Merkel’s Leadership in the Ukraine Crisis

Willy-nilly, the Ukraine crisis turned German Chancellor Angela Merkel into the geopolitical as well as financial leader of Europe.

President Joachim Gauck, in the company of Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and newly-minted Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, started to campaign for a more muscular German foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference last February. But it took Russia’s seizure and impending annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in March to make Merkel drop her instinctive leading from behind, a style that was especially conspicuous in foreign policy.

The chancellor’s uncharacteristic summons to a robust Western response was issued in the Bundestag on March 13, two days after the new government that had been installed in Crimea by force of Russian arms declared independence from Ukraine and asked to join Russia—and three weeks after Russian security officials were implicated in the shooting of more than a hundred peaceful demonstrators for democracy in central Kiev.

“Relations among European states were marked for centuries by rivalry, changing alliances, and over and over again by terrible bloodshed” that culminated in the Shoah, she began. The fact that this “terror” was succeeded by more than a half century of European integration and resulting “peace, freedom, and prosperity […] still borders on the miraculous.”

For the daughter of an East German pastor who won a doctorate in physics and entered politics only in her mid-thirties after the Berlin Wall fell and the two Germanys were unified as a single democracy, this was no boilerplate. It was a statement of sorrow that that miracle of peace had been shattered by the first military land-grab in heartland Europe since 1945—and of determination that this recidivism to might-makes-right must be stopped from spreading.

Despite the interdependence of today’s globalization, Merkel explained in her somber speech, the seizure of Crimea reverted to the “conflict of spheres of influence and territorial claims” practiced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “a conflict we thought we had overcome.” The forthcoming referendum on Crimean secession on March 16 was illegal under the Ukrainian constitution and violated the country’s territorial integrity. “The law of the mighty is being pitted against the might of law.”

Neither the European Union, the United States of America, “nor indeed Russia, none of us can still confine itself in the twenty-first century to thinking only in its own interest” regardless of others. Any country that does so “will harm itself sooner or later. […] The action of Russia in Ukraine is an unambiguous breach of the principles of international law,” she proclaimed.

Both the U.S. and the EU flatly ruled out military intervention in Ukraine, which had puny armed forces clustered in the west rather than on the eastern border with Russia, was not a member of the NATO alliance, and lay on the “borderlands” where Moscow had both a vastly higher stake in the outcome than the West did and a looming powerful army that would dominate any escalation of violence. The West therefore countered Russian President Vladimir Putin’s near-term conquest in Crimea with financial sanctions that could bite only in the long term. The challenge would be to calibrate the response in the indeterminate medium term by walking a fine line that avoided both historic mistakes of sleepwalking into World War I in 1914 and appeasing a bully in 1938.

To keep the balance, Merkel would have to perform four roles. She must coax the EU’s twenty-eight diverse members to unite in a fraught and costly common task of rescuing the economic and political basket case of Ukraine, a task they shrank from. She must coordinate Europe’s Ukraine policy with an American president who tended to view foreign policy as a distraction from his primary domestic calling and from constituents who had wearied of being the world’s policeman. She would soon be, in effect, the only Western leader still able to communicate with a Russian president who was bent on revenge for the Ukrainians’ humiliation of him in making an empty shell of the Eurasian Union he had designed to restore Russian greatness. And at home she would have to revive what American analyst Paul Goble calls the “potent alliance within Western countries” that existed during the Cold War “between those concerned with the promotion of democracy and human rights and those concerned with the pursuit of economic profit.”

Europe and Ukraine

The European Union promised at its formal inception two decades ago that all European countries that met its high free-market and democratic standards were welcome to join the club. Six Central European countries that had belonged to Moscow’s external empire during the Cold War and the three Baltic states that had belonged to Moscow’s internal Soviet empire rushed to reform their economies and governance after the Berlin Wall fell and by 2004 and 2007 were accepted for membership. At that point President Putin distinguished between the West’s NATO military alliance and an economic European Union that had only hesitant embryonic military pretensions. The former he viewed negatively, the latter positively, as a potential partner in a “Greater Europe” that would let Russia preserve or reestablish its hegemony over Ukraine and the post-Soviet Central Asian states.

