Philip Breedlove needs a pen. He is surrounded by journalists and is looking around desperately. Finally, his advisor hands him one and it disappears almost entirely between the American four-star general’s broad fingers. Then he begins sketching out in quick strokes the outlines of Ukraine on the back side of a white menu — almost certainly not for the first time. He then draws in eastern Ukraine that is under the control of pro-Russian separatists.
Breedlove is head of the United States European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Last Monday in Berlin, he said what he would later explain in greater detail in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper — namely that the forces supported by Russia want to create a more integrated and clearly defined area out of the small parts of the country already under their control. Currently missing from the equation is the Donetsk airport and land access to the Crimean Peninsula through the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Both are still in the hands of the Ukrainian government. When asked what the European and NATO response will be, or even if one had yet been devised, the general said, just wait.
From partner to adversary
Almost exactly a year after the European Union’s failed Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, the situation on the ground in Europe has altered radically. Russia, a former partner, has now became an adversary. Borders have shifted. Soldiers have been given marching orders and innocent people have died. Much has happened in Europe that people thought would never happen again. Particularly not on a Continent that had seen so many millions of lives lost in the past century. Europe was supposed to have learned its lesson.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel now speaks openly about, “outdated thinking in terms of spheres of influence which tramples international law” and says it “must not be allowed to prevail.” It’s a thought she may have harbored many times, but when she said it in Sydney last week, it marked the first time she had uttered such sentiments to a global audience. It was a clear challenge and turning point after a year of diplomatic efforts that, while not useless, now appear to have been exhausted. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to the threat of secession in eastern Ukraine, there’s little hope left that events can still be reversed. “Everyone seems to be at wits’ end,” say federal government sources in Berlin.
Europe has reached rock-bottom in the crisis with Russia — and rock bottom is a dangerous place to be.
Diverging interests in Europe
Within the European Union, the interests of the 28 member states are diverging in what are becoming increasingly clear ways. Taking a tough stance against Russia is generally less important to southern Europeans than it is to eastern Europeans. In the past, the German government had sought to serve as a bridge between the two camps. But in Berlin itself these days, significant differences in the assessment of the situation are starting to emerge within the coalition government pairing Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). It’s one that pits Christian Democrat leaders like Merkel and Horst Seehofer, who heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), against Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD and Social Democratic Party boss Sigmar Gabriel, who is the economics minister.
Last week, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier traveled to Moscow to visit with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. With Steinmeier standing at his side, the Russian foreign minister praised close relations between Germany and Russia. “It’s good my dear Frank-Walter that, despite the numerous rumors of recent days, you hold on to our personal contact.” Steinmeier reciprocated by not publically criticizing contentious issues like Russian weapons deliveries to Ukrainian separatists. Afterwards, Vladimir Putin received him, a rare honor. It was a prime example of just how the Russian strategy works.
United assessments, divided approaches
The German foreign minister is professional enough not to be surprised by the Russian kindness. Even as the chancellor sharply attacked Putin during her appearance in Sydney, saying the West shouldn’t be “too conflict averse,” Steinmeier struck a far softer tone on the same day in Brussels. Without mentioning Merkel by name, Steinmeier urged for a bit more restraint in public statements, saying the West had to be careful to make sure “that in our use of language in public, we do not eliminate our chances of contributing to the easing of tensions and to the mitigation of conflict.”
When he said that, the foreign minister knew that there was a chance he might get a meeting with Putin. As such, one could interpret his statements as an attempt to avoid jeopardizing his possible appointment with the Russian president at the Kremlin.
Still, the statements marked the first time any fissures had become visible in the joint position vis-a-vis Moscow held by Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel. They are united in their assessment of Russia’s actions, but their views differ on the best way to face the Russians in the coming weeks. That, though, has long since become the all-important question.
Merkel considers it to be crucial to make clear to Putin publicly how his conduct is viewed in the West and just what is at stake. She believes that the Russian president will only respond to clear statements — if he bothers to respond at all.
