Why Merkel’s Foreign Policy For Eastern Europe Is Failing

By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, September 23, 2014

The fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine provides an opportunity for political leaders to reflect on how we arrived at this dangerous place of Cold War-like tensions between Russia, Europe and the United States. From Washington DC to Berlin to Warsaw, western leaders are scrambling to figure out where to go from here.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy of engagement towards Russia and her personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin lie in tatters. Much like her failing “foreign policy” towards the euro zone, her approach toward Russia appears to indicate a doctrinaire mindset that sees doubling down on failed policies as a sign of strength and resoluteness. While all is quiet at the moment on the Eastern front, Chancellor Merkel does not appear to have a Plan B.

Mrs. Merkel’s policy of economic engagement with Russia as a vehicle for forging common bonds — which began under her Social Democratic predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who subsequently became cozy with Russian energy interests as chairman of the board of the Russian-German joint venture Nord Stream — has proven to have little influence over Vladimir Putin. German leaders on both the right and the left believed that if closer economic ties existed, then closer politics and values would result. But the signs that this would not be the case already had revealed themselves back in 2008 over Georgia, and then again in 2006 and 2009 when Russia manipulated its energy exports to blackmail Ukraine and eastern Europe. Yet Mrs. Merkel and most German leaders like Schröder chose to ignore the warning signs. One German leader who didn’t was former foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who has written:

“Ever since his first term in office as Russian president, Putin’s strategic objective has been to rebuild Russia’s status as a global power… A soft approach will merely embolden the Kremlin.”

Besides miscalculating the influence of economic engagement over Putin, the problems with Merkel’s foreign policy toward Ukraine have been threefold. First, Germany – as well as the rest of Europe – was ambivalent about Ukraine’s association with its neighbors to the west, and did not have clear outcomes. In the aftermath of the economic and eurozone crises (2008-2010), Merkel’s (as well as other European leaders’) reluctance towards more European enlargement in general, and its ambivalence towards Ukraine in particular since the days of the Orange Revolution in the mid-2000s, provided Russia with the opening that led to the current crisis.

For Germany and Europe, Ukraine was on a back-back burner until the Maidan uprising in December and January of last year, which suddenly shoved Ukraine’s plight directly into Europe’s lap. At that point, Merkel and other European leaders found their cautious ambivalence being overridden by European values and principles that demanded Europe support a nascent, market-based liberal democracy in their near-abroad that was asking for help after the ousting of Putin crony, President Viktor Yanukovych. So Europe was reluctantly sucked into the morass between east and west Ukraine, and between Ukraine and Russia, despite European leaders still not being clear about their outcome. Such geopolitical confusion has its costs.

Second, German policy in recent years was based on Mrs. Merkel’s personal relationship with  Vladimir Putin, and before her Chancellor Schröder’s chummy relationship with the Russian president. Sitting alongside Putin at the World Cup in Brazil, Merkel apparently believed that she could – like former US president George W. Bush – “look Putin in the eye/soul” and understand his values, policies and bottom lines. But like President Bush, she misunderstood Putin’s willingness to hide many of his cards in an increasingly high-stakes poker game.

Specifically, Chancellor Merkel badly underestimated what Putin was willing to do in order to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. Putin has been much clearer than Merkel, President Barack Obama or other Western leaders in knowing where he draws his lines of Russia’s national self interest. Western leaders announced their unwillingness to match Putin’s use of military force – even as Putin’s military support for the rebels became increasingly evident – in the hope that such preemption would reassure Russia and cause Putin to respond in kind. But this policy assumed – wrongly — that Putin shares the same post-Cold War values about the rule of law, democracy, national self-determination and the inviolability of borders. It also assumed that Putin was eager for the carrot of economic development based on substantial investment from German businesses (the biggest foreign investor in Russia, by far). Instead, Putin has remained in the mindset of a Cold War tactician, calculating on the geopolitical chessboard about how to claw back some of Russia’s past geopolitical bloc.

Third, both Chancellor Merkel and President Obama have adopted a general foreign policy strategy of “do as little as possible.” Due to budgetary constraints as a result of the ongoing economic crisis – as well as qualities that reflect their own personalities – both leaders have adopted cautious approaches that can be best characterized by Obama’s phrase “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Of course, that makes sense, but when it’s the basis for your foreign policy, that becomes a formula for what NOT to do rather than what TO DO. By definition, this is a policy in which you sit back and watch while the world unfolds, reacting to events as they happen. That left Russia in the driver’s seat because Putin does not play by the same rules. The potency of “soft” power – including economic sanctions against offenders — has been called into question. China is surely watching closely.

