Germany finally seeing Vladimir Putin for who he really is

When Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Berlin on Thursday, he heaped praise on his hosts: “At no time in my experience has the relationship with Germany and the United States covered more issues around the world, covered them in a deeper fashion and in a more collaborative fashion than we’re doing today. It is truly extraordinary.” President Barack Obama is especially grateful for his partnership with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Blinken added.

Blinken’s effusiveness went beyond diplomatic protocol. Ready or not, Merkel has become the unlikely leader of the pro-Ukrainian cause. The war in Ukraine followed a long chain of unintended consequences, of which Germany’s new role may be the most surprising. Before Russia’s intervention in Ukraine a year ago, Obama was happy not to think about Europe at all. Russian President Vladimir Putin counted on commercial ties and World War II guilt to keep Germany neutralized. And Merkel placed an emphasis on “dialogue” with Russia and stability in Europe.

Russia’s unilateral redrawing of Ukraine’s borders has refocused minds in Germany. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his lies that Russian troops were not involved, and his covert war in eastern Ukraine have eroded trust in the Kremlin. Germany’s political elite — unlike the isolationist, latently anti-American population at large —has no illusions that Putin’s actions are posing the greatest danger to European security since the Cold War.

Newly mobilized Ukrainian paratroopers fire a machine gun during a military drill near Zhytomyr, March 6, 2015. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
Newly mobilized Ukrainian paratroopers fire a machine gun during a military drill near Zhytomyr, March 6, 2015. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who hails from the traditionally Russophile Social Democrats, is the starkest example of this evolution. Steinmeier, together with his French and Polish counterparts, tried to negotiate a settlement between Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine’s president, and anti-government protesters in February 2014. Later, Steinmeier spearheaded Merkel’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the spiraling conflict through the revival of the so-called Minsk agreement. In the process, he suffered the same Kremlin lies that Secretary of State John Kerry complained about last week.

Coincidentally, Steinmeier has just completed an internal review process to bring the Foreign Ministry up to speed with Germany’s increasing responsibility in the world. The biggest change is the creation of a crisis management department whose function will be to identify — and prevent — crises before they blow up. After decades of being denied a foreign policy that went beyond external trade and development aid, Germany is learning to think strategically again.

The 28-member European Union, however, hasn’t even started to consider its strategic purpose. After the collapse of the Soviet empire 25 years ago, trade was supposed to become the new basis for peace on the continent, and the EU took in one eastern European country after the next — until it reached the borders of Ukraine. “We need a strategy,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said at the Munich Security Conference last month. That realization has come a little late and shows how the EU stumbled into the conflict in Ukraine, trumpeting an association agreement while harboring no intention to offer the country membership anytime soon.

For Putin, on the other hand, Ukraine is of strategic significance, and he pounced on Crimea after his client Yanukovych fled Kiev. Although the Kremlin propaganda machine portrays the Maidan protest as a CIA-engineered putsch to oust Yanukovych, U.S. involvement in Ukraine
could best be described as an example of Obama’s foreign policy of studied disinterest. After failing to “reset” relations with Russia in his first term, the last thing the U.S. president wanted was to give Putin an opportunity to reappear on his radar. From the point of view of the White House, Europe was done and dusted — and Putin an alpha dog best not woken.

During Blinken’s visit, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington and the head of the Munich Security Conference, said that he had missed greater American leadership in Europe over the past year: “If we always had the U.S. at the table when we’re talking to the Russians, things might be more balanced and slightly more successful.”

It was unclear whether Ischinger was being more critical of Merkel for barging forward alone or Obama for holding back. In any case, Merkel seized the initiative last month, jetting to Kiev, Moscow, and Minsk with French President François Hollande to save the original cease-fire accord signed in September. Demands in the U.S. Congress to arm Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in his fight with Russia’s proxies provided the impetus for Merkel’s helter-skelter diplomatic mission. Obama seemed relieved to leave the heavy lifting — and risk of failure — to the Germans.

Even though pro-Russian rebels captured the town of Debaltseve after the Minsk-2 agreement, Western leaders are choosing to ignore the violation in the hope that eastern Ukraine will finally calm down now. Merkel’s team is stressing “strategic patience” in Ukraine — after all, Germany had to wait 45 years to achieve its peaceful reunification in 1990. “Maybe it will last a generation to create the conditions that we can talk about a solution of the conflict,” Steinmeier said last week.

So far, the White House is playing along, postponing a planned military training mission in western Ukraine and leaving the issue of arms shipments up in the air. “We’ve worked to pursue diplomacy, which remains the only sustainable answer to the conflict in Ukraine,” Blinken said in Berlin.

“Anything we did in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia,” he said. “Then you may well get into an escalatory cycle that is hard to control and hard to predict.”

The Kremlin’s strength lies in its ability to supply a theoretically unlimited amount of weapons, since Ukraine has lost control over hundreds of miles of border. The West should play to its own strengths, Blinken said, meaning economic sanctions that can be tightened or loosened depending on Putin’s behavior.

The biggest problem with Minsk-2 is that it’s a last resort. If there is a repeat of Debaltseve — for instance a springtime rebel assault on the port of Mariupol — there is no mechanism of enforcement, not to mention adequate monitoring by outside observers. Putin remains in a position to increase pressure on Ukraine as he sees fit.

The West wants to believe sanctions will make Putin crack first. Putin is betting the war will bring Poroshenko down faster. It’s a race to the bottom with no strategy in sight.

Lucian Kim is a Berlin-based journalist who has covered the Ukraine conflict for Slate, Newsweek, and BuzzFeed. He previously worked as a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Moscow and The Christian Science Monitor in Berlin.

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