It’s time to debunk the lingering urban myths that Germany has resisted imposing sanctions on Russia over its undeclared war on Ukraine and might once again desert the West in a flirtation with Russia. True, Chancellor Angela Merkel favors smart sanctions over blunt sanctions and is trying to negotiate with Russia a deescalation of the violence in Ukraine that has already killed more than 5000. But that’s empowerment, not opposition.
Moreover, her broader record in maximizing the West’s very weak opening Ukraine hand is impressive. At the start of the crisis, she told parliament bluntly that Russia’s land grab of its weak neighbor’s territory was unacceptable in a Europe that has finally turned a blood-soaked continent, in a “miraculous” evolution, into a zone of peace. Together with the United States, she sensibly rejected putting Western boots on the ground in a theater where Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys overwhelming military dominance and parades his will to use it. As a surrogate counter to Russian aggression, then, she and the West as a whole gambled on pitting their soft power of long-term financial might against Russia’s hard power of short-term military muscle.
Berlin and Washington stressed that the West must stay united in the crisis and agreed to resolve tactical differences pragmatically, by writing separate but overlapping lists of sanction targets and coordinating them. America’s list was widely advertised by Congressmen as seeking to punish Putin and make him feel pain–and was also intended, Russian officials trumpeted, to force regime change on Moscow. Merkel’s list of targets was specifically aimed at deterrence of future aggression in Ukraine and–unlike the American list–was set to expire after one year unless it was renewed.
The up-front activism of the Christian Democratic chancellor, whose native style personifies leading from behind, met with skepticism in the US, in Europe, and certainly in Russia. Western critics thought that the Social Democratic foreign minister in her right-left grand coalition, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, would never cross his political mentor and Merkel’s predecessor as chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. Schröder famously once praised Putin as a “flawless democrat,” accepted a lucrative Russia-paid job as head of the shareholders’ committee of Gazprom’s Nordstream pipeline the instant he retired from politics–and never publicly challenged Moscow’s violations of international law.
Yet on this issue Steinmeier declared his emancipation from his former boss. He repeatedly condemned Russia’s Crimea snatch as resolutely as Merkel did. And within his party’s Bundestag caucus he weaned most of the left wing away from their nostalgia for the grand deal that never transpired in the days before 2012, when hope persisted that Putin might agree to a more cooperative security partnership with the West in return for investment and technological help in breaking out of Russia’s oil and gas mono-economy.
Even more surprising was Merkel’s success in winning support for financial sanctions, or at least acceptance of them, by the German business lobby that represents some 6000 firms with 300,000 employees who depend on the €77 billion annual trade with Russia. Even though bilateral trade would shrink by 26 percent from August 2013 to August 2014 under the sanctions regime, Merkel persuaded most of the lobby executives that Europe’s security and peace order must trump profits and jobs. She effected this change behind the scenes in private meetings that rarely hit media headlines.
In addition, she quietly provided German guarantees of Ukrainian payments for energy imports from Russia, guarantees which will assuredly be called on. Though no one actually quotes European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous words in calming the eurocrisis, Germany is now prepared to pay “whatever it takes” to rescue Ukraine’s dysfunctional economy–if, and only if, the Ukrainian government cleans up the kleptocracy.
Armed with Germany’s own example of tolerating economic pain to uphold Europe’s taboo on forcible change of borders, Merkel then exercised similar suasion on her 27 fractious partner states in the European Union. France reluctantly suspended delivery of two contracted Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia. Britain subordinated the commercial interests of London banks and realtors to the common weal, even if it did continue to export weapons to Russia. Hungary, despite its vaunted turn to Russia (before the ruble plummeted), chose not to be the odd man out. Merkel delivered the required unanimous EU agreement to impose three rounds of sanctions on Putin’s wealthy inner circle as the Russians annexed Crimea.
The one constituency that Merkel did not court personally was the public. Nonetheless, her actions–and the bloodcurdling shooting down of the MH 17 airliner over separatist territory with a Russian Buk missile in July–triggered a public debate that has transformed popular German views of Russia. Last April 49 percent favored a neutral German role as a mediator between the United States and Russia. By December 76 percent mistrusted Russia and 54 percent approved sanctions.
Apart from the issue of sanctions, Germany’s assumption of geopolitical leadership of Europe for the first time since 1945 was most apparent in the diplomatic art of shifting the context of the confrontation over Ukraine in the West’s favor. In effect, President Barack Obama, fully occupied with crises elsewhere in the world–and exasperated that Europeans still remained free riders in security long after the EU had become richer than the US–outsourced the diplomacy to Merkel. This made sense; what to Obama seemed to be a pesky peripheral interest was a vital interest for states in the immediate European neighborhood. Moreover, Merkel was the one Western leader who could still communicate with the Russian president, in part because she speaks Russian from her East German schooldays, in part because Germany has been Russia’s best friend in the West ever since Moscow withdrew its 20 Soviet divisions from (East) German soil after almost half a century and permitted peaceful reunification of the two German states. Berlin, without gloating, let the troops retreat in dignity then and continued to treat Moscow with dignity thereafter.
