Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have met dozens of times. They speak each other’s languages. Their countries’ economies are tightly bound. Even though Ms. Merkel is chancellor of Germany, she addresses the Russian president with the informal “du” of German.
But when Russian troops infiltrated Ukraine’s Crimea Feb. 28, Merkel began to set aside her personal ties with Mr. Putin. After two weeks of diplomatic efforts to keep Russia from splitting Ukraine by force, the de facto leader of the European Union stood before German lawmakers Wednesday and delivered an emotional rebuke to Putin.
Her words serve as a reminder of why nations must embrace progress toward universal values as inevitable.
Moscow, she said, is using the old method of might to resolve its fears over Ukraine’s future rather than “the political means of our times” – the power of international law.
“The law of the jungle is placed against the strength of the law, unilateral geopolitical concerns against understanding and cooperation,” she said. “The clock cannot be turned back. Conflicts of interest in the middle of Europe in the 21st century can be successfully overcome only if we don’t fall back on the patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Merkel has given Putin ample time to prove his claims that ethnic Russians in Crimea are in danger. But he did not permit international inspectors to enter. She also distanced Germany from Washington’s moves to place warships and fighter jets closer to Ukraine, thus affirming German pacifism.
But her patience ran out just days before a March 16 referendum in Crimea that could pave the way for the peninsula on the Black Sea to be annexed by Russia – in violation of international law about secession.
“What we are witnessing now is oppressive, and I fear we need to be prepared for the long haul in solving this conflict,” she said.
If the majority of Russian-speakers in Crimea vote to secede, the EU plans to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Russian leaders involved with violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territory. Then full economic sanctions will follow.
For its behavior, Russia must feel “massive damage,” Merkel said. And next week, the EU and Ukraine will go ahead and sign the political accord that started the crisis last year when Ukraine’s then-president rejected it, bringing mass protests that led to his ouster.
Her speech signals a new Germany, one ready to take on global leadership as the United States seeks a reduced role during a period of retrenchment. But more important, today’s Germany understands the necessity for nations to make progress. After all, in just seven decades, Germany has “turned a past blighted by war and dominance into a present marked by peace and cooperation,” in the words of its president, Joachim Gauck.
In a January speech on Germany’s role in the world, Mr. Gauck said the country has transformed itself from being a beneficiary of a world order based on openness, human rights, and peace to now being able to be its guarantor.
“We would be deceiving ourselves if we were to believe that Germany was an island and thus protected from the vicissitudes of our age. For few other countries have such close links with the rest of the world as Germany does. Germany has thus benefited especially from the open global order. And it’s vulnerable to any disruptions to the system. For this reason, the consequences of inaction can be just as serious, if not worse than the consequences of taking action,” he said.
Nearly two months after his speech, Merkel did “take action” to restore a global order. As leader of a country that has made so much progress, she has the credibility to demand it of Russia.
She knows Putin well enough perhaps that he might yet listen. A phone call might give them an opportunity to resolve this crisis using the common language of peace and progress.