I rather doubt that an ideology has been developed in Germany to drive its actions in the East. But these actions incrementally have put it on a collision course with Russian geopolitical interests that rival NATO expansion as a causal factor in the Ukraine crisis.
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Speech to the World Russia Forum
Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 26 March 2015
“The Ukraine Crisis: the European Perspective”
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
I propose to offer a European perspective on the Ukraine Crisis and what obstacles or facilitators are found on the path of its resolution that are outside the control of hawks on Capitol Hill.
While I am based in Brussels, which is officially the Washington, D.C. of Europe, I will focus attention on Berlin, which has become the unofficial capital of Europe ever since Angela Merkel came to power in 2005.
I had my first meetings in Berlin with several actors in German politics from Left and Centrist parties several weeks ago, and will be doing a lot more exploratory work there in the weeks and months ahead in recognition of Germany’s preponderant weight in Europe-wide policy making.
The notion of Germany’s new assertiveness has been disseminated in US media but based on just one factor – Germany’s pocketbook. We hear a lot in the financial news about the role of German Finance Minister Schauble in negotiations over Greek sovereign debt. Schauble is upholding the virtues of the austerity program that Germany forced upon Europe more than 5 years ago. We know that Germany is the EU’s biggest economy and its banker with deepest pockets.
However, Germany has more than just the final word on bailouts. Germany has taken control of the levers of power in the European Union institutions.
The new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, formerly Prime Minister of tiny Luxembourg for many years, was installed in office by the efforts of Chancellor Merkel in what was a first-time implementation of the seemingly democratic principle that the office should go to member of the largest party in the European Parliament following the spring 2014 elections. That party, the right of center European People’s Party, to which Juncker belongs, has as its largest component, Merkel’s Christian Democrats. The fact that Juncker is damaged goods, tainted by scandals over Luxembourg’s tax treatment of business make him still more dependent on doing the will of his patron in Berlin.
The EU’s second executive body, the European Council, where the 28 heads of state and government hold summits regularly to set the policy guidelines for both Commission and Parliament, also has a new President who owes his office to strong support from Angela Merkel. Before taking this job, Donald Tusk was a nondescript prime minister of Poland with almost no visibility on the broader European stage. It was said when he was named, that he lacked the most important qualities for the job, communications skills. His command of English was poor, the journalists told us. They failed to mention that he was fluent in German, a rather useful language in Brussels these days.
In the European Parliament, the position of President is held by the German Martin Schulz, who, though from the center left SPD, lines up perfectly with Merkel’s party on Russia, as a member of the ruling coalition should. And, what is especially relevant to today’s discussion topic of Ukraine, the chairman of the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee is yet another German from Merkel’s party, Elmar Brok.
That’s how parliamentary democracies function, you might say. However, EU institutions are hardly democratic in action. Europeans have complained for decades about Brussels with its bureaucratic culture, its unelected mandarins in the Commission. The solution, many have argued, is for more power to be moved from the executive to the legislature.
Yet, the sad fact is that the European Parliament is itself a top down body, a kind of voting machine with the party bosses from the centrist parties who form the majority pulling the levers. Out of the approximately 750 seats in the Parliament, about 500 in the Center Right and Center Left form a consensus on most issues, with the other, smaller parties marginalized. And Angela Merkel, with her CDU dominating the EPP, thus calls the shots.
As regards foreign policy, the centrist parties in Europe have their own bipartisanship which roughly parallels the bipartisanship in the US Congress. Debates on the floor of the Parliament are rare.
So what has been the policy on Russia and Ukraine within Angela Merkel’s Germany which presently holds the EU in its thrall? If we go back to the very start of the Ukraine crisis one year ago when reunification with ( or annexation by) Russia set in motion what has become our New Cold War, Angela Merkel was named by the US and West European mainstream media as the best possible mediator between East and West. An Ossie, a fluent Russian speaker, she would, everyone agreed, find common understanding with Vladimir Putin and calm things down. Moreover, she had at her side in the German coalition government as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a presumed continuator of his Social Democratic party’s Ostpolitik going back to Willy Brandt and running through Gerhard Schroeder, meaning a long record of accommodation with Russia that, if anything, had long raised suspicions in France and more particularly in America, of being disloyal to the West. All of this spoke in favor of Germany, the honest broker.
However, as the months wore on and spring turned into summer, then autumn within the EU Angela Merkel emerged as the most determined advocate of sanctions, riding herd over all the Member States and introducing ever tougher sanctions to bring Russia to heel and force a reversal of its policy in Ukraine.
This appeared to run counter to domestic German political calculus, given that, as everyone knew, the German economy had never recovered fully from the 2008 crisis and might well double-dip into recession as the sanctions brought counter measures from Russia, and as the slip in the Russian economy from sanctions hurt German sales in that country. Three hundred thousand German jobs were said to be dependent on the Russian market. By December 2014 German business associations issued public statements denouncing the sanctions policy. And Merkel was the butt of a fiery speech in the Bundestag in early December by a deputy leader of the Left opposition, Die Linke, Sahra Wagenknecht, who accused her of selling out German interests through subservience to policies on Russia made in Washington.
Meanwhile it turned out that Steinmeier is an unusually weak member of the coalition. As they now joke in the Bundestag, he is ‘also informed’ about the latest policy on Russia and Ukraine. His position might be compared to John Kerry’s at State. Policy on Russia and Ukraine is being made in the immediate entourage of the Chancellor, and her party, the CDU, traditionally had no particular solutions for dealing with Russia. Its orientation, going back to Konrad Adenauer, was always directed to Washington.