Her approach is based on the concern that pro-Russian separatists may seek to divide eastern Ukraine for the long run and that the West will have to resign itself to that development. If that happens, then Russia will now have succeeded with its strategy for the third time since the end of the Soviet Union. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway republics that are part of Georgian territory, are under Russian control, as is the Transnistria region of Moldavia. The consequence being that neither country is able to join NATO because the military alliance stipulates that any member state must have previously resolved all border disputes with its neighbors prior to accession.
Steinmeier wants to avoid provoking the Russians. He fears that would force Moscow into an even more defensive posture and would further complicate cooperation with Russia in other areas like the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Just how deep these differences between the chancellor and foreign minister go may emerge at a meeting of senior leaders of the parties in Merkel’s coalition government on Tuesday night.
“I want clarity from Sigmar Gabriel,” says CSU boss Seehofer. “Does the SPD support the efforts of our chancellor or not?” He warns that the West needs to close ranks on the issue, the German government all the more so. He adds that, even within his own party, there is already too much friendly sentiment towards Russia that has to be kept in check. “They’re asking, why are we permitting the SPD to have this Russia-friendly approach but not our own people in the CSU?” He also wants to call on Foreign Minister Steinmeier to not abandon the chancellor’s hardline policy. “I know Mr. Steinmeier to be a level-headed diplomat, and we also need dialogue with Russia,” Seehofer says. “But things will get highly dangerous if Mr. Steinmeier pursues his own diplomacy apart from the chancellor.”
Last Wednesday, the chancellor discussed the issue with her foreign minister on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting. She convinced him to delay a meeting planned this week of the Petersburg Dialogue, a high-level meeting of representatives from Germany and Russia that serves as a prestigious forum between the two countries. Steinmeier went along with it, also agreeing to suspend the dialogue’s traditional close working ties to the German-Russian Forum, which is led by Matthias Platzeck, a prominent Social Democrat. Platzeck, the former SPD national party leader, suggested in an interview last week that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula should be settled “retroactively according to international law,” thus giving the move formal recognition. “The smarter ones” also have to give in now and then, Platzeck added. It’s a statement that deeply irritated officials in Merkel’s Chancellery. But it has been difficult for Steinmeier to distance himself from his friend.
Merkel, meanwhile, has taken sides with a group of critics of Moscow who want to extensively change the Petersburg Dialogue, which is intended to promote cooperation between civil society. The group includes Andreas Schockenhoff, the deputy head of the parliamentary group of Merkel’s conservatives, Marieluise Beck, a member of parliament with the Green Party, and representatives of several non-governmental organizations. In a white paper, the group has called for a stronger role for foundations and other societal groups in the Petersburger Dialogue. They’re also calling for a new chairperson.
The man currently heading the dialogue’s German steering committee is Lothar de Maizière, the last prime minister of East Germany. Officials inside the Chancellery consider him to be too uncritical when it comes to Russia. Platzeck, who had hopes of becoming his successor, dashed them with his recent comments. “Anyone who wants to legalize the violation of international law and military aggression lacks critical distance to the Russian partners,” says Shockenhoff.
Concern in EU capitals
Officials are also worried in other European Union capitals about the differences between the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry. It is clear to everyone, the ambassador of one major EU partner says, “that only Berlin can negotiate on equal footing with the Russians.” Meanwhile, officials in the Baltic states and Poland worry that Steinmeier could abandon Berlin’s clear position on the Ukraine issue.
Comments made at a meeting of EU foreign ministers last Monday helped to fuel those worries. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, proposed adding additional Russian citizen’s to the EU’s red sanctions list. But Steinmeier surprised the other ministers by pushing for a formulation that only addressed the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Participants said he argued that “new channels” to Moscow had opened up at the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, and they shouldn’t be slammed shut again.
It wasn’t just the Lithuanian foreign minister rubbing his eyes and strongly disagreeing. The foreign ministers from Poland and Estonia opposed the effort to protect the Russians as well. They said they had an entirely different perception of the talks in Brisbane and instead viewed them as a further hardening of attitudes. Critics of Moscow who took part in the talks argued that Russia hadn’t undertaken any positive steps that would have justified the EU gesture.
