russia-Ukraine talks, which need to happen in the immediate future. Perhaps, with the fears of the Russian speakers in mind, international monitors could replace the Russian troops in Crimea. Measures like these would go a long way to defusing the situation, which is not, as has been claimed, the gravest crisis in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not yet.

Of course, this is all too little, too late and can only be the prelude to deep-seated changes in U.S.-Europe-Russia relations, including the creation of adequate security structures. Germany and the European Union have to make Russia a better offer than the lopsided post-Cold War démarche that redivided Europe in the first place, while at the same time being firm about human rights.

Russia scholar Edward Walker, for example, wisely suggests alternative institutional arrangements for European security, like a NATO-Russia-Ukraine treaty that ensures military neutrality and a common customs regime for Ukraine for trade with both the European Union and Russia. This kind of creative geostrategic thinking (which West Germany practiced gracefully at the height of the East-West conflict) has been woefully absent in recent years.

As infuriating as Russia can be, excluding it is much more risky than dealing with it. This much, at least, the Germans grasp. Perhaps the Crimea crisis provides the shove that Merkel and Germany, as a whole, obviously require to make foreign policy a priority again. It’s been too long in coming.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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