The Ukrainian crisis is important in itself, but the behavior it has elicited from Germany is perhaps more important. Berlin directly challenged Ukraine's elected president for refusing to tighten relations with the European Union and for mistreating Ukrainians who protested his decision. In challenging President Viktor Yanukovich, Berlin also challenged Russia, a reflection of Germany's recent brazen foreign policy.
Since the end of World War II, Germany has pursued a relatively tame foreign policy. But over the past week, Berlin appeared to have acknowledged the need for a fairly dramatic change. German leaders, including the chancellor, the president, the foreign minister and the defense minister, have called for a new framework that contravenes the restraint Germany has practiced for so long. They want Germany to assume a greater international role by becoming more involved outside its borders politically and militarily.
For Berlin, the announcement of this high-level strategic shift comes amid a maelstrom of geopolitical currents. As the de facto leader of the European Union, Germany has to contend with and correct the slow failure of the European project. It has to adjust to the U.S. policy of global disengagement, and it must manage a complex, necessary and dangerous relationship with Russia. A meek foreign policy is not well suited to confront the situation in which Germany now finds itself. If Germany doesn't act, then who will? And if someone else does, will it be in Germany's interest? The latter is perhaps the more intriguing question.
Such a reconfiguration shows that Germany has its own national interests that may differ from those of its alliance partners. For most countries, this would seem self-evident. But for Germany, it is a radical position, given its experience in World War II. It has refrained from asserting a strong foreign policy and from promoting its national interest lest it revive fears of German aggression and German nationalism. The Germans may have decided that this position is no longer tenable -- and that promoting their national interests does not carry the risk it once did.
The timing of the announcement, as Ukraine's strategic position between Russia and Europe continues to make headlines, was not coincidental. While the timing benefited Germany, it would be a mistake to ascribe too much importance to Ukraine itself, particularly from the German perspective. That is not to say Ukraine should be discounted entirely. As a borderland between the European Peninsula and Russia, its future potentially matters to Germany -- if not now then perhaps in the future, when unexpected regional realities might show themselves.
Ukraine is an indispensable borderland for Russia, but it has little value for any modern power that has no designs against Russia. It is one of the gateways into the heart of Russia. A hostile power occupying Ukraine would threaten Russian national security. But the reverse is not true: Ukraine is not a primary route from Russia into Europe (World War II is a notable exception) because the Carpathian Mountains discourage invasion. So unless the Germans are planning a new war with Russia -- and they aren't -- Ukraine matters little to Europe or the Germans.
The same is true in the economic realm. Ukraine is important to Russia, particularly for transporting energy to Europe. But outside of energy transport, Ukraine is not that important to Europe. Indeed, for all that has been said about Ukraine's relationship to the European Union, it has never been clear why the bloc has made it such a contentious issue. The European Union is tottering under the weight of Southern Europe's enormously high unemployment rate, Eastern Europe's uncertainty about the value of being part of Europe's banking system and currency union, and a growing policy rift between France and Germany. The chances that the Europeans would add Ukraine to an organization that already boasts Greece, Cyprus and other crippled economies are so slim that considerations to the contrary would be irrational. The fact that Ukraine is not getting into the bloc makes German policy even harder to fathom.
Of course, some European countries have more of an interest in Ukraine than others, particularly those formerly in the Soviet sphere of influence. For Poland and the Baltic states, Russia remains the major geopolitical foe in a way that Western Europe cannot fully comprehend. These relatively small and new members cannot compel the EU heavyweights to commit to a plan of action that would go too far in provoking Russia, but they can still push their peers to take a more measured action.
During the Orange Revolution, U.S.-led Western powers openly funded opposition groups in the former Soviet states, threatening Russia's strategic interests to the point that it had to eventually invade Georgia to show the consequences of Western meddling. Over the past month, Germany has been behaving similarly, albeit to a smaller degree: opening partisan ties and giving relatively low-cost financial and rhetorical support to opposition groups that can irritate Russia without actually causing an immediate break with Moscow.
For the past decade, Germany could not afford to alienate Russia, which Berlin thought could be the answers to some of Germany's problems. It could reliably supply relatively cheap energy, it was a potential source of low-cost labor, and it was a potential destination market for German exporters looking for alternatives to stagnating EU markets.
Diplomatically, Moscow could have become a close ally and strategic partner as erstwhile allies appeared to be growing increasingly hostile to Germany. Relations with the United States were tense ever since Berlin refused to participate in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Chancellor Angela Merkel's support for EU-wide austerity measures strained Germany's ties with Southern Europe and France.