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German Foreign Minister: ‘Crimea Will Remain a Source of Conflict’
Interview Conducted by Christiane Hoffmann, Der Spiegel Online, Nov 25, 2014
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a master at keeping her cool, even when the pressure becomes almost unbearable. This may explain why a speech she gave at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, immediately following the G-20 summit in Brisbane, turned so many heads. Her comments in Sydney were the clearest indication yet that she is losing patience with Russia. “Outdated thnking in terms of spheres of influence which tramples international law underfoot must not be allowed to prevail,” she said. “Russia is violating the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine.”
During the audience discussion after the speech, Merkel warned that “we’re not just talking about Ukraine. We’re talking about Moldavia, about Georgia. If things go on, we’ll be talking about Serbia and the Western Balkans.”
Coming as it did just hours after an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin was aired on German television, the speech was seen as a direct and forceful response. And it seemed to make German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier uncomfortable. It is important, he said not long after Merkel’s comments, “that in our use of language in public, we do not eliminate our chances of contributing to the easing of tensions and to the mitigation of conflict.”
SPIEGEL: Many understood your appeal to tone down the rhetoric against Russia as a criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel following the clear comments she made in Sydney after the G-20 summit. Which parts of her speech did you find objectionable?
Steinmeier: That is really far-fetched! It does justice neither to the seriousness of the crisis nor to the legitimate questions addressed by summits like Brisbane to try to turn them into a problem within the German government. What I find imprudent is when summits like this, which offer a last chance for direct and perhaps confidential talks, are treated as an open forum.
SPIEGEL: But with your tone, you clearly distanced yourself from Merkel and the chancellor is prepared to strengthen the sanctions against Putin. Are you as well?
Steinmeier: Again, our position is clear. Our policies, and thus our decisions on sanctions, are a consequence of our assessment of the situation. And it will remain that way. On Monday (Nov. 17), European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels issued instructions to identify those responsible among the separatists in eastern Ukraine and add them to the list because they are riding roughshod over Ukraine’s territorial integrity. That is what was necessary in the current situation and it is, above all, the collective position of the German government.
SPIEGEL: In Germany and the European Union, the discussion over how to deal with Putin is more controversial than ever. Do you not believe that Western unity may be in danger?
Steinmeier: Nobody, SPIEGEL included, should be afraid of the fact that debate in democracies is spirited at times. It is, in fact, a misjudgment made by autocratic regimes to see that as a weakness. In the EU, 28 countries come together with totally different historical experiences leading to different perceptions and objectively different degrees of concern. Nevertheless, we have always been able to arrive at a unified position and to see it through. I will fight to keep it that way.
SPIEGEL: Matthias Platzeck, the former leader of your Social Democrats and current head of the German-Russian Forum, a high-profile organization promoting ties between the two countries, suggested recently that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea Peninsula should be settled “retroactively according to international law” and that the West should make concessions to Putin. Do you share his viewpoint?
Steinmeier: Everything there is to say about that has already been said. Russia’s actions on the Crimean Peninsula were a serious violation of international law and of the principles upon which European peace is based. That is why we cannot let pass or ignore what took place.
SPIEGEL: Earlier this month, you met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Are you now more hopeful than you were before the meeting?
Steinmeier: I had the feeling that, given the threatening situation in Kiev and Moscow, it was necessary to speak with those holding political responsibility. The rhetorical escalation between the capitals had become dangerous during the weekend of the G-20 summit and thereafter. I returned from Kiev and Moscow with the impression that Presidents Poroshenko and Putin intend to stick to the Minsk Protocol. Given the difficult conflict in eastern Ukraine, that isn’t much, nor is it enough. But it is a foundation that we can continue to work with.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Ukraine’s territorial integrity can be restored in the foreseeable future or has Kiev lost the Crimea and eastern Ukraine for good?
Steinmeier: I have detected no Russian willingness whatsoever to return the Crimea. Unfortunately we have to assume that the illegal annexation of the Crimea will remain a source of conflict between us and Russia for the foreseeable future. In eastern Ukraine, the situation hopefully hasn’t yet been decided. I am taking Russia at its word that it doesn’t intend to destroy Ukrainian unity. Reality continues to speak a different language. But particularly when the end remains open, one cannot become discouraged. Foreign policy inaction or self-indulgence would be the wrong approach.