Crimean Crisis All Eyes on Merkel
As the conflict with Russia over Crimea intensifies, Germany is playing a central role in communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the international community has doubts that Chancellor Angela Merkel can pull it off.
Germany had only recently announced the end of its era of restraint. German President Joachim Gauck, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen of the Christian Democrats and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats have all argued that it's time for Germany to play a greater role in the world.
Steinmeier couldn't have expected that he would need to follow-through on his push for an "aggressive foreign policy" so quickly. But the dramatic escalation in Crimea needs quick answers and it has become a focus of Chancellor Angela Merkel's government in Berlin.
"Europe is, without a doubt, in its most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall," Steinmeier said on Monday. "Twenty-five years after the end of the conflict between the blocs, there's a new, real danger that Europe will split once again."
Partly as a result of Steinmeier's key role in Kiev in February -- in which he, together with his French and Polish counterparts, helped forge a last-minute agreement to ward off a bloodbath in Kiev -- but also because of Germany's traditional role as a go-between with Russia, many are now looking to Merkel as a potentially vital intermediary with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It is a tremendous challenge. And it isn't just the Europeans who will be watching Berlin closely. The US too is hoping Germany will live up to its new desire to wield influence. According to Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, Washington's currently troubled relationship with Russia means that it cannot do much -- and that Germany must therefore play a more important role.
Merkel Dives Into Diplomacy
Ties between Berlin and Moscow have traditionally been constructive. even if Putin and Merkel have a difficult personal relationship. Still, the two continue to talk, with the chancellor phoning Putin several times in recent days to express her view that the "unacceptable Russian intervention in Crimea" is a violation of international law. In parallel, she has also tried to open a channel of communication between Moscow and Kiev. Putin said he was willing to talk about the formation of a "contact group" and a fact-finding mission is supposed to determine the situation on the ground.
Like Merkel, her foreign minister has also spend almost all of his time engaged in crisis diplomacy, including a dinner meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Monday night. Steinmeier has been widely praised for his work, particularly for his role in hammering out a peace plan in Kiev, while people were dying on Independence Square.
But therevolutionary dynamic flushed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych away almost as soon as Steinmeier had boarded his plane for Berlin. The West was almost surely aware that such an eventuality might occur. But Moscow -- not entirely unjustly -- has accused Steinmeier et. al. of not pressuring the opposition in Kiev to stick to its side of the agreement. As a result, Steinmeier now has even more responsibility: If violence breaks out in Crimea, his efforts in Kiev will have been rendered worthless.
In the US, there are now doubts that Germany can fulfill its planned role. CNN's security expert tweeted on Sunday that the German silence about cancelling a preparatory meeting for the June G-8 summit in Sochi is "deafening." The US, Britain, France and Canada cancelled first. Germany only joined later to give the impression of unity. A former US top diplomat in Washington said on Sunday: "The EU is dysfunctional, but Berlin is the real problem." It doesn't help, she argued, that Merkel is a hesitant leader.
In Berlin, such accusations are largely considered to be hackneyed and tired. Of course European crisis diplomacy is difficult, they argue, when a giant country like Russia is creating facts on the ground in Crimea. But while Ukraine is located across the world from the United States, it only takes three hours to fly from Frankfurt to Simferopol.
And then there's Europe's dependency on Russian natural gas. Germany receives 35 percent of its natural gas imports from Russia, and a similar proportion of its oil. The Europeans would be well-advised, the Merkel camp argues, not to fan the flames with Cold War rhetoric.
The United States, of course, has moved forward, taking steps on Monday to impose sanctions on high-level Russian officials and suspending military ties to the country.
European leaders have been more cautious: Dutch diplomats have stated that they will not impose sanctions, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he wouldn't lend his support to punitive trade measures or prevent the flow of Russian money into the UK. And the chancellor, first and foremost, is playing for time, hoping that emotions will cool. She believes that Putin will react heatedly to punitive measures, which is why she is opposed to sanctions or to excluding Russia from the G-8.
The New York Times reported on Monday what Merkel really thinks of the Russian president: The paper wrote that she told Barack Obama via telephone that she is not sure if Putin is "in touch with reality." Berlin did not officially confirm the quote, expressing it in more diplomatic terms -- that Putin and the West have a "very different perception" of the events in Crimea.
The Americans, of course, would rather she had expressed herself a bit more forcefully. And the world is watching to see if she ultimately will.