The European Union experienced growth pangs with its new members and shied away from adding to them the manifest problems of a Ukraine that had a larger population than any existing member other than Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain and could easily overwhelm the balance in internal decision-making. After the peaceful “Orange” street revolution in Kiev protested rampant voting fraud in 2004 (when Soviet-style Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory) and forced a rerun of the election that the Orange candidate won, the EU humored Kiev and opened talks about a far-off candidacy for membership. The Orange leaders squabbled among themselves, however, and alienated their electorate so thoroughly that Yanukovych won the presidency in a fairer vote in 2010. He quickly stole the Orange clothes and called for signing an exploratory free-trade “Association Agreement” with the EU—provided that he could do it his way and would not have to reform Ukraine’s oligarchic system or kleptocracy to do so. He just as quickly acquired a reputation as the most extravagant beneficiary of state wealth in the country, a man who seemed never to have learned the folly of killing the golden goose. By 2014 economists calculated that the money siphoned off the state during his term in office by the president’s family and friends could pay off Ukraine’s entire budget deficit of $30 billion accumulated in the same period.

Under the circumstances, Angela Merkel was the most skeptical voice in the EU about the provisionally scheduled signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine last November. In a stance that critics saw as an excuse for rebuffing Ukraine, she insisted that the minimal rule-of-law precondition for association was release of the ailing Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival and former Orange prime minister whom Yanukovych had jailed on flimsy charges.

In the end the EU was spared a final decision. Yanukovych, despite being a Putin loyalist, angered his patron by trying to start a bidding war between Brussels and Moscow for Kiev’s favor. Putin famously viewed the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the twentieth century’s greatest catastrophe and never perceived post-Soviet Ukraine as a real state.  Along with many other Russians, he regarded Ukrainians as younger and more rustic east Slav brothers who should defer to their Russian elders. He suddenly scotched the Ukrainian attempt to leave the Russian orbit by offering new loans to Kiev while threatening to raise the price Ukraine had to pay for crucial imports of Russian gas. Under this pressure, Yanukovych withdrew his application to the EU.

By then Putin viewed the EU as negatively as he did NATO. The European Union, long since resigned to being deprecated by its own citizens as little more than a bureaucratic labyrinth, was astounded to discover that Putin now regarded the EU as a serious geopolitical challenge to his pet project of a Eurasian Union that critics see as the reconstruction of a Soviet Union lite.

What happened next astonished the EU even more. A generation of young Ukrainians who had grown up in the country’s first durable state in history were so passionate about their love for the EU that they set up a tent city in Kiev’s Independence Maidan (square) to fly Ukrainian and EU flags, demand association with the EU as well as democratic reforms, and protest against Ukrainian corruption. An estimated million participants maintained a vigil at “Euromaidan” over three months of below-freezing weather. By 22 January 2014 Yanukovych grew impatient with the standoff and authorized his riot police to use lethal force; three demonstrators were shot dead.

In the next three weeks six more protesters were killed in Kiev, but instead of intimidating demonstrators, the violence simply spread protests to other parts of Ukraine. On a German initiative—and with the prod of phone calls from Merkel to the resistant Yanukovych, as well as to Putin, President Barack Obama, and other EU leaders—the German, Polish, and French foreign ministers met in Kiev on February 21 just after the bloodiest night of all to mediate between Yanukovych and Euromaidan. Snipers had killed more than seventy demonstrators and riot police had been pushed back from the Euromaidan’s burning barricades by street fighters armed with little more than wooden shields, staves, and Molotov cocktails. After the chancellor told Yanukovych bluntly that this was his last chance to end the confrontation peacefully, he agreed to early presidential elections, a return to the less autocratic 2004 constitution, and formation of an interim coalition government. The Russian representative whom the EU had invited Putin to send to the mediation sat in on the talks but declined to sign the agreement.

Yanukovych’s followers in his clientelist Party of Regions quickly deserted their leader and voted with the erstwhile parliamentary opposition to appoint the new caretaker government. Police vanished from the government district in Kiev. On February 22 Yanukovych fled across the border to Russia, and parliament appointed an interim president and set a vote for May 25 to elect a new one. On March 1 and 2 Putin began sending masked special forces in uniforms without insignia into Ukraine’s Crimea. The outgunned Ukrainian armed forces on the peninsula did not resist. On March 13 Merkel delivered her somber warning to the Bundestag.

Deterrence and Sanctions

Ukraine and the West did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nor did the UN General Assembly. They tacitly accepted it as a fait accompli, however, and a special case, given the original quixotic gift of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s.