The ‘’Putin-Versteher’’ wing of Steinmeier’s party, those who tried to “understand” the Russians’ position were so caught out, so wrong-footed by the muscle-flexing of Russia after the Crimean Spring that they were easily silenced by stridently anti-Russian media in Germany, which created a kind of Russophobe conformism that people I have spoken with in the SPD claim Germany had never seen before, even in the worst days of the original Cold War.
These inconsistencies remained unexplored by commentators in the United States, in Europe and…even in the most interested party in the whole question, Russia itself. Indeed in Russia, there was a residual conviction among most observers that Germany was their advocate within the EU.
Ignoring where Germany really stood lasted until early February 2015, when the Chancellor set off in yet another direction, which seemed to contradict completely the notion of subservience to Washington. At that time, in the midst of what was now all-out civil war in the Donbas, with insurgent forces freeing the Donetsk airport and extending the territory under their command, the question of the Debaltsevo Cauldron, the entrapment of 6,000-8,000 Ukrainian forces, raised a hue and cry in the United States over the need to rush lethal military supplies to Kiev.
Angela Merkel took alarm, not over the fate of Poroshenko’s government but over the possibility of further escalation of the conflict as a direct consequence of U.S. arms to Kiev: further Russian involvement and the possibility of a hot war with Russia that could have unpredictable consequences.
She then began her spectacular shuttle diplomacy with French President Francois Hollande in tow, visiting Kiev, Moscow and Minsk and seeing the Minsk-2 ceasefire negotiations of February 11-12 through to conclusion. The Chancellor followed this up with a visit to Washington during which she flatly disagreed with the Americans, rejecting military assistance to Kiev in favor of diplomacy. For this she was roundly condemned by American hawks. A public breach between the United States and Germany opened as great as in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003.
While American media met the Minsk-2 accords with great skepticism, within Europe a very different note was sounded: Merkel and Hollande were dubbed the Continent’s ‘diplomatic dream team’ and there was talk of nominating Merkel for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I met with the top leadership of Die Linke in the Bundestag in March and, off the record, they spoke very warm words about Merkel’s actions.
Finally I bring to your attention the very latest development in Merkel’s foreign and security policies which many will find puzzling. Several weeks ago European Commission President Juncker issued a call for the creation of a European Army, calling it the best way to stand up to Russia. There can be no doubt that Angela Merkel was behind this initiative. After all, Juncker’s only past claim to attention was his skillful defense of the Euro against its structural weaknesses.
Why now the push for a European Defense Union? Surely it is a signal not to Moscow but to Washington that Germany will not be bullied over its independent Ukraine policy, will not snap to attention and join an anti-Russian military crusade.
So what is going on?
One thing is clear: that whatever is driving German and through Germany European policy on Ukraine and Russia today has a life of its own and is not subservient to Washington.
My tentative conclusion is that the German entrepreneurial class which supports Merkel’s party, the Mittelstand, is split on the Russian question.
This brought me to look at the benefit that Germany enjoys from its nearly colonial relationship with Poland, the Czech Republic and other former Warsaw Pact states that are now in the EU and that supply Germany through its own manufacturing subsidiaries or subcontractors in these countries with very cheap parts and subassemblies, all of which power the German export economy on world markets. Surely this secures millions of German jobs and far outweighs the economic importance of Russia.
In this setting the former strategic alliance with Russia has been jettisoned. It antagonized Germany’s neighbors and suppliers among the new Member States to the East. Now they are eating out of Angela’s hands, while she has let them pursue their childish pranks at Russia’s border and in Ukraine.
In 15 March one Russian commentator, the deputy director of the Institute of CIS Countries, Igor Shishkin, published a 20 page essay entitled “Merkel and the Fourth Reich” in which he develops a thesis that posits Frau Merkel with a still broader and more ambitious policy of putting Russia down in the service of German economic and political interests than I had considered.
Per Shishkin, Germany integrated the GDR immediately after 1989, spent another 15 years digesting the former Warsaw Pact countries from which it extracted enormous wealth as colonial overlord, and now in Ukraine is poised to realize Germany’s centuries long ambition of Drang Nach Osten – to obtain control of the enormously productive farmland of Ukraine and its mineral wealth. Here Germany’s national aspirations coincided with Washington’s geopolitical strategy dating from 1997 when Zbigniew Brzezinski explained in The Grand Chessboard that Ukraine must be excised from the Russian sphere of influence to prevent Russia’s return to great power status.
Judging by Shishkin’s employers, we may assume he represents a faction in the Kremlin elites. The least one can say is that Moscow is also now scrambling to make sense of Germany’s policies so as to better respond to them.
In my view, Shishkin is laying it on a bit thick. I rather doubt that an ideology has been developed in Germany to drive its actions in the East. But these actions incrementally have put it on a collision course with Russian geopolitical interests. The Russians did not see this coming, just as the Germans for the most part were surprised at how they had triggered a violent Russian reaction. And yet it was a major causal factor in the current conflict over Ukraine, no less than NATO expansion engineered by the United States.
We may earnestly hope that the crisis in Donbas will become nothing more than a frozen conflict. But the bigger issues of American, Russian and German/EU ambitions in Eastern and Southeastern Europe demand resolution if there is not to be another acute East-West conflict in the medium term.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2015
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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator, American Committee for East West Accord, Ltd. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? (August 2015) is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites. For donations to support the European activities of ACEWA, write to firstname.lastname@example.org