Can Germany help divided Ukraine find a middle ground?

A more assertive Germany may prove best positioned to secure Russian cooperation and help Ukraine accommodate both East and West.

Frank Augstein/AP
Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko (l.) meets with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier for bilateral talks in Munich, Germany, on Feb. 1.

Germany has said it wants a more assertive role for itself in global affairs. Its first test might come in the tumult of Ukraine.

The post-Soviet country has been racked by civil strife since its president, Viktor Yanukovych, spurned an association and trade agreement with the European Union in November under financial threat from Russia. Since then, Ukraine has been stuck in the middle of a geopolitical tug of war. Senior US diplomats have been overheard decrying European dithering. 

And while foreign powers continue to struggle for influence, it is Germany that could prove best poised to act as power broker, by massaging a political situation that makes choices less stark for the Ukrainians.

“The German approach,” suggests Roderick Parkes, head of the EU program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, is to “reduce a sense of threat and sense of competition with the West over Ukraine” by explicitly demanding a solution in Ukraine while simultaneously seeking to ease tensions with Russia. 

That means Ukraine doesn’t have to decide between East or West. “If you get East on West’s side, the choice is reduced.”

European indecision

Ukraine was swept into crisis after Mr. Yanukovych pivoted away from the EU in November, and then accepted $15 billion in aid from Russia. Protesters, who initially took to the streets to protest the country’s eastward tilt, now demand the president step down – a demand that has not abated even after Yanukovych reshuffled his cabinet and spiked a controversial anti-protest law. 

While Russia is engaging in a bidding game, Europe – including Germany – has been blamed for blundering into the conflict, and for not acting definitively enough when the crisis erupted. Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Berlin, says the EU set out demands for reform without enough incentive, while Russians dangled financial assistance. “I do think that the West has a pretty big share [of blame] in the lead-up to the rejection of the association agreement,” he says.

One reason why Europe hasn’t been decisive on Ukraine is because it isn't sure whether Ukraine even belongs in the EU. The 28-member bloc has been distracted by its own internal economic woes and a sense of “enlargement” fatigue. Russia has also loomed over Europe’s so-called Eastern Partnership dealings with post-Soviet states like Belarus, Armenia, and Ukraine.

This may explain the exasperation that surfaced in an intercepted phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her envoy in Kiev. The White House has blamed Russia for leaking the recording.  

Still, as Ukraine's conflict has become more protracted, Europe has shifted its tone. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign-policy chief, was in Kiev this week urging national dialogue and a peaceful end to a standoff that has taken at least six lives. Now the United States and Europe are considering an aid package for a new government to help bring an end to the unrest.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the ARD television network that sanctions should be used as a threat to Ukraine if a political agreement fails, speaking just days after German leaders signaled a more active role in global affairs.

A more active Germany?

In the aftermath of World War II, the Germans retreated to the shadows of foreign affairs. This was once a relief to their former enemies of Europe, but as Germany's economic clout has grown, so have calls that Berlin emerge from the shadows and help put out fires in Europe's neighborhood. 

A more assertive foreign policy may suit Germany's newly formed coalition government. Its defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said at a Jan. 31 security conference in Munich that “indifference is not an option for Germany.” Mr. Steinmeier, the foreign minister, said at the same event that “Germany is really too big to just comment from the sidelines.”

George Friedman, the chairman of Stratfor, and Marc Lanthemann, an analyst at the Texas-based geopolitical consultancy, argue that it's no coincidence that Germany's foreign policy is becoming more muscular while Ukraine slips into crisis. 

“The timing of the announcement, as Ukraine's strategic position between Russia and Europe continues to make headlines, was not coincidental,” they wrote in a recent briefing. “The fact that Germany actively supported opposition groups in Ukraine, particularly in the absence of a pressing strategic imperative to do so, is a sign that something has changed in Berlin's calculus toward Russia.”

But forcefully backing Ukraine's opposition alone does little to diffuse the diplomatic standoff. It simply puts Ukraine back in a familiar spot: in the middle between Russia and Europe. That’s where Germany could seek a middle ground that makes it easier for Ukraine to exit the turmoil, says Mr. Parkes.

Much will hinge on how Germany tries to recalibrate relations with its eastern neighbors. Recent appointments have raised expectations that Berlin wants a more “modern” relationship with Russia: the new chief of German-Russian relations in Berlin, Gernot Erler, is seen as more open to Russia than his predecessor. 

“There may be a sense in Berlin that we’ve gone a little too far with criticism of Russia,” says Mr. Forbrig.  

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