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.

The world is increasingly looking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to negotiate a way out of the crisis in Crimea.

The world is increasingly looking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to negotiate a way out of the crisis in Crimea.

By and

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.

International Doubts

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 Reluctance

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.


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spon-facebook-1294885072 03/04/2014
1. I must say this
I can’t even begin to describe how overwhelmingly underwhelming the E.U. officials’ reaction was and this makes me believe they are either criminally incompetent, or simply too coward to stand for the principles the people elected them to stand up to.
Rumate 03/04/2014
2. The wrong approach
Europe and the United States are today confronted with the biggest security dilema since the Soviet Union. Nobody, in Washington or Brussels has any doubts that Putin has an agenda which does not look good for the future of Peace. His behavior is more like that of a gangster than of a political leader. His agenda (he has repeatedly said it) is based on his conviction that the dismantlement of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Behaviour apart he is also arrogantly convinced that he is smarter that his western counterparts. Except perhaps in the case of Angela Merkel who he seems somehow to have some respect for. Then is is also a liar who can say without blinking that there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea and that "anybody nowadays can buy Russian military uniforms"! Before attacking, like he did in Crimea, he led public opinion to believe that he reserved the right to intervene but had not yet decided what to do. To make things worse for Europe, the Russian "elites" who not long ago used to respect the opinion and the democratic way of living of Western European nations, seem to be loosing that respect because they believe more and more that leaders like David Cameron are just as corrupt as the Russian oligarchs because he threats Russia with sanctions but privately assures Russian capital that their dirty money is welcome in the city. They believe that Western Europe is up fort sale. That "major" political figures like Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkosy, to mention just a few, are available to represent Russian economic interests in Europe. That their capital is welcome from Lisbon to Berlin. If you visit some places in Europe, like Baden-Baden for example, you'll notice that in a country that does not speak foreign languages there is an abundance of Russian welcome messages throughout the city to accommodate the new capital of new rich Russians that want to follow the Tsar's footsteps! This is the message that Putin get from Europe. He is no longer afraid to invade "his" former soviet empire because he knows, and the proof has just again been confirmed for the second time after Georgia, that we'll just threaten with possible sanctions that will not take place. This very same sign of weakness of European leaders and division with US policies on major international issues will have a devastating effect in the future of the EU. Ultra Right parties, just like Putin, know that this is the case. That's why they begin to believe that they can dismantle the EU. May will be the second most important moment after the Western surrender in the Ukraine.
carlos565 03/04/2014
3. All eyes on Merkel...
If Germany doesn't follow - in intensity and speed - the positions leaded my United States, that will be disgraceful! Is too much at stake, and 'to let things calm down' will make the future much uncertain and dangerous. I'm sure Merkel and her advisers know the history... just let short sight and short term interests to prevail... like it was done in the past!! Germany should take the lead in Europe: it has - most of all - the moral responsibility to do it!
normanandlilo 03/04/2014
4. Ukrain
Mr Putin has done well. Faced with a civil ware within the Ukrain MR Putin was the only world leader who had the knowledge on how to neutralise the problem. Send in Russian troops NO shots fired but the problem is solved. The EU were the main problem in the Ukrain uprising, the EU spreads its dominance eastwards, before it has solved the problems in its small countries like Italy , Portugal. Spain. WE have weak leaders in Merkel. and Cameron. These leaders did not Know what to do with the problem that they have caused.
ijg7plus1 03/04/2014
5. International Law
Territorial disputes are forever in the news because there are few rules. China is warning its neighbours it will "respond effectively" to safeguard its territorial integrity, the FT reports today. The sooner there is agreement on territorial rights [enforceable] the better, before the inevitable disputes about ownership of the resource rich Arctic get heated.
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