German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spent many years trying to understand Russian President Vladimir Putin. But even she didn't expect him to annex Crimea. Now, she and her European counterparts are struggling to come up with a response.I like how the Germans don't blanch at the Nazi-Russia comparisons.
Last Monday was a day of historic comparisons for Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Immediately prior, almost 97 percent of voters on the Crimea Peninsula had voted in favor of joining Russia, an outcome that reminded the chancellor of the East Germany where she grew up. "Every result over 90 percent in this world has to be viewed with skepticism," Merkel said. After a brief, dramatic pause, she added: "With the exception of my election to the party chairmanship, of course."
Her comment was greeted with laughter, but it would remain the only buoyant moment that morning. The focus of the meeting was squarely on Russia and the crisis in Ukraine. Hesse Governor Volker Bouffier spoke of the West's "distressing helplessness" in the face of Russia's annexation of Crimea and said he was reminded of the year 1938 when the world did nothing to prevent Adolf Hitler's takeover of the Sudetenland in what was then Czechoslovakia. CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber, who holds a Ph.D. in history, pointed out that, just as now with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there had been an Olympics prior to the Sudetenland seizure: 1936 in Berlin.
They are comparisons that lead to only one possible conclusion: Europe must stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin: no appeasement, a stern response. Until the Crimea referendum, Merkel had charted a completely different course for Germany in the Ukraine crisis; she had sought to work closely with Moscow in an effort to avoid a direct confrontation. But once Putin annexed Crimea, Merkel was forced to take an uncharacteristically hardline approach. Normally happy to wait and observe as a situation unfolds, Merkel went on the offensive last week, telling German parliament that "without a doubt, economic sanctions will be considered" should the situation become more critical.
For a chancellor who prefers to move slowly, it was a strong statement. For a leader who famously likes to think things through to the end, it was a confusing one. What, exactly, is her strategy? In levying sanctions, it is vital to have a clear understanding of your adversary and what goals he is pursuing. And it is important to have more patience. Does Merkel believe that the mere threat of painful economic sanctions will prevent Putin from sitting down to a meal of eastern Ukraine after his Crimean appetizer? Or is she really prepared to pursue the spiraling logic of sanctions? Whether she wants to or not, Merkel has to dance with the Russian bear. And it is unclear who has the lead.
The situation is an uncomfortable one for the German chancellor. But several telephone calls with the Russian president in recent weeks have led her to the conclusion that there is no other option at the moment. Even as the lines of communication to Moscow remain open, travel bans have been issued, accounts have been frozen and targeted economic sanctions have been prepared. The international community is isolating Russia.
On Friday evening, the Chancellery saw the first positive effects of Merkel's clear path on Russia. After days of back-and-forth over a possible observer mission by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) for Ukraine, Moscow finally agreed. It was interpreted as a reaction to Western pressure. The determination and unity showed by the US and EU surprised Moscow, it was said.
But Merkel's path is not uncontroversial, neither within her governing coalition with the center-left Social Democrats nor within her own party. "If we levy economic sanctions and we are the ones most affected in the end, then they serve nobody," said Armin Laschet, deputy head of the CDU. Unsurprisingly, the German business community likewise believes that sanctions are the wrong approach. It is difficult to calculate their true costs and the price tag of an EU effort to provide financial assistance to Ukraine is likewise hard to estimate. One billion euros alone will be needed to stave off an immediate Ukraine insolvency.
And then there are the voters.