These cautious stances by both Merkel and Obama have been supported by their domestic electorates’ own isolationist tendencies. Many Germans have been ambivalent at best in this standoff, with some leaning pro-Russia (particularly in the blowback over the NSA scandal which has sowed great distrust towards the U.S.). Wishing to see shades of gray in a situation that was becoming increasingly black and white, Germany’s historic post-World War II posture against war and aggression – certainly admirable, most of the time – in this case has resulted in blinders as to Putin’s true intent. Merkel has lost credibility, particularly among her Eastern European partners. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has pointedly stated that Merkel and other leaders that counseled mediation now need to explain “what their ideas (are) to stop President Putin and save Ukraine as she is.” Poland seems ready for a stronger response: recently it denied permission for Russia’s defense minister to fly over its air space after a trip to Slovakia.

Charges that the West bears responsibility for this latest Russian mauling because it has reneged on the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act – which established the ground rules and committed NATO to foregoing a significant presence in countries that hadn’t joined the alliance by 1999 – are thin. Following that agreement, if Russia had remade itself into a successful liberal democracy guided by prosperity and free markets, an alliance with Russia would have been an attractive option for eastern Europeans. Instead, Russia has relapsed into its historical character of authoritarian rule with a Putin twist, a petro-state with struggling economic prospects. Given that, eastern Europeans can be forgiven their lack of interest in abiding by an accord negotiated by the US and Russia 17 years ago. As nascent liberal democracies, they have their own aspirations for their future, and should not be consigned by outside powers – whether in Moscow or Washington DC – to vassal state status allied to a faltering former superpower.

As Sikorski and others are asking – demanding, more accurately — where do things need to go from here? Unless the West is willing to step up with military force and wrest control of disputed areas from Russia – not going to happen – then the lesson of recent events is that Ukraine’s future will have a strong Russian component. Assuming Russia does not decide to march to Kiev, the path forward for Ukraine lies either in some sort of federalized and greatly decentralized system, or at this point quite possibly a partition of Ukraine into east and west. Given how much blood has been shed, with thousands of civilians as well as combatants dead, as well as the radical separatist posture of most of the insurrectionary leadership, it may not be possible for west and east Ukraine to reunite, even under a decentralized system. While federalism may have been possible last December and January, that can may have been kicked too far down the road.

Partitioning was considered to be the worst of all possible scenarios back in January. Now, it may be the best of the worst scenarios. Some will call this appeasement, but others will see this as a final settling of a Cold War standoff, with each side gaining something. Despite the potential landmines of that route, there are some upsides to partitioning. It would free western Ukraine to break from Russia, build stronger bonds with Europe, be admitted into NATO and possibly at some point the EU. Partitioning also would settle one of the remaining tensions of the Cold War and defuse one more flashpoint. An offer can be extended to those in eastern Ukraine who do not wish to live in a Putin-ized region:  last one out, turn out the lights.

The tug-of-war with Russia over Ukraine shows how important it is that Europe put itself on a course that is stable, prosperous – and unified. Putin is undeniably a “partner” in eastern Europe’s future, and he has masterfully exploited Europe’s disunion. Europe has formidable tools to deploy, including the sticks of more biting sanctions and a stronger NATO presence in eastern Europe, as well as a reduction of Europe’s dependency on Russian trade and energy. Those will have to be balanced with new carrots that Russia finds attractive. Europe needs both a short-term plan based on a more robust NATO that can deal with an uncooperative Russia, as well as long-term objectives that attempt to gradually pull Russia back into the European orbit.

Can such a disunited Europe pull that off? Time will tell. External threats tend to focus minds and spur domestic populations to renew the bonds of what they hold in common. The growling of the Russian bear already has reinvigorated NATO and the transatlantic alliance. Perhaps it will do the same for Europe’s fractious union. It is now clear, as Joschka Fischer has written, that the EU’s enlargement policy

“is not merely some expensive, expendable annoyance; it is a vital component of the EU’s security and outward projection of power. Safety comes with a price tag.”