Merkel Shows Her Mettle

By Elizabeth Pond

Reacting to Crimean annexation, Merkel sets a hard line precedent

It was not inevitable that Angela Merkel would become Europe’s geopolitical as well as financial leader when Vladimir Putin pulled off the continent’s first armed land grab since World War II. Only in retrospect did her leadership seem preordained.

Photo © Deutscher Bundestag / Achim Melde

Until last week the German chancellor avoided taking any high-politics security decisions beyond staying close – mostly – to Germany’s security patron and mentor, the United States. Her own style was famously low-key – a trait that enhanced her popularity with voters and frustrated political rivals and allies alike. Her foreign policy instincts chimed with the German post-Hitler “culture of restraint,” as her previous Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle liked to call it. And that combination let her slip out of joining NATO sorties that helped topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, while deflecting American blame for the German abstention onto Westerwelle.

The very difficult confrontation over Ukraine seemed an unlikely crisis to shift Merkel to a more assertive security role. In this utterly unexpected contest, the “correlation of forces” – to use the Soviet term – overwhelmingly favored Moscow. One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, no Western nation would go to war to defend a weak Ukraine that was not a member of NATO.

In addition, Russia’s stake in the crisis was vastly higher than the West’s, and if escalation led to war, Ukraine’s small, underfunded, badly equipped army would be no match for Russian tanks rolling over Ukraine’s border from Russia to the east, from Crimea in the south, and from the Russian-controlled no-man’s-land of Transnistria in the southwest.

Even the interest in Ukraine on the part of the civilian European Union was minimal. The EU had negotiated its Association Agreement with Kiev only as a bureaucratic, low-politics exercise. It was astounded when President Putin saw the aborted trade pact as a strategic threat to Russia, and when hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians embraced the idea of a European identity so fervently they mourned its demise – some giving their lives for it – over three frigid months of protest on Kiev’s Maidan.

Moreover, in Berlin there were strong pro-Moscow lobbies. Both the energy sector that imports 40 percent of Germany’s gas from Russia and the 6200 German enterprises that export capital goods to Russia campaigned over decades to keep their commerce separate from politics. And the Social Democrats, who rejoined Merkel’s conservative bloc in a grand coalition three months ago, were still nostalgic for the 1980s era of détente and “change through rapprochement” that had helped assure peaceful reunification of West and East Germany under Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. The center-left still hoped that Putin might drop his demonization of the West and realize that cooperation was the best way to attract European investment and know-how to modernize the old-fashioned Russian economy of mineral extraction and rent-seeking.

Merkel’s Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, segued from the chancellory into an executive position with the majority Russian-owned Nord Stream gas pipeline, has recently been sympathetic to Russian claims that taking Crimea back from Ukraine was a vital national interest.

In such a cozy atmosphere, Chancellor Merkel was at first vague about imposing Western sanctions on Russian officials if Putin actually carried out seizure of Crimea. Yet by last week the looming Russian takeover of Crimea put unprecedented steel into Merkel’s voice and presumably revived her memory of growing up in Russia’s client state of East Germany. In her speech during the Bundestag debate on the Ukraine crisis on March 13, Merkel bluntly called Russia’s action a reversion to “the law of the jungle,” to “the right of the strong against the strength of rights.”

She called the past half-century of “peace, freedom, and prosperity” that had been created by an integrating Europe and the transatlantic democratic alliance a feat that “still today borders on a miracle.” She chastised Russia for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine and “exploiting” its weaknesses instead of acting as a “partner for stability in a neighbor country that is so intimately bound to it historically, culturally, and economically.”

John Kornblum, former US ambassador to Germany and frequent critic of Berlin’s timidity in security policy, understood the speech immediately as a welcome transformation. “I see it as a major step upward and forward for Merkel,” he commented, adding that as far as he could tell, German-American coordination as the crisis built up was exemplary.

In the remaining days before Russia formalized its annexation of Crimea, Merkel, along with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry, continued their barrage of phone calls to the Kremlin to urge a last-minute pullback by Putin. Merkel, who had the least abrasive relations with Putin of any Western leader, was the last hope. When she too failed to forestall the unthinkable and persuade Putin to soften his insistence on what she called “unilateral geopolitical interests” in favor of “understanding and cooperation,” the West accelerated contingency plans for financial sanctions on Putin’s inner circle.

In her March 13 speech [DE], the chancellor clearly warned Putin of the consequences if he persisted in his course. “Russia’s conduct in Ukraine constitutes an unambiguous breach of the principles of fundamental international law … in the center of Europe, and after this we must not and cannot return to business as usual.” If needed, the EU was ready to implement its provisional “third stage” of financial and travel sanctions on leading Russian officials involved in the military occupation of Crimea, she said. She pledged political and economic solidarity with Ukraine and, for good measure, with Moldova and Georgia, should they face Russian intimidation.

Chancellor Merkel now needs to sell her tough new line at home and inside the EU. Already her admonition to German business lobbies to subordinate profits to the upholding of European values like rule of law and peaceful settlement of disputes seems to be deterring expressions of understanding for Putin’s actions from the business community. And Putin’s brazen military occupation of Ukrainian territory has also moved Britain to debate higher legal barriers to accepting laundered Russian money in its banks as well as France to discuss canceling a Russian order for two helicopter carriers.

After his first flush of victory, Vladimir Putin may begin to wonder if he is in fact sparking the very thing he seems to fear: formation at long last of a strategic European community to supplement the economic and legal communities of the European Union.


Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author of The Rebirth of Europe. She has reported on Ukraine over the past three decades.




This article was originally published by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V.