Ausgabe 34/2008

Germany and the Caucasus Conflict Merkel's Most Serious Foreign Policy Crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now facing her most serious foreign policy crisis to date. The war in the Caucasus has shattered relations with Russia and sparked disagreements within the EU -- and with the United States.

By , and Alexander Szandar

This was going too far. The German chancellor did her best to maintain her composure, to hide how outrageous she found the things that were being said by the man standing next to her. She grasped the light-blue lectern with both hands and put on her best poker face. But it didn’t quite work. Her eyes were rolling.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi, Russia last Friday.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi, Russia last Friday.

The man standing next to her was the Russian president. Meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Merkel and Dmitry Medvedev had just conferred for 90 minutes on the crisis in the Caucasus. He had used a map to explain the situation to her. Now they were trying to convey the results of their talk at a joint press conference.

Medvedev spoke of “Georgia’s aggression” and the “brutal acts” of the Georgians, whose president, Mikhail Saakashvili, had apparently given up on diplomacy “because he had simply gunned down the South Ossetians.” He said that Russia, as the only remaining supporter of the South Ossetians, had taken “adequate measures” to resolve the problem.

When Medvedev had finished, Merkel thanked him. She then described some of Russia’s actions as “disproportionate” and “unreasonable.” Merkel also called on Russia to withdraw its troops from the core region of Georgia. Now it was Medvedev’s turn to struggle with his composure. He gave Merkel a severe look and breathed deeply.

Even the reception in front of the president’s summer residence showed that ties between Germany and Russia are extremely strained. When the chancellor stepped out of her limousine and gave her hand to the president waiting in front of the house, she didn’t even look at him. The handshake didn’t last longer than a second.

This is the most serious foreign policy crisis ever faced by the head of the German government. At stake here is more than just reinstating peace in the Caucasus. German foreign policy has been deeply shaken on virtually all fronts. Germany’s delicate relations with Russia have become even more delicate, the war in the Caucasus has plunged the EU into a severe crisis, and relations with the US are weighed down by new tensions that may even extend beyond George W. Bush’s term of office.

Now it is important that Merkel (of the conservative Christian Democrats, the CDU) and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (of Merkel’s coalition partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats, the SPD) show their mettle as a duo. The two politicians have had an edgy relationship, marred by differences of opinion and jabs in many areas. To make matters worse, an election campaign is looming on the horizon in which Steinmeier will likely run as Merkel’s main opponent. But right now Germany cannot afford any partisan squabbling in its foreign policy.

Germans Present a United Front

In Berlin last week, observers were eager to see whether the German government, which had just returned from its summer holidays, could agree on a uniform approach toward Russia.

On Wednesday morning, the cabinet met for its first session following the summer break. Steinmeier was in Brussels, so Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler -- who is also a member of the SPD -- sat in for the foreign minister. The chancellor gave a short presentation on the conflict in the Caucasus.

Erler listened very attentively. Would he have to object? But soon he leaned back in his chair and relaxed. Afterwards, Erler told everyone present that he could endorse every word that the chancellor had said. The dialogue with Russia should continue.

As a result, the Germans presented a united front, and this held until Friday, including Merkel’s trip to Sochi. The German government has shown that it can act in this crisis -- but the sobering reality is that the Germans alone cannot resolve the situation.

A German political consensus is not enough to counter the Russians. That would require, at the very least, a united European front. But that does not exist. Once again it becomes clear that German political policies cannot influence global politics when they do not reflect a united European position. It is already apparent in the committee sessions of NATO and the EU that Russia has successfully divided the rest of the continent into two parts.

The Eastern Europeans, Swedes and Britons constitute the core of Russia’s critics. Germans, French and Italians, on the other hand, are pushing for an approach that would maintain dialogue with the superpower. In the cabinet session, Merkel said that the EU cannot afford to send such mixed messages.

But how does she intend to bridge the gap? Currently, Germany and France are not working together to create a strong backbone for European foreign policy. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proven unreliable and no effective partnership can be forged with him. Recently, the French magazine Le Point quoted him as saying: “There are not many who are running the show. Bush’s time is up, Blair is no longer there. Merkel, no, that’s not it either. Actually, there is only me.”

Such statements do not go over well in the chancellery in Berlin, especially since the inimitable Sarkozy, who currently heads the EU Council Presidency, did a slipshod job of negotiating the ceasefire between Georgia and Russia. He allowed the Russians to cruise their tanks through Georgia. In any case, Sarkozy has failed to gain the trust of Eastern European countries.

Europe Split on Reaction

The conflict over how to deal with the crisis in the Caucasus could erupt again this Tuesday at a special NATO session. Together with the US, the Eastern European countries are calling for the alliance to set an example by taking military action in favor of Georgia. They propose dispatching AWACS aircraft -- which are used for reconnaissance, but can also serve as flying command centers for fighter jets -- to monitor Georgian airspace.

Most other EU members, above all the Germans and the French, oppose such a measure. They argue that flying AWACS missions over the Black Sea would only further provoke the Russians. What’s more, top officials in the German military have advised the chancellery and foreign ministry in Berlin that, from a military perspective, the aircraft are not required. There is no lack of information on the movements of the Russian air force. German specialists are monitoring radio communications of the Russian fighter jets and helicopters, reconnaissance satellites are providing photographs of Georgia, and the new SAR-Lupe satellites of the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, are transmitting high-resolution radar images.