The diplomacy was especially tricky because Putin’s improvisation to recover from successive setbacks made him unpredictable, while his reflex resort to the two tools he understood, armed coercion and outrageous spin, made him dangerous. Rational appeals that he was destroying the very social contract that had hitherto built his domestic popularity–restoring order after Russia’s initial Wild East capitalism and raising living standards for the urban middle class in return for abstinence from challenging his soft authoritarianism–fell on deaf ears.
At base, despite all his macho bluster, Putin’s annexation of Crimea was an angry reaction to his loss of control of all of Ukraine after he allegedly prodded his acolyte, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, into authorizing Berkut police snipers to kill some hundred pro-Europe demonstrators in Kiev in early 2014. The counterproductive brutality shocked Yanukovych’s own party into deserting him, accelerated the formation of a distinct Ukrainian identity in opposition to Russian coercion, and voided Putin’s entire pet Eurasian Union project by immunizing East Slav Ukraine against joining and legitimizing it. Yanukovych and his family fled to Russian exile with, according to Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, some $8 billion.
The most urgent challenge to Western diplomacy after Russia incorporated Crimea was to help Ukraine and its parliament-appointed interim government survive during the chaos following Yanukovych’s flight. The neophyte government was in disarray. The neglected and underfunded Ukrainian army seemed useless, and was in any case still stationed on Ukraine’s western border in a deployment pattern inherited from Soviet times. The Ukrainian security services were still heavily laced with Russian commanders. Putin had just resurrected Catherine the Great’s 18th-century name of Novorossiya for what is now the eastern half of Ukraine and laid down a historical claim to it. In the name of New Russia, Russian-armed and -led separatists were beginning to seize administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine, where Putin hoped to ignite a general uprising of Russian-speakers against the Kiev government. Some 80,000 Russian troops on high alert were conducting continuous maneuvers and feinting invasions of Ukraine on an arc to the north, east, and south of Ukraine.
Putin was on a roll, convinced that the Russian capacity for suffering far surpassed that of the effete West. His popularity soared to the mid-eighties in a chauvinist surge. He had acquired Crimea cost-free, as the outgunned Ukrainian army had not resisted the takeover, and as yet there were no dead Russian soldiers. He had lied serially to Merkel, most blatantly in denying any Russian involvement in the armed destabilization of eastern Ukraine. She no longer trusted him to implement any agreed deals.
In dozens of phonecalls with Putin beginning in early March, Merkel, like Obama, offered to help save face for the Russian president if he would get “off ramp” and not further dismember Ukraine. If he did not change his policy, she warned him, Russian oligarchs would face financial sanctions. He shouldn’t delude himself into thinking that German tycoons would thwart them.Yes, the sanctions would hurt the German economy, but this time corporate Germany too would give priority to raison d’état.
In this environment Germany initiated Geneva peace talks in mid-April to deescalate the violence. This achieved two of Berlin’s aims. The immediate goal was to get Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to negotiate directly with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia (in the protective presence of the American Secretary of State and the EU foreign policy chief) and thus acknowledge the Ukrainian foreign minister’s legitimacy as his interlocutor. The mid-term goal was to keep Russia talking instead of shooting during the month of greatest Ukrainian vulnerability before new votes would begin to confer legitimacy on an elected president and government. Ironically, this more important purpose was realized at least in part because Putin apparently thought the Kiev government and the likely presidential winner, the Europe-oriented chocolate oligarch Petro Poroshenko, were so weak and manipulable that he could gain the prize of Novorossiya without having to fight for it, on the pattern of his Crimean conquest.
American hardliners judged the outcome of the Geneva accord harshly and criticized the Germans for agreeing to delay the next tranche of tougher EU sanctions for a few days (while also criticizing Obama for allegedly showing too much deference to transatlantic unity in the Ukraine crisis). European critics too accused Germans of appeasement and false moral equivalence in inviting Russia to a negotiation about the future of its victim Ukraine. Subsequently, Steinmeier felt obliged to use a budget speech in the Bundestag to refute those who saw German policies as “appeasement and are quick to make [false] comparisons” with Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Hitler in 1938.
In the event, the Russian army did not attack in the window when in purely military terms it could have sliced through to Kiev, as Putin later boasted, in two days. The ragtag Ukrainian army, after starting a disastrous counteroffensive to retake territory held by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s two easternmost oblasts, had time to regroup. Poroshenko was elected president by a clear majority in the first vote, without needing a runoff, on May 25. The delay before a resurgence of heavy fighting gave both Ukrainian and Russian speakers in the self-styled Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east enough exposure to arbitrary rule by the motley teams of Russian proxies (and their failure to pay out the promised higher pensions) to sour on them. The inhabitants of Novorossiya did not rally to the pro-Russian cause as Putin had expected and thus confronted him with a second shrinkage of his influence in Ukraine to only Crimea and the Donbas of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian army, purged of at least some of its Russian agents, resumed the counteroffensive in tandem with volunteer militias and by August pushed back the Russian proxies to two Donbas enclaves and prepared for the coup de grace.