For the Western alliance, crisis management now turned to the riddle of how to deter any further Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory without putting its own boots on the ground. The issue became increasingly acute as Putin branded the interim Ukrainian government illegal and fascist, ordered Russian military exercises on a 300-degree arc around Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders, talked of “Novorossiya” as Russian, and in April began sending into eastern Ukraine the same kind of masked, well-armed “little green men” who had installed a pro-Russian government in Crimea. “Novorossiya” was Catherine the Great’s term for a territory that covered eight of today’s oblasts in southeastern Ukraine.

Deterrence was relatively simple on the borders of new NATO members that felt endangered by Putin’s threat to “protect” Russian ethnic minorities (or even just Russian speakers) in Ukraine and other neighboring lands. President Obama rejected Warsaw’s appeal to establish a permanent NATO base in Poland—a step the alliance had avoided in deference to Russia ever since NATO’s first eastern enlargement in 1999. He did, however, deploy eighteen additional fast jets and 600 extra troops to rotate into and out of Poland and the Baltic states.

Other NATO members, including Germany, contributed to the modest buildup. This time around, there was no repetition of Merkel’s 2011 refusal to join NATO enforcement of a United Nations-approved no-fly zone in Libya that extended even to abstention on the key UN Security Council vote and withdrawal of German air force members temporarily from the alliance’s multinational AWACS surveillance crews.

Deterrence of further Russian military encroachment on non-NATO Ukraine was a much harder problem. For various military reasons—including the Russian army’s recruitment cycle and hardening of wet spring earth to support tanks, on top of apparent Russian military caution about mounting an invasion that would succeed quickly but could lead to a lengthy quagmire of guerrilla warfare—Russia’s window of greatest opportunity and Ukraine’s window of greatest danger would be the month leading up to Kiev’s presidential election on May 25.

The West’s main answer to the conundrum was financial and travel sanctions. American intelligence eavesdropping over the previous decade had improved to make digital financial transfers easier to trace. Longstanding Western sanctions finally seemed to be having a positive effect on Iranian nuclear negotiations. And Russia’s economy was sufficiently globalized by 2014 that it would suffer tangibly from financial sanctions over time.

The problem with using this blunt tool for immediate deterrence was threefold. It would take time for the effect of sanctions on the Russian economy to become apparent. It would take even more time for the economic damage to become apparent to Putin, who surrounded himself with an inner circle of fellow ex-KGB hardliners and rarely let economic advisers get through the carapace to tell him about the effect of the Ukraine crisis on capital flight from Russia or the drying up of new foreign investments. Moreover, it would be almost impossible either to fine-tune or, eventually, at a discreet moment, to drop the sanctions, especially in the U.S. Congress.

For these reasons, Merkel wanted to proceed more slowly with escalating sanctions than some in the Obama administration. She wanted to postpone ratcheting up sanctions on individual persons and firms to draconian sectoral levels in order to keep intermediate levels of tougher measures in reserve for signaling. Inevitably, her preference for restraint was interpreted by many in the American commentariat as an attempt—at the cost of principled transatlantic toughness on the geopolitical issues—to protect the huge €79 billion two-way annual German-Russian trade and the 6,000 German firms and 300,000 German jobs that depend on it. Nonetheless, she lobbied successfully with Washington for her preferred course of action.

After a transatlantic spat in early February in which a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State cursed the Europeans for refusing to join the U.S. in threatening sanctions if Ukrainian leaders killed any more Euromaidan demonstrators, the allies made up. The outcome was an initial set of travel bans and freezing of assets held in the West by individuals close to Vladimir Putin (who was held responsible for the violence once Yanukovych deserted his post), followed by two rounds to date of tougher sanctions on select individuals and firms that circled ever nearer to Putin himself. The U.S., Canadian, Japanese, and European lists were coordinated and displayed considerable overlap, but were not identical. Some in Washington argued that imposing ever higher costs on the Russians at a fast pace would impress Putin more, but Merkel managed to persuade Obama to allow for a breathing space and set the May 25 Ukrainian election as the next target date for measuring Russian behavior and responding accordingly.

Merkel and Putin

Tactically, a further advantage of gradualness was to keep Putin engaged in an exchange with the West during the dangerous window of opportunity for any invasion of Ukraine. While talking did not necessarily prevent shooting, it at least inhibited it at the margins. And every additional day in which the Russians did not invade gave Putin one more day to rethink his original rage and humiliation over the Ukrainians’ treason in seeking a European rather than an East Slav and Eurasian identity—and, perhaps, to begin hearing what his own economic advisers were telling him about cost-benefit analyses of the damage that even the initial sanctions are already inflicting on the Russian economy through the fall of the ruble and the projected fall of 2014 GDP as well as capital flight and stalled investments.

