When President Barack Obama invited Chancellor Angela Merkel in early January of this year to visit Washington, the NSA affair was still uppermost on everyone’s mind. Officially, in their telephone conversation about the visit, the two leaders did not count that affair as a “central transatlantic task for 2014.” Rather, the tasks they named were the negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the European Union as well as the NATO summit in September. The fact, however, that the NSA surveillance operations and German demands for their limitation were going to be an issue was clearly evident in the White House’s rejection last month of the idea of holding, as would be normal, a joint press conference after the meeting.

The Russian annexation of Crimea and the subsequent threat of a take-over of eastern Ukraine in one form or another have changed all that. The main question for the transatlantic relationship has become, yet again, the problem of how to deal with Russia—a perennial problem during the Cold War and one that Russian President Vladimir Putin has resurrected not only in practice through the Crimean fait accompli, but also conceptually through his idea that “The Soviet Union…is Russia, only under a different name” and, more recently, through the Czarist notion of Novorossiya as encompassing both current eastern and southern Ukraine.

Of course, analytical dimensions may have figured in some of the many telephone conversations that have taken place between the two leaders since the outbreak of the crisis over Ukraine. However, the appearance on the internet of the private telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt; about U.S. options in the Ukrainian crisis; and about the role of the—expletive deleted—EU and between EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet about who was to blame for the killing of civilian protesters in Kiev leave little room for doubt as to whether the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) or the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) are any less adept at listening in on confidential conversations. The talks between Obama and Merkel in Washington should, one would hope, be better protected and offer the possibility for candor.

The two leaders most likely have similar—negative—perceptions of Putin. Some indication of this are Obama’s remarks about Putin as “kind of slouch, looking like the bored schoolboy in the back of the classroom,” and as for Merkel, the body language in joint meetings and joint press conferences is telling. But the deceit and succession of lies in the many telephone conversations between Merkel and Putin has even further undermined the chancellor’s view of the Russian leader and eroded the little trust and confidence that may have existed.

Common perceptions about Putin, the system he has established, and Russian domestic and foreign policies are one thing. The construction of a common stance on the Ukrainian crisis and future relationship with Russia is quite another. Thus far, at least, the appearance of unity has been kept, and there is little reason to doubt that both leaders will do their utmost to maintain that impression.

One potential bone of contention is the extent to which measures for enhancing military security and defense are deemed to be required. The forces that carried out the Crimean occupation, in contrast to those employed during the operation in Georgia in 2008, were disciplined, professional, and well equipped, including with compact encrypted radios distributed down to the small-unit level. Their conduct is ample proof that the significant and on-going increases in budgetary allocations and the efforts at modernization of the Russian armed forces have begun to show results. Up to 40,000 Russian troops, the White House says, were until a few days ago engaged in military exercises along Ukraine’s eastern borders. They could easily be re-deployed. There is, therefore, little comfort, at least not for the Ukrainian government or for NATO members such as the Baltic countries, Poland, and Romania, in Obama’s disparaging remarks that Russia is no more than a “regional power” whose actions in Ukraine are an expression of weakness rather than strength. There is little militarily that Kiev could do to prevent the occupation of eastern and southern Ukraine by Russian forces.

For the time being, Obama and Merkel have agreed—and will most likely continue to do so on May 2—to refrain from what, according to the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, would be a “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” in the new member states. The commitment of 600 U.S. paratroopers for temporary exercises in Poland and the Baltics certainly conform neither to the notion of “permanent” nor to “substantial.” The same applies to the AWAC surveillance flights and the projected increase in the number of fighter aircraft assigned to the Baltic “air policing” mission. Such limited moves, on the one hand, are designed to provide reassurance to NATO’s eastern members that the guarantees under its Article 5 will be honored but avoid, as White House spokesmen have said, “pouring fuel on the fire” and, as foreign minister Steinmeier warned, any “militarization” of the Ukrainian crisis.

Policy differences may very well appear, however, with regard to the medium and long term. One can be sure that Obama will return to the perennial U.S. complaint that the Europeans are far from doing enough for defense. He may remind Merkel that whereas the U.S. provides almost 75 percent of NATO military expenditure on defense, almost all European member countries fail to meet the agreed-upon alliance target of 2 percent of gross domestic product; Germany with a mere 1.3 percent is one of the culprits. Given its currently large tax income and healthy budget, Germany could afford to do better. For both domestic (the Social Democratic Party) and foreign policy (Russia) reasons, it is doubtful that Merkel will oblige.

