Germany Plays Good Cop, Bad Cop on Ukraine

By Ulrich Speck

The euro crisis revealed that Berlin has become the EU's most important capital today. But that crisis was mainly about internal relations among EU states. The conflict with Russia over Ukraine, by contrast, is the first serious foreign policy crisis the EU has faced where Germany is clearly in the driver's seat. While Berlin will not be a leader on EU policies on the Middle East and North Africa anytime soon-here, France and Britain are much more active and interested-it has taken on a leadership role in dealing with Russia in the conflict over the joint neighborhood.

How has Germany performed in that role, and what are the shortcomings of its approach? Broadly speaking, the West has two goals in its confrontation with Russia, and it is against this backdrop that Germany's handling of the Ukraine crisis should be assessed. The first objective is to defend key rules of the international order, especially the norms of territorial integrity and sovereignty of states, against the assault by Russia. Moscow must understand that the West stands ready to defend this order at least with nonmilitary means, and that Ukraine is an independent state with the same rights as all other states in today's international order. The West's second goal is to keep Russia engaged, to prevent it from becoming a hostile power.

Western and, by implication, German policies in Europe's East need to deliver on both fronts: confronting Russia while at the same time keeping the door open to cooperation. So far in the Ukraine crisis, Germany has pursued just such a two-pronged approach-and with a fair degree of success.

Merkel as Bad Cop

During the Ukraine crisis, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who took on the confrontational part of the game with Russia, on behalf of Germany as well as on behalf of the EU. Merkel was a key factor in bringing together a broad Western coalition-the EU and the United States-that threatened Russia with massive sanctions if Moscow openly attacked and invaded Ukraine (beyond its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which has been accepted as a fait accompli). Merkel also played a central role in keeping the coalition together over several months. It was the German chancellor who communicated the West's views and expectations to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it was she who negotiated on behalf of the EU with U.S. President Barack Obama-despite not having an official mandate to represent all 28 EU member states.

To be effective, the West's threat of massive sanctions had to be credible. Western nations signaled their determination to the Kremlin by achieving and upholding unity: light sanctions against individuals were applied by both the EU and the United States, in tandem. This was a clear demonstration to Russia that the West was united and ready for confrontation, and that there was no chance for the Kremlin to break up the Western coalition by playing divide and rule.

Moving an EU of 28 countries with very diverse positions on Russia toward a joint approach was a major achievement that would have been impossible without Merkel's strong engagement. And keeping up the threat of massive sanctions over a lengthy period of months was another considerable success for Germany and like-minded countries in the EU.

Critics have noted that Merkel has moved the goalposts several times by shifting her position on the question of what behavior from Russia would trigger massive economic sanctions. On March 13, 2014, she warned that such sanctions would follow "in the event that Russia further destabilizes the situation in Ukraine." On May 10, she said this would happen if presidential elections in Ukraine scheduled for May 25 failed.

Overall, however, the threat of sanctions seems to have worked. The West's united stance played a major role in limiting Russia's policy options and shaping its behavior in the second chapter of the Ukraine crisis (the first being the annexation of Crimea). By acting in concert, the West used its economic leverage to force Russia to use only indirect means of destabilization in Ukraine. Western decisiveness appears to have compelled the Kremlin to act in a way that allowed it to deny any direct involvement in the insurgency in the east of the country. Russia has constantly been forced to pretend it is nothing but a concerned neighbor, not an active player inside Ukraine (beyond Crimea). That Merkel and Obama could wield the stick of sanctions in their regular conversations with Putin was, to a great extent, the feat of the German chancellor.

Steinmeier as Good Cop

What made Merkel's "sticks" approach politically acceptable was that it came in tandem with a "carrots" approach by the German foreign minister.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had already worked with Merkel as foreign minister in a previous grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats between 2005 and 2009, was enormously engaged in finding a diplomatic, cooperative solution to the crisis. In that first term, Steinmeier, who had been former chancellor Gerhard Schröder's chief of staff from 1999 to 2005, already put a lot of emphasis on cooperation with Russia. In 2008-2009, he pushed for a "partnership for modernization."

When Steinmeier was reappointed foreign minister in December 2013, he made clear that "building bridges" with Russia would again be a main point on his agenda. At the same time, he clearly condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine. While Steinmeier wants to build Europe with Russia, as he said at the Munich Security Conference on February 1, 2014, he has consistently stated that this cannot happen at the expense of fundamental European values and norms.

During the Ukraine crisis, Steinmeier has put the German diplomatic machinery into high gear to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict with Russia. Together with Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, Steinmeier tried on February 20 to strike a deal between the forces of the Maidan pro-democracy movement and Ukraine's then president, Viktor Yanukovych. He pushed hard for diplomatic talks between the United States, the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, which took place in Geneva on April 17. The following month, he was a key promoter of roundtable talks in Kiev headed by former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger. And he has held countless other meetings with all players in the crisis, often with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

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Ulrich Speck is a Visiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. This analysis first appeared in Carnegie Europe and has been reprinted with the author's permission.

(AP Photo)

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