Crisis in Ukraine: Why Merkel matters

Unlike Barack Obama or David Cameron, she is less easy to caricature as a mouthpiece for 'the West.'

Tobias Schwarz/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the media after talks with Czech Republic's Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin March 13, 2014.

For most of the Ukrainian crisis, Germany, the country with perhaps the most strategic depth in Russia in terms of diplomatic and commercial capital, has been silent. German Chancellor Angela Merkel counseled “patience” on Ukraine only a few days ago. 

But Ms. Merkel, a pivotal figure in Euro-Russian matters, on Wednesday finally stepped out on the world stage – sharply warning in the German parliament against what she termed Russia’s potential “annexation” of the Crimea and saying Moscow would not “get away” with it.

Pound for pound, Merkel arguably has more strategic significance than most other leaders in what is fast becoming a seminal international moment and a profound challenge for what the German chancellor calls "European values." 

Germany’s considerable back-channel efforts and Merkel’s many private communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to have failed or been exhausted; the Putin-engineered referendum in Crimea is coming up fast, on Sunday.

That has forced Merkel into a difficult choice between immediate and palpable short-term German interests – such as gas supply, trade, investment, and a standoff with Russia – and the larger sweep-of-history issues such as the substance of Western values and international order.

She struck a strong blow for the latter, defining the moment as a threshold, and saying that it was no longer acceptable for one nation to bite off part of another in 2014.

“We are experiencing the kind of conflict over spheres of influence and territorial claims that we know from the 19th  and 20th  centuries and thought we had overcome,” Merkel said. “Clearly it hasn’t been overcome.”

"Let me be absolutely clear so that there is no misunderstanding," she continued, "the territorial integrity of Ukraine is not up for discussion."

Merkel, unlike US President Barack Obama or UK Prime Minister David Cameron, is less easy to caricature as merely a mouthpiece for one side in a “West vs. Russia” standoff, or a new cold war.

Unlike the US or UK, the German investment in Russia goes light years past mere rhetoric. The German project of post-cold-war aid, business, and diplomacy in Russia far precedes Merkel herself. Germans long felt, particularly on the center-left SPD side of the Bundestag, that their nation "owed” Russia an attempt at post-World War II reconciliation. The fall of the Berlin Wall made that possible.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder started a mantra a dozen years ago that Germany would help to “modernize” Russia. Billions were spent in technical support, the creation of trade (now ranging between $65 and $100 billion), and the transfer of know-how in manufacturing and infrastructure.

German efforts to harmonize the vast political space lying between Berlin and Moscow were often difficult and pockmarked with history, but the Germans persisted. Germany and Poland have managed to improve their relationship. And Merkel and Putin can talk as children of the former Soviet bloc.

For all these reasons, Merkel wields influence not only with Putin, the EU, and the West, but also in what is sometimes called the “court of world opinion” – how people think about the Ukraine crisis. Putin compares the Crimean referendum to the independence of Kosovo from the rule of Serbia's Slobodan Milošević. Merkel says the comparison is so misguided as to be "shameful."

Germany's reach into post-cold-war Russia may also mean that any efforts by Moscow to paint the Germans as Nazis and Merkel as a fascist will be less effective among educated people. 

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