How tightly will Germany stand with Ukraine against Russia?

Though Angela Merkel has been outspoken for Ukraine, which signed an EU trade deal today, Germany's complicated relationship with Russia clouds its commitment to Kiev.

Olivier Hoslet/Pool/Reuters
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (l.) listens to Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (c.) during a signing ceremony of cooperation agreement at the EU Council in Brussels today.

Germany stood firmly with Ukraine as it signed the final portion of an association agreement with the European Union today. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the Russian president that he could risk full-scale sanctions, up for discussion at an EU summit today, if he does not ease the conflict raging in eastern Ukraine.

But even if the signing of the deal, which was the flashpoint of Ukraine's crisis, underlines Europe’s fortified commitment to Ukraine, it’s still unclear how far Europe – and more specifically Ms. Merkel’s Germany – is willing to back Ukraine’s long-term Western shift.

Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March shook the West, but it thrust Germany into a full-blown identity crisis. While many in Europe have hesitated on sanctions, mostly out of fear of economic repercussion, Germany has also wavered as it contemplates a resurgent Russia and where it fits in the global order.

Ms. Merkel, who speaks Russian and grew up in repressive, communist East Berlin, has not minced words with Russian President Vladmir Putin, condemning his actions in Crimea. She and Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have stood with Ukraine and threatened sanctions in tandem with the EU and US.

But guided by history and reflex, as well as public opinion, German officials are still maneuvering for a way to keep channels open, to prevent backing Mr. Putin into a corner: a tactic some call enlightened, but others condemn as cowardly. A potent mix of guilt, of disappointment with the US, and a very real belief that Germans simply know how to deal with Russia better than the rest of the West, has left a question mark over which position Germany will ultimately take with Russia. “The real test has not been made yet by Germany,” says Karl Schlögel, a German historian of eastern Europe.

Ahead of the deal signing today, European Council chief Herman Van Rompuy recognized the deadly struggle that Ukraine has taken to move closer to the EU. "In Kiev and elsewhere, people gave their lives for this closer link to the European Union," he said. "We will not forget this." 

And he was careful to express that EU deals with Ukraine, as well as Georgia and Moldova, should not threaten Russia. It undoubtedly raises the potential, however, that Russia will react defensively – and Germany is key to a united Western response to that.


Economic considerations, including a dependence on Russian gas, have divided opinion in Europe over how far to push Putin. But Germany is contending with other powerful forces beyond pragmatics.

One of the most potent is the notion that emerged at the height of the cold war of Ostpolitik, when German politicians dealt with Russia through dialogue and rapprochement. While some find the notion outdated, many like Wolfgang Nowak, previously a senior adviser to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from the leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD), believe it should be the cornerstone of Russian-German relations today. Mr. Nowak says he knows from the outside that “Germany isn’t looking good.

“But there is no other convincing Western strategy,” he says. A return to quiet dialogue with Putin is the way to proceed, in his opinion.

“Germans believe very strongly, some might even say desperately, that the security of Europe depends on maintaining some kind of balance with Russia,” says John Kornblum, a former American ambassador in Berlin and long-term observer of German politics. “There’s not too much that is going to shake them from this belief. They just believe that talking is better than not talking.”

Other factors that form public opinion about Russia are unquestionably historic, including the burden of responsibility Germany still feels for crimes committed in the 20th century against the Soviet Union. And Germans also feel a sense of gratitude to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, who they thank for the peaceful re-unification of Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Twenty five years later, it still gets projected onto modern day Russia.

A counterbalance to the US?

Putin himself might not be popular in Germany – in fact polls have put German trust in his leadership at all-time lows – but “he’s a common denominator of many sentiments,” says Mr. Schlögel. On the political right he’s hailed for safeguarding traditional family values. On the intellectual left, writers and thinkers celebrate him as a counterweight to the US supremacy.

“There is a kind of hypocrisy there,” says Schlögel, from his book-lined office in Berlin, since most of these intellectuals, striving for an American sense of freedom, would choose Stanford or New York over Moscow.

The rise of Russia as a potential hard power has tested Germany's sense of where it belongs in a modern conflict. Tellingly, when a poll recently asked “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.

Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer of Central and Eastern Europe at The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, says this conflict has laid bear that Germany has yet to embrace itself as fully western. Traces of the narrative of sonderweg – or "special way" for Germany – from the 20th century are found in the public debate today, he says. “I think we’re still waiting for that leap, and acknowledging where [Germany] stands and what that means.”

But Nowak argues that it is not just Germany defining its own position in geopolitics, but Germany adjusting to a shift from the US, which he says has largely abandoned Europe. He says Germans resent the American “megaphone” approach to Ukraine that is not backed up by any real security guarantee. The US demands that Germany push harder knowing that it is Europe that has everything to lose. “We know we are alone with Russia,” he says.

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