Germany needs to square the circle between domestic demands for restraint and isolationism and the increasing responsibilities of European leadership.

The surprise visits of the French President François Holland and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Kyiv and then Moscow to revive the stalled negotiations about a truce in the Donbass revealed as much about German domestic politics as it did about the complexity of dealing with a revanchist and revisionist Russia. Germany needs to square the circle between domestic demands for restraint and isolationism and the increasing burdens and responsibilities of European leadership. The issue seems even more complicated, as neither the political elite nor the country’s intelligentsia have a clear vision on how far Germany should go in both dimensions.

1. Domestic Constraints

German reluctance to confront Russia on its actions in Ukraine can be easily explained by the polls: 81 percent of Germans reject the idea of delivering weapons to Ukraine. 48 percent fear that a war between NATO and Russia is looming[1] and that Germany might be dragged into it. The sentiment that the Cold War and the division of Europe was something that should never happen again is just as strong as is the country’s general aversion to war. German war crimes in and against the Soviet Union were broadly discussed after 1989, and to this day relations with Russia were quasi proof for the federal republic that it had left behind its dark and militaristic past. Due to the Cold War, the history of central and eastern European countries was sidelined in public consciousness, giving Russia’s agents of influence plenty of opportunity to spread their version of the time in public discussions.

Germany needs to square the circle between domestic demands for restraint and isolationism and the increasing burdens and responsibilities of European leadership.

Furthermore, elder statesmen with little connections to current politics failed to understand the nature of the Russian regime and the deceptive manoeuvres it uses. For both Merkel and especially for Steinmeier, this hostile domestic environment is particularly challenging, because both the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on the right as well as Die Linke on the left could easily exploit the public’s desire to avoid conflict. Both are essentially pro-Russian populist parties that primarily capitalize on the fears and uncertainties of the population.

2. European leadership

The statements of some German elder statesmen on Ukraine have been hopelessly out of touch. More than 60 former decision makers, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, signed an open letter calling on Germany to start of new policy of détente[2] and stressing the “legitimacy” of Russia’s security concerns. The younger generation of German politicians, officials and commentators, however, have come to terms with a more aggressive Russia and know the facts and the tricks of the Kremlin.[3] Rules, norms, and order are at the heart of German political thinking and to them Europe becomes totally ungovernable if states abandon their international commitments for short-time goals. That refers to Russia brushing aside the European security order by military force, as well as to other states seeking a revision of budgetary rules and norms. The Russian behaviour is understood as an assault not only on Ukraine, but on the very foundations of European security and order.

Therefore Berlin was a leader in imposing sanctions on Russia. There has to be a price tag put on Russia's breach of international law and military aggression both in Crimea as well as in the Donbass. Merkel in Munich did call things by their name,[4] and both she and Steinmeier have put considerable effort into maintaining a European consensus on this. To Germany, this consensus is a value in itself. The EU should not be split between those hesitating to confront Russia and those advocating a more substantial support for Ukraine. But there is one big problem: what if Russia is willing to pay the price Europeans have put forward?

There is one big problem: what if Russia is willing to pay the price Europeans have put forward?

The negotiations in Minsk and the agreement signed[5] are seen as a last chance for a diplomatic solution within this European consensus. Further measures, such as the expansion of sectorial sanctions or the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine are much more controversial, and pushing for them might endanger the amount of European unity achieved so far.

Therefore the stakes are high for Germany. German leaders knew from the beginning that the agreement was everything but perfect and that the chances for failure are high. And if implementation fails, the blame will be on Germany. The events around the pocket of Debalcewo showed how fragile the situation was and that Russia still considers adding some military gains. It remains uncertain, whether the prospect of US military assistance for Ukraine is in itself an incentive to convince the Kremlin to not further escalate the situation. But unfortunately the US debate is unstructured, rather concentrating on inner-American ideological cleavages than on what to do in Ukraine and what to do if things go wrong. And in Germany, there is no viable plan B to negotiations yet.


[2] For example, see Erhard Eppler's "Einen Sieg wird es nicht geben" published in Süddeutsche Zeitung Online on 11 February, 2015 and available at: http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/ukraine-konflikt-einen-sieg-wird-es-nicht-geben-1.2344320; or see the open letter "Wieder Krieg in Europa? Nicht in unserem Namen!" signed by 60 elder statesmen and available at: http://www.zeit.de/politik/2014-12/aufruf-russland-dialog.

[3] See the interview with Norbert Röttgen, "Wir müssen realistischer werden", published in Deutschlandfunk on 14 November, 2014 and available at: http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/ukraine-konflikt-wir-muessen-realistischer-werden.694.de.html?dram:article_id=303161.

Read more on: Note from Berlin, Wider Europe, Russia, EaP, Ukraine

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.