But many countries continue to push for AWACS -- also partly because Eastern Europeans such as the Estonians, the Latvians and the Poles need symbols of support for Georgia. After suffering for decades under Russian domination, they fear nothing more than an intervention. EU and NATO military involvement would allow them to feel more secure. They hope that if the Russians are halted in Georgia, they would never even try to invade Baltic States like Estonia or Lithuania.

Sarkozy has announced that he will “examine” a military mission for the European Union. At a meeting with EU colleagues in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier found an amazing amount of willingness to embark on such a course. Since then his ministry has begun to map out scenarios for deploying EU troops. The question is whether police officers, soldiers or civilian observers should be sent to Georgia.

The German defense ministry remains rather skeptical of this idea. Military experts say that it is unlikely that Russia would allow an EU military mission into Georgia after it has gained control of the entire country, with the exception of the capital Tbilisi. According to a high-ranking military officer, this option is currently seen as “not very realistic.”

Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is gearing up for another mission. There are plans to significantly boost the number of observers working for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has been stationed in Georgia since 1992. There are roughly 200 of them, almost all of them civilians. They were supposed to help prevent fighting from flaring up again in South Ossetia, and obviously failed. Now the OSCE, which is based in Vienna, is considering sending in another hundred experts.

Last week, the Bundeswehr searched among its own ranks for suitable personnel. A knowledge of Russian is a must and experience in disarmament inspections in Russia is desirable. An initial survey revealed that roughly 30 serving and former soldiers could be ready to go in just a few days.

Georgia and NATO

One thing that the German government wants to avoid at all costs is NATO being drawn into the conflict. As things now stand, the crisis has renewed debate on Georgia’s membership. At the NATO summit in April in Bucharest, Merkel and Steinmeier played a major role in preventing Ukraine and the Caucasus country from joining the alliance’s Membership Action Plan (MAP). Now that hostilities have erupted, the Germans are happy to keep as much distance as possible between them and Georgia.

Nevertheless, during her Sunday visit to Tbilisi, Merkel repeated her claim that eventually Georgia would become a member of NATO. Speaking at a press conference she said "Georgia will become a member of NATO if it wants to -- and it does want to."

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi on Sunday.

Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi on Sunday.

Eastern Europeans see the situation somewhat differently -- they would like to see Georgia already firmly on the path to NATO membership -- as does the US administration, represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Strong criticism has also emerged from the American election campaign. US presidential candidate John McCain has warned that withholding fast-track membership for Georgia might have been viewed “as a green light by Russia for attacks on Georgia.” He said: “I urge NATO to reconsider its decision.”

Somehow this makes Germany partly responsible for the war in the Caucasus, at least in McCain’s eyes, and that does not bode well for Germany should the Republican be elected president in November. Berlin actually had hoped that it only had to get through the last few months of the Bush administration, and then everything would get better. But, no matter who is president, Germany’s relationship with the US promises to be fraught with tension should America allow itself to be provoked by Russia.

And what approach should Germany take with Russia? It should pursue dialogue, yes, but with what words and messages? Recently, Germany’s ties with Russia were strained by Merkel’s criticism of human rights violations. Now she would have even more reason to condemn the Russians. But this is precisely where Horst Teltschik -- who once served as a foreign policy advisor to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- comes in with a surprising change of course.

Superpower Flexes its Muscles

Teltschik says that a “defensive approach” is inadequate, and that the German government has to take the initiative. He says that the main thing is to take the security needs of the Russians seriously and enter into negotiations on this issue -- and not simply hammer away on the topic of human rights.

According to Teltschik, there are a wide range of possible initiatives, from negotiating a new European contract on relinquishing violence to offering the Russians nearly full membership in NATO.

Teltschik, a conservative, points to -- of all people -- former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt as a model for such bold ideas. He says that after the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, Brandt, who was foreign minister at the time, correctly realized that he had to reorient his policy of détente, and more clearly approach Moscow, instead of East Germany or Poland.

Now Teltschik feels that the Germans have done far too little to improve their relations with Russia. He contends that former Chancellor Kohl -- along with his Social Democratic successor, Gerhard Schröder -- would have done a better job.

In a current SPIEGEL interview, Schröder advises the government to “establish and maintain a strong relationship with Russia.” He then adds that “there is not a single critical problem in world politics or the global economy that could be solved without Russia.”

This is certainly no news to Russia, which is why the superpower is confidently flexing its muscles in Georgia.

Merkel wanted, more than anything else, to explain to Medvedev what kind of impression this imperial Russia makes on the world -- what kind of an effect it has when tanks roll through an independent country. These images have left her feeling shaken. She told Medvedev that Russia’s policy on breakaway provinces is inconsistent. Anyone who says that Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be able to declare their own independence should also grant the same privileges to its own provinces, such as Chechnya.

But, in the end, the chancellor did not have the feeling that this had impressed Medvedev.

Where to from here? There is no recipe for dealing with an imperial Russian superpower, not even a concept. Only one thing remains certain: “It will definitely be difficult,” said German Foreign Minister Steinmeier last week as he met with reporters over a cup of coffee -- and gazed rather helplessly into the distance.


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