Merkel challenges Putin's worldview

The crisis over Ukraine has escalated to Russia making power plays in many parts of Europe. The German leader wisely says the issue is one of international law and values, not a clash over spheres of influence.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine pose with the picture of the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin at checkpoint near Donetsk Nov. 18.

The issue in Ukraine is no longer just the Ukraine issue, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who should know. Russia’s provocations and power plays now extend farther into parts of Europe, from Finland to the Balkans.   

“It affects us all,” she said Monday after spending hours alone in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “How can something like this happen in the middle of Europe? Old thinking about spheres of influence, trampling international law, must not succeed.” 

Ever since the crisis in Ukraine began a year ago, Ms. Merkel has hoped Mr. Putin would abide by the principles that have long guided relations between nation-states. But then Russia took Crimea, Russian-backed rebels downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and Russian tanks rolled into eastern Ukraine. Russian spies have become more active in Western capitals, and Russian jets and warships have edged close to Western borders and military forces. A few Russian officials have even reminded others of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Merkel wisely does not react out of fear but asserts vital concepts such as international law, backed up by the European Union and others in the withholding of economic benefits for top Russian officials and enterprises. Even as she speaks of upholding the EU values of honoring borders and operating by consensus, she has slowly ratcheted up sanctions on Russia, measure for measure. 

“Putin is testing us,” she told German legislators. And what the Russian leader is testing is the West's worldview that peace should never be coerced by greater powers but must come from the free consent of truly independent states. Russia sees one nation’s loss as simply another’s gain, whereas the EU sees compromise among nations as a means for all to benefit.

As the Western leader who knows Putin best – Merkel grew up in East Germany, learning Russian – she does not want the EU to bend to his latest attempts to wield power in Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and other former Soviet states.

“Otherwise,” says Merkel, “one would have to say: We are too weak. Be careful. We can’t accept any others. We have to first ask Moscow if it is possible. That’s how things were for 40 years [under Soviet rule]; I never really wanted to return to that situation.” 

The Ukraine issue has indeed moved to a new level, and not only for Europe. Merkel has intensified her mix of diplomacy and sanctions. But now she also speaks to the world about the global issues at stake. 

Europe, the center of three world confrontations during the 20th century, had to learn the hard way that there are principles for keeping the peace. Now it must apply them again.

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