A second possible bone of contention is sanctions. Concerning Iran in the past years, Germany was quite forthcoming, agreeing with the several rounds of sanctions imposed. Concerning Russia, it did not follow suit on the U.S. Congress’ Magnitsky list. At present, in reaction to the Ukrainian crisis, at the surface and for the time being a common position has been constructed. In the telephone conference on April 25, with Obama, Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi participating, agreement was reached on measures conforming to what goes under the name of Phase 2 of sanctions against Russia. However, there has apparently been some disagreement in the White House as to whether the United States should press ahead in front of the Europeans and impose more substantial sanctions on firms in strategic sectors of the Russian economy, such as in energy, the military-industrial complex, and banking, in conformity with what would be envisaged under Phase 3. To some extent, Washington has moved farther than Brussels: The list, announced April 28, includes seven Russian officials and seventeen companies, from the financial, energy, and infrastructure sectors. None of them are major players in the Russian economy, but they are closely linked to the Kremlin. In contrast, however, the new sanctions announced by the EU were limited to an expansion of the list of Russians and Ukrainians blamed for the unrest in the former Soviet satellite, bringing the total of individuals subject to a travel ban and asset freeze to forty-eight. Nothing was said of any asset freezes on Russian companies and banks.

The U.S. Department of State and Department of Commerce additionally announced a policy to deny new export license applications and cancel existing licenses for high-technology items that could contribute to Russia’s military capabilities. That is in line with European practice. Thus, on March 19, the German economics ministry forbid the Rheinmetall arms manufacturer to export an installation for the conduct and monitoring of military exercises, and four days prior to the U.S. government decision, the ministry had announced that, henceforth, it would refuse to accept applications for any military-related equipment and components to Russia. (For about a decade, Germany has not exported weapons per se to Russia.)

The common view also encompasses the necessity for both countries to work together to reduce Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. Evidently, this will not be a matter of a year or two but a long-term endeavor. Credence, however, should be given to the chancellor’s announcement that “There will be a comprehensive review of our whole energy policy.” Even now, one measure has already begun to check Gazprom’s unconstrained wielding of the gas weapon: The German energy giant RWE, through its trading and gas midstream arm RWE Supply and Trading, has re-started deliveries via Poland to the state-owned company “Naftogaz of Ukraine.” These supplies are governed by a five-year framework agreement, which foresees deliveries of up to 10 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas per year subject to individually-agreed contracts. In 2013, RWE Supply & Trading delivered about 1 bcm to Naftogaz.

A third potential area of disagreement concerns the medium to long-term U.S. and European approach to Russia and the issue of containment. If it is correct, as Peter Baker wrote in the New York Times on April 19, that Obama is focused on isolating Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state, there would be trouble. There is no indication that Merkel, let alone her Social Democratic coalition partners or the German public opinion at large, would be prepared to embark on an active policy of containment. A massive Russian military intervention might conceivably change that. However, the Kremlin would be smart enough to find some legitimization that would leave intact the notion that essentially the West is to blame, or has to share some of the responsibility, for the current crisis. “Russia,” as one of the adherents of this argument writes, “considers itself to be on the defensive in the face of a Western forward strategy that threatens Russian security interests.” It is “frustrated” and “strategically on the defensive” because the West had repeatedly “marginalized or circumvented agreements on security.” (Wolfgang Richter, SWP-Aktuell, April 2014).

Such views may not reflect mainstream opinion. Progressively, however, Russia’s image in Germany has deteriorated, falling to an all-time low with the Crimean intervention. At the political level, the special relationship between Germany and Russia, the pretense that the relations had the quality of a “strategic partnership,” the offer of a “modernization partnership,” and the concept of “change through rapprochement” have all collapsed and will in all likelihood not easily be resurrected. Nevertheless, the German mood is entirely against sanctions and the cutoff of ties. Public opinion is in support of the view expressed by Eckhard Cordes, chairman of the Eastern Committee of German Trade and Industry, and others at the height of the Crimean crisis that the utmost should be done not jeopardize “partnership and the political, economic, and cultural exchanges among the countries in the European neighborhood” and that “dialogue on as many levels as possible is the only way to do justice to the manifold interests in European-Russian relations”. If Obama were to aim at constructing a policy of containment, Merkel would in all likelihood refuseto join in such an endeavor.

  • Dr. Edgar B. Schick

    1) The problem of sanctions against Russia is, in many ways, the result of the substantially successful effort to integrate Russia into and with the European and American economies, based on the concept that partners with similar, intertwined needs will grow more closley together and, thus, avoid major conflicts with each other. The irony is that success has led to an inability to break “the tie that binds.”
    2) Putin is succeeding in splitting the U.S. from the Western European component of the EU — a longer term goal — and revealing, in light of Americans’ desire to disengage from foreign interventions, how tightly President Obama’s hands are tied in terms of responses to any but the most direct threats to the U.S.