For Germans, hostage-taking sparks new focus on Ukraine crisis

The seizure of German military observers in eastern Ukraine has put a human face on a crisis that could force Germany into a tougher tone with Russia. 

Sergei Grits
After a second day of talks about the detention of several foreign military observers, Mark Etherington of the OSCE shakes hands with Vacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, Ukraine, where the group is being held.

The seizure of German military officers and five other European diplomatic observers by pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine has put a human face on a crisis and begun to spur Germans to reassess their role in a conflict that has echoes of the cold war.

The observers, from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), were paraded in front of the media Sunday, generating sympathy among citizens and providing a tangible contrast between the legal order of the European Union and the thuggish actions, whether Russia-backed or not, unfolding in eastern Ukraine.

The German government on Monday condemned the militants behind the “hostage taking” and called for their immediate release. It also asked Russia to intervene and distance itself from the incident. Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin not to provoke more tensions in eastern Ukraine and supported the additional EU sanctions announced today against Russia. 

Until now, Germany has shown little willingness to stand more firmly against President Putin, beyond sharp rhetoric. But as the crisis becomes harder to control, Germany may be forced into a tougher tone with Russia, and may shed its ambivalence about taking a more assertive role in the conflict.  

The hostage-taking "gives a sense of immediacy. For first time, German citizens are directly concerned,” says Roland Freudenstein, deputy director of the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies in Brussels. He adds that it also raises questions about the limits of soft power in this conflict.

The nation was stunned by front-page coverage of kidnapped German Col. Axel Schneider, who said under armed guard at a press conference Sunday that he and his colleagues were not Western spies, as militants claimed. One officer, from Sweden, has been released because of apparent health reasons, but the others have now spent five days in captivity.

Mr. Freudenstein, who criticizes Germany's tepid response, says the development raises questions about the limits of soft power in this conflict, and that the aggression could serve to change public opinion against Russia. But he says that if Russia distances itself from this specific incident and it's resolved, the status quo will ensue. Germany will then “sigh relief,” he says. “They can then say Russians are now back on the path of constructive engagement.”

Informed by historical baggage of World War II, many Germans prefer diplomacy to military response. Germany also has significant business interests in Russia and energy needs that depend on stable relations with Moscow. And lurking under the surface is a degree of anti-Americanism that could diminish support for action that would bolster the US stand, as well as renewed discussion of a special Germany-Russia relationship. Indeed, one survey by a top German pollster that ran first in The Wall Street Journal this month showed more Germans (49 percent) would opt to take a “middle position” in an “East-West” conflict than forming part of a Western alliance (45 percent).

So far the incident is not a “tipping point” in Germany, says Susan Stewart, the deputy head of the Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. That's in part because many are unclear about the mission of the observers – who are distinct from the electoral observers to which Russia, Ukraine, and the West agreed earlier this month. And Russia's role as well is uncertain, she says.

The confusion is widespread. An editorial in the German daily Die Welt Monday lamented the growing confusion surrounding this case. “Now (the OSCE) has become part of the problem they were sent to solve. All this not only makes it vivid the chaos that prevails in Ukraine, but also (apparent) the headless action of the apparatuses and organizations that provide the staff of various ‘missions,’ ” it reads.

Christian Ress, an iOS game developer in Berlin, says he counts himself among the perplexed, especially since he says he does not know the history of Ukraine.  “With that said,” he says, “I prefer a ‘not too tough’ take on this conflict as it might be the better approach to keep the situation as peaceful as possible.”

Lina Bachmann, a student in Berlin, says that it’s important that Germany react to this incident in a methodical, measured way. “No nation wants to be perceived as weak. But this is not a school arm wrestling, there is more at stake than pride and ego,” she says. “Germany should not get tougher, Germany should analyze what the best possible diplomatic reaction can be.”

Other Germans say that Putin is testing the nation’s traditional role on the sidelines.  “We feel uneasy when it comes to war. We consider it a thing of the past," says Kai Lehmann, a writer in Berlin. "We have to prevent a war by all means, yet we cannot allow Russia and Putin to wreak havoc in Berlin and beyond." 

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