Germany: Ally or arbiter in Ukraine crisis?

Chancellor Merkel, who is in Washington today, has made a show of unity with Obama against Russia's intervention in Ukraine. But the German public is not quite so committed.

By , Staff writer , Contributor

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    President Barack Obama meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 2, 2014. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Merkel are putting on a display of transatlantic unity against an assertive Russia, but polls show the German public view their country as an intermediary, not a partisan, in the West-Russia struggle over Ukraine.
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As the crisis in Ukraine worsens, Germany faces a critical question: Is its job to be a key ally in Washington's efforts to isolate the Kremlin? Or is it to create a bridge between the West and Russia – reaching out to both but not fully backing either? 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel largely sees herself in the first camp. But she appears to be going against the grain of her fellow countrymen, who increasingly view themselves as sitting somewhere between the two, rather than firmly placed in a Western alliance.

It’s one of the many factors complicating transatlantic unity as the US and Europe seek to dial back tensions in eastern Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea.

Recommended: How much do you know about Germany? Take our quiz!

Chancellor Merkel, on a visit to Washington today, is essential to the US aim to present a united Western front against Russia. She has talked tough to Mr. Putin and stood beside the US and EU as both have issued sanctions. But Merkel is unlikely to go as far as the US might wish, constrained by public wariness at home.

When German pollster infratest dimap asked Germans recently “What should Germany’s position be in the conflict between Russia and NATO and the EU?” 49 percent said their nation was in the middle between the West and Russia, while 45 percent said it lies clearly in the Western axis.

For Jann Kossin, a sales manager in Hamburg, the lines are blurry and changing. “I know that there's a historical alliance between Germany and the US … but with regard to the crisis in Ukraine, I think we should try and mediate between the two opposing sides,” he says. "Russia has always been a strong military power and it has always been very territorial. So if you put yourself in Russia's shoes, its behavior in the current crisis is understandable.”

It's not the first time Germany has stood still as the West has intervened militarily, often infuriating allies. It did not back the invasion of Iraq in the UN Security Council in 2003 and did not intervene in Libya in 2011. Its position is often explained by lingering historical aversion, after the horror that Germany sowed during World War II.

But Russia also raises cultural and historical questions that Germany is still grappling with. “There is no other country and no other people with which Germans' relations are more emotional and contradictory,” writes Christiane Hoffmann in an essay in Der Spiegel in April. “For Germany, the Ukraine crisis is not some distant problem like Syria or Iraq – it goes right to the core of the question of German identity. Where do we stand when it comes to Russia?”

Those questions are raging on television talk shows as well as as at the top of government. While conservative Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has pushed for economic sanctions, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left has emphasized de-escalating tensions. While Merkel visits Washington this week, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder celebrated his birthday with Putin in St. Petersburg Monday.

In a widely circulated column in Die Zeit, Bernd Ulrich wrote that German politicians and media are pushing harder against Russia than many Germans feel comfortable with, though there are signs that is changing as this conflict deepens.

“For us, the postwar period was characterized by wrestling with suppressing or accepting the Holocaust, by the German guilt for having murdered 6 million Jews. But other types of guilt have lingered behind that, including that for killing millions of Russians,” he wrote, going on to ask: “Should we Germans, of all people, argue with them over Ukraine?”

It is not that Germans support Russia's actions. This month, only 14 percent of Germans said they see Russia as a trustworthy partner for their country – the lowest percentage ever recorded by infratest dimap in its ARD-DeutschlandTREND polls. But at the same time, only 41 percent see the US as trustworthy, compared to 53 percent who do not.

Opinions of where Germany stands in the transatlantic alliance break down by age and geography. More in the former East Germany see themselves in the middle. While 60 percent of those under 30 believe Germany sits between Russia and the West, of those over 60, only 46 percent agree.

Horst Hase, a lifelong resident of Hamburg who is nearing 80, says Germany should never forget American support during World War II. "I think what Russia is doing in Ukraine is shameful. They are only interested in grabbing more territory,” he says. "Germany must clearly align itself with the West. We can't be allies with Russia – it isn't a democracy.”

For Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer of Central and Eastern Europe at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, some of these questions of identity amount to evasion. “In the past couple weeks, we’ve gone back to a discussion that has little to do about what is going on in Ukraine, but is mostly about German soul-searching,” he says. “This happens very often when some sort of involvement with Germany is required or requested. The country goes back to navel-gazing mode.”

Other factors are at play, including questions about whether the US and EU erred diplomatically with the eastward expansion of NATO or in trying to pull Ukraine westward. Germany also stands much to lose economically if relations with Moscow sour. And while Germany is not debating its membership in the EU – its euroskeptic party, for example, is nowhere near as influential as those of other European nations –  it is questioning the US, particularly in the wake of the NSA scandal revealed by Edward Snowden

Allegations of American snooping, even on Merkel’s cellphone, have angered Germans like Mr. Kossin, who was optimistic when Obama was elected but whose opinion of US motivations has since been clouded. “Who spies on their so-called partners?” he says.

Skepticism about American motivations is also feeding the debate. Tobias Prange, a university student in Hamburg, says he resents the US's big footprint. "The Americans are always trying to sort these things out alone. And in the past years they've often started wars to do so,” he says. “I'm opposed to that. As Germans especially, we should know that wars can severely backfire.”

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