By Thursday of the week before last, it was abundantly clear that any friendship between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was finished. They were gathered at a festive dinner in the former palace of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, with the city of Vilnius decked out for Christmas, together with leaders from the European Union and Eastern European countries. The truffled pastry hadn't been served yet when the Ukrainian president launched into a rambling monologue about his country's difficult relationship with Europe, on the one hand, and with Russia, on the other. But at some point Merkel interrupted Yanukovych and brusquely informed him that he might as well stop talking. "You're not going to sign anyway," she said bluntly. The Armenian president, who was sitting next to Merkel, looked up in surprise.
Russia has defeated the European Union in the latest round of the fight for Ukraine. To be more precise, Chancellor Merkel lost the round against Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the Russian defeating the German in a technical knockout. Within several weeks, Putin had brought Ukrainian President Yanukovych into line with a mixture of overt pressure and tempting promises. As a result, Yanukovych did not sign an association agreement with the EU at the EU-Eastern Europe summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, despite months of negotiations. For the time being, his country is now a part of the bloc of countries bordering Russia that Putin plans to join together into a Russian empire of sorts, from Vladivostok to the eastern border of the EU.
"The door remains open for Ukraine," Merkel repeatedly emphasized after the debacle, noting that the Europeans were still willing to talk. It sounded like a losing contestant's painstaking effort to save face. But it also suggests that the issue is not a done deal. And before the next round begins, the chancellor plans to bring a new player into the game: Vitali Klitschko. The tall heavyweight-boxing champion is to be groomed as the pro-European opponent of pro-Russian President Yanukovych, and the hope is that he will be the one to sign a pro-EU treaty, which they still believe will materialize.
While "regime change" is too strong a term for what Germany is seeking, it's not entirely off base. Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the European People's Party (EPP), a family of European conservative parties, have chosen Klitschko as their de facto representative in Ukraine. His job is to unite and lead the opposition -- on the street, in parliament and, finally, in the 2015 presidential election. "Klitschko is our man," say senior EPP politicians, "he has a clear European agenda." And Merkel still has a score to settle with Putin.
Ally in the Chancellery
Much of the work happens behind the scenes. Klitschko's party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), formed in 2010, became an observer member of the EPP recently. EPP offices in Brussels and Budapest are training UDAR personnel for parliamentary work and providing support in the development of a nationwide party structure. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is closely aligned with the CDU, also plays an important role, and Klitschko has expressly asked Merkel's advisors for help from the foundation. Four UDAR members of the Ukrainian parliament paid a visit to Berlin last week, where they met with German CDU lawmakers and officials from both the labor and justice ministries. For some time, the Adenauer Foundation has been preparing Ukrainian opposition politicians to assume responsibility in the context of a "dialogue program."
But Klitschko himself remains the focal point of the effort. He has been meeting with Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff, who has maintained ties to members of the opposition in Eastern Europe for years, especially in authoritarian-ruled Belarus. After countless discussions, Pofalla has familiarized himself with the methods Eastern European regimes employ to intimidate members of the opposition when they become too prominent or influential: defamation, daily harassment, arbitrary arrests, show trials and separation from their families. Over time, Pofalla has seen how this approach has succeeded in silencing critical voices in Eastern European countries. He has given Klitschko a number of tips, and the heavyweight boxer and political novice has asked Pofalla for advice. For instance, Klitschko wants to know how to respond to rumors about his alleged "affairs with women" that the Ukrainian government is spreading to spoil his chances as a viable political leader in the country.
Klitschko can also depend on discreet help from Pofalla and the German government when it comes to the 2015 presidential election. His candidacy is currently blocked by a law, presumably written specifically with him in mind, whereby a citizen with a residence permit in other countries is not considered a resident of Ukraine. This prevents Klitschko from proving that he lived in Ukraine for 10 years prior to the election, which is a requirement for a candidacy under the country's constitution. But he can count on Merkel to appeal to President Yanukovych to ensure that the law will not derail Klitschko's candidacy.
To that end, the professional boxer will have to be groomed as a serious politician, both in Ukraine and abroad, which is precisely what is happening.
Klitschko a Levelheaded 'European'
In the middle of last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made a show of appearing with Klitschko in front of a crowd of protesters in Kiev. He knows the boxer from many gala events in Germany, and his visit was prepared with many telephone calls and after securing the blessing of his EU counterparts. Nevertheless, his appearance on Kiev's Independence Square was an awkward moment. The crowd wanted to see Yanukovych overthrown, but that was something Westerwelle, as a Western politician, couldn't exactly endorse. Instead, he made a general reference to the country's European future, and posed for several photos with Klitschko.
Klitschko attended a preliminary meeting of conservative European leaders in Vilnius about two weeks ago, spending long hours in conversation with key members of the European Parliament. But he did not meet directly with Merkel, who sent her foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen to meet with Klitschko instead.
However, Merkel will attend the EPP preliminary meeting before the next EU summit in mid-December, and the current plan is to invite Klitschko again. This time official photo ops with the European leaders are on the agenda, as is a meeting with the chancellor. It would significantly boost Klitschko's political credentials and signify an important commitment for Merkel.