At that point Putin drew his red line in the sand. He would not let his proxies be defeated. Still denying that any Russian regulars were fighting in Ukraine, he sent elite paratroopers to Ukraine in his first direct invasion of his fellow East Slav neighbor. In a few devastating days the 7000 combined Russian troops in the country overran at least five of Ukraine’s 15 brigades and rendered them combat ineffective, according to the Potomac Foundation. Poroshenko understood the message and quickly agreed to a truce on September 5. Berlin saw to it that the pact, while confirming a new front line that left pro-Russian forces in control of half of Donetsk and Luhansk, nonetheless contained provisions that could eventually form the basis for a semi-permanent ceasefire. These included a buffer zone free of heavy weapons and closure of the porous Ukrainian-Russian border to further flows of Russian tanks, artillery, and military personnel under the oversight of the revived Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. By extension, the truce defined the preconditions for easing financial sanctions. The Germans had also seen to it that the original EU sanctions were organized in packages that could be varied to calibrate signalling to Russia without requiring fresh authorization from the EU Council for each decision.
Since then, in flexible small fora–sometimes in the “Normandy format” of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France, sometimes in the “contact group” of Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE , sometimes in such ad hoc groups as Germany, France, and Poland or Ukraine, Russia, the EU, and the US–Berlin has continued to lead the diplomatic probes for a more stable ceasefire.
By the time Black Tuesday hit in mid-December, the ruble dropped to half its value of a year earlier, capital flight from Russia reached an annual $130 billion, GDP headed for a fall of over four percent in 2015, and Western investment in Russia dried up, Putin stopped scorning the sanctions as a pinprick. By aggravating the impact of the drop in oil price to $60 a barrel, the West’s sanctions began to bite a year earlier than advocates had expected. Even Putin, perhaps, now has to reconsider the forces his belligerence has unleashed. These include not only an accelerated rush by Ukrainians to drop an East Slav for a European Ukrainian identity, but also Russian domestic disapproval of sending Russian boys to get killed in Ukraine, as voiced by mothers and widows of the dead Russian soldiers, that are buried secretly by the army. They include as well potential renewed Chechen insurgency and sly distancing from Moscow by Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan A. Nazarbayev. A hint that the Russian president may be doing some rethinking could perhaps be found in pragmatic Russian-Ukrainian deals on energy and humanitarian aid for civilians in the Donbas over the winter and what seems to be a decision to leave the region as formally still part of Ukraine rather than annexing it to Russia.
If this narrative is a correct reading of events, why then does the myth of German resistance to sanctions–and suspicion of a looming repetition of German defection from Western liberalism–persist?
For four reasons, perhaps. The first is that Merkel’s leading from behind of her grand coalition, the pro-Russian German business lobby, and the EU operated so smoothly that the evolution of Berlin’s Ukraine policy seemed to happen automatically. With no Sturm und Drang, Merkel’s low-key campaign drew few headlines.
The second, related reason is a widespread misunderstanding by outsiders of how foreign policy is shaped in Germany and a tendency to conflate opinion polls and TV talk shows with real policy. Foreign policy actually remains an elite affair that is resolved within a notably stable centrist consensus.
The third reason is a widespread misunderstanding by outsiders both of the process of forging common policy within an EU of 28 members and of Berlin’s special role in forming a consensus that gets beyond a lowest common denominator to real evolution. Germany regularly helps by digging into its deep pockets, of course. But at its best, as a true believer in the European dream of integration, Germany also helps build consensus by lending a sympathetic ear to the smallest as well as the biggest members and formulating ways to blend varied interests. Greeks would surely object to this description, but Norwegian and Polish think tankers speak of Germany as Europe’s indispensable nation. German Foreign Ministry State Secretary Markus Ederer describes Berlin’s unique role as the CFO–the Chief Facilitating Officer–of the European Union.
Finally, the fourth reason might be a kind of historical determinism in the recurring fear–even 70 years after 1945 and the deep repudiation of Hitler’s crimes by today’s citizens–that the Germans could again succumb to their old anti-Western and anti-liberal temptations. Suspicions of a German-Russian flirtation, suggests one senior Scandinavian government analyst, were fed by “the extraordinary denial of the danger that Putin presents that was propagated so loudly by so many outspoken Germans in the security field” right up to the shock of the Russian takeover of Crimea in March 2014. By now evidence to support such worries is hard to find.
On the contrary, it looks so far as if well-coordinated Western sanctions, the Ukrainian armed forces’ feisty defense of the homeland, and Angela Merkel’s patient diplomacy have combined to produce a least-worst outcome that no optimist could have dreamed of when Putin annexed Crimea one year ago.
Elizabeth Pond is a journalist based in Berlin
The short form of this essay was published in Foreign Affairs, vol. 94, no. 2 (March/April 2015) under the headline : Germany’s Real Role in the Ukraine Crisis