Initially, all the major Western heads of government and their foreign ministers participated in a free-for-all of phoning their counterparts in Moscow. The first joint Western attempt to play for time was the April 17 meeting in Geneva to defuse tensions that brought together the foreign ministers of Russia, the provisional Ukrainian government, the U.S., and the EU. Besides getting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to sit at the same table as the foreign minister of a Ukrainian government the Kremlin was still calling illegal, the diplomats reached an agreement to disarm illegal militias, return illegally occupied buildings to their proper owners, grant amnesty to those separatists who did not have blood on their hands, and start “a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies.”

The ragtag local pro-Russian gangsters and mercenaries who had been handed buildings in eastern Ukraine by the little green men who had captured them in order to set up the self-declared People’s Republic of Luhansk and People’s Republic of Donetsk in April paid no attention to the Geneva agreement and did not evacuate their premises. Western skeptics therefore dismissed the Geneva exercise as a failure. They dismissed as well the roving “round tables” set up for Kiev and oblast officials to discuss what kind of reasonable local self-government might eventually let oblasts in the east take more local initiatives as an alternative to the kind of decentralization that pro-Russian separatists in the east were championing as a precursor to seceding and joining Russia.

What the skepticism missed was that every added day in which the Russian tanks on high alert did not roll over the Ukrainian border was a gain. It also missed three other points. The first was that while Putin’s denial that Russian soldiers were involved in the original seizure of buildings was easy to disprove, the groups of locals from both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border who then occupied the buildings had their own agendas. They were freelancing by such acts as taking hostages—including OSCE monitors—to use in bargaining with their Russian handlers to obtain more weapons. The second was that Putin may have begun entertaining some doubts about how far he really wanted to go in empowering these deniable but fractious freelancers who might one day bring blowback to Russian border areas. The third was that—according to Ukrainian government officials—Putin may have believed the Russian propaganda about Ukrainian persecution of ethnic Russians in the east and expected them to rise in rebellion in all of Novorossiya, including Odessa. Instead, pro-Russian agents were able to destabilize only two of the eight oblasts.

Merkel was intensely interested in all of these developments, especially as she had to intuit whom she could negotiate with to gain the release of the captured German OSCE monitors (as she did).

A source familiar with some of the content of her subsequent phone conversations with Putin described them: “She never poses the grand questions” about the difference between the European and Slav worlds. Nor does she ever offer “a profession of faith [about freedom], like the Americans.” Instead, she is almost apolitical. She asks with good common sense, “Where can we cooperate? What can we do together?” This pragmatic approach has “served her well” both in the amorphous give-and-take of the European Union and in dealing with Russia. In addition, when Putin argues that financial sanctions on Russia will hurt Germany, she tells him again and again that that is true, but Germany is ready to pay that price, and in the end his present course will hurt Russia more than Germany.

The source continued, “Merkel knows she must not close one door without leaving another door open. It makes no sense just to say no. She has shown herself as not only shrewd, but also intelligent. Putin lies or expounds on the holy Russian culture, and that doesn’t help. It’s unbelievably frustrating. […] But however frustrating it gets, there is no alternative to Europe. […] Ukraine must always remain on the strategic and geopolitical map of Europe.”

He concluded, “Merkel wants to save face for Putin, but the longer the crisis goes on, the harder it is.”

As for Merkel’s final leadership task of reviving Paul Goble’s alliance between Western captains of industry and promoters of human rights, the German chancellor has only begun to fight. She has started to tell the powerful German business association that defends Germany’s €79 billion trade with Russia that it must now subordinate its profits to the higher priority of restoring a rules-based system of peace in Europe. There is little in the public record so far to show that German exporters and importers accept this demand (or that French exporters of helicopter carriers to Russia or British investors of Russian oligarchs’ wealth do either). Already, however, a few German CEOs are said to be acknowledging this necessity in private. And if push comes to shove, Merkel has an 80 percent majority in the Bundestag for enforcing this priority.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s geopolitical leadership of Europe may not be military, but it is robust.

 

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist, the author of The Rebirth of Europe, and a former AICGS Fellow.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Elizabeth Pond

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist, has covered Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the past 30 years. She is the author of The Rebirth of Europe and Endgame in the Balkans among others.