She was apparently impressed by the reports from her advisers, including Pofalla, Heusgen and Elmar Brok (CDU), a longstanding foreign policy expert in the European Parliament. They unanimously describe Klitschko as the opposite of "typical" Ukrainian politicians, who have been known to engage in scuffles in the Kiev parliament in the past. According to their assessment, Klitschko consistently expresses himself in a determined and yet levelheaded manner. He apparently describes the political situation in his country in a very nuanced and "European" way, and he isn't in the least bit cocky. Klitschko is seen as a man of integrity and appears to be free of corruption.
Klitschko deserves particular praise for his courageous behavior when a demonstration two Sundays ago in Kiev threatened to spin out of control. As the police approached the crowd, some of the demonstrators began attacking and badgering the officers. Klitschko grabbed a megaphone and shouted: "Are you crazy? Those are hired provocateurs." The hooligans promptly withdrew from the scene. "He took a significant personal risk," say officials in Berlin. "And he quickly gained control over the crowd."
Ukraine's Either-Or Conundrum
But can Klitschko unite the notoriously divided opposition, which mainly consists of his UDAR Party, the Fatherland Party of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the right-wing nationalist Freedom Party? Klitschko's supporters in the EPP hope that by the 2015 presidential election, the opposition will be able to stand behind a joint candidate to run against Yanukovych -- and win. Then Merkel will have reached her interim goal of pro-European leadership in Ukraine, and the real second match could begin: the effort to restructure the EU's relations with Eastern Europe -- a match pitting the EU against Putin.
The first major attempt to approach this new "Eastern partnership" failed miserably at a summit in Vilnius in late November. Putin had met with Yanukovych several times before the event. What exactly he offered the Ukrainian president is unknown, although there is talk of loans and price discounts for natural gas worth billions. Besides, Russia had already scaled back its trade relations with Ukraine in the summer, especially in the pro-Russian eastern part of the country, where Yanukovych has his strongest support among voters. But perhaps the most effective tactic was Moscow's threat to curb gas deliveries to Ukraine. At the dinner in Vilnius, the leader of another of Russia's neighbors explained to Merkel that there could be only one decision in a situation like that: Yanukovych could either allow several million of his own citizens to spend the winter in cold, dark homes, or he could comply with the Kremlin's wishes.
The EU could not -- and would not -- compete with Moscow's bid. Although Brussels anticipated that the association agreement with Ukraine would provide the country with additional economic growth, it wouldn't happen overnight. The EU couldn't readily guarantee new loans to Ukraine, especially not the loans from the International Monetary Fund that Yanukovych urgently needs. Besides, say EU officials, a proposal to bring Russia to the table for further negotiations was unacceptable. "We are opposed to three-party talks," Merkel reportedly said privately.
As a result, the Ukrainian president saw himself maneuvered into an either-or situation -- either Russia or the EU. For the time being, he chose Putin.
Germany and other large EU countries had recently attempted to avoid this showdown. The association agreement specifically did not contain any prospect of EU membership, partly in an attempt not to provoke Russia. The Europeans had hoped that Moscow would have no objections to looser forms of partnership between the EU and Ukraine.
But Putin had thwarted these plans, and by the time the Europeans realized what had happened, it was too late.
Putin's Ego in Shadows of Dispute
In October 2011, Putin proposed the establishment of a "Eurasian Union" consisting of countries in the territory of the former Soviet Union. A precursor already exists in the form of a Eurasian customs union, which, if Putin has his way, Ukraine will also join. Ukraine's initial reaction was unenthusiastic, but from that moment on, it was clear that Kiev could not simultaneously be part of a customs union with Russia and a free trade zone with the EU. Officials in Brussels apparently underestimated the impact of this issue on Kiev's position.
The fight for Kiev involves far more than free trade on the eastern edge of the European Union. Almost 25 years after the end of the Cold War, it is now a question of which powers can manage to pull the former Soviet republics into their zone of influence. It is a question of geopolitics, and of something experts like to call the "grand design." And, finally, regardless of how the German chancellor feels about it, the issue boils down to a very personal rivalry between Merkel and Putin.
There is hardly any other international politician who is such a mystery to the chancellor. Whether Putin poses shirtless for photographers, blackmails neighboring countries with Russian deliveries of natural resources or, as he is doing now, seeks to develop a greater Russian economic zone, Merkel feels that the motivation is always the same: a mixture of self-doubt, the yearning for past greatness and injured pride. Merkel sees her Russian counterpart as a man who is as determined as he is plagued by complexes, a man with no power to centrally control his own blocs with an iron fist, and without nuclear weapons as the central currency of influence and power.
Merkel's predecessor Gerhard Schröder once characterized Putin as a "flawless democrat." The chancellor held a similar view at first, but marked by more skepticism. In her view, it was important to help Putin modernize and democratize his country, step by step, and not to constantly use Western European standards as a measure of progress. While that was her position eight years ago, Merkel has completely distanced herself from it today. She seems to have given up hope that Putin truly wants democracy and a market economy, rather than the re-establishment of a Russian zone of influence, tightly controlled by the Kremlin and incompatible with democratic pluralism.
Ukraine is the central building block in Putin's grand design. Without Ukraine, Moscow would lack an arm that reaches all the way to central Europe. With Ukraine, Putin could revive the dream of restoring Moscow to its former status as a superpower, at least in part.
And as much as it would be typical of Merkel to resolve Ukraine's either-or predicament to build a realistic future with Russia, she senses that nothing will come of it as long as Yanukovych remains in power in Ukraine. And even if he is replaced one day, Putin will still be waiting. He dreams of a greater Russia. And if he had his way, he would reverse the outcome of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.