This story from the Independent has gone viral, and for understandable reasons: it claims that Germany and Russia are negotiating a scurrilous deal behind Ukraine’s back.
More controversially, if Ms Merkel’s deal were to be acceptable to the Russians, the international community would need to recognise Crimea’s independence and its annexation by Russia, a move that some members of the United Nations might find difficult to stomach.
Sources close to the secret negotiations claim that the first part of the stabilisation plan requires Russia to withdraw its financial and military support for the various pro-separatist groups operating in eastern Ukraine. As part of any such agreement, the region would be allowed some devolved powers.
At the same time, the Ukrainian President would agree not to apply to join Nato. In return, President Putin would not seek to block or interfere with the Ukraine’s new trade relations with the European Union under a pact signed a few weeks ago.
Second, the Ukraine would be offered a new long-term agreement with Russia’s Gazprom, the giant gas supplier, for future gas supplies and pricing. At present, there is no gas deal in place; Ukraine’s gas supplies are running low and are likely to run out before this winter, which would spell economic and social ruin for the country.
As part of the deal, Russia would compensate Ukraine with a billion-dollar financial package for the loss of the rent it used to pay for stationing its fleets in the Crimea and at the port of Sevastopol on the Black Sea until Crimea voted for independence in March.
However, these attempts by Ms Merkel to act as a broker between President Putin and the Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, were put on the back-burner following the shooting down of the MH17 plane in eastern Ukraine.
But insiders who are party to the discussions said yesterday that the “German peace plan is still on the table and the only deal around. Negotiations have stalled because of the MH17 disaster but they are expected to restart once the investigation has taken place.”
Pretty explosive stuff. So explosive, in fact, I have a difficult time accepting that the story is anywhere near true, at least insofar as the implication that this is Merkel’s plan is concerned.
If it was true, and Merkel were indeed negotiating a deal along these lines, she would indeed deserve the Frau Ribbentrop epithet that has been hurled at her, especially after her chumminess with Putin in Rio.
There are so many issues here.
First, it is not Germany’s place to negotiate a deal that binds Ukraine, even as a broker that intends to present the deal to Ukraine for its approval later. That would rightly be seen as a stab in the back. Germany’s imprimatur on such a deal-and the fact that it negotiated the deal would inevitably lead people to conclude that Germany vouches for it-would be perceived by Ukraine as a betrayal and abandonment, and an exertion of tremendous pressure to capitulate by a country that it had counted on to be a supporter.
Second, no Ukrainian government could possibly accept these terms. So Merkel is either delusional to think that they would, or she is setting up the Ukrainians to take the blame for rejecting a chance at “peace”, thereby allowing her to wash her hands of the situation and let Putin do as he will. Delusional or Machiavellian manipulator. Quite the choice.
Third, the recognition of Russia’s theft of Crimea, even if compensated by thirty pieces of silver in exchange for lost rent on Sevastapol, would completely undermine a fundamental principle of the modern international order, namely that the border of no state should be changed by force. For a country like Germany, which portrays itself as a Rechtsstaat on international as well as domestic matters, this would be an amazing and despicable action. The precedent would be very ominous indeed. It is hard to imagine anything more threatening to peace and stability as such an endorsement of revanchism, irredentism, and the dominance of might over right.
Fourth, the US and UK, and perhaps other countries, would in no way countenance such an outcome, in part because of the dangerous precedent it would set.
Fifth, Ukraine is looking to free itself from abject dependence on Russian gas, rather than to cement that dependence into the distant future.
These considerations are so grave that I cannot believe that Germany would be doing what the Independent alleges.
So what is the real story here?
The Independent is owned by Alexander Lebedev, an ex-KGB officer and ex-billionaire. He has had a fraught relationship with Putin. He co-owns, along with Gorbachev, the opposition paper Novaya Gazeta. On the surface he is not an obvious Putin shill, and may be an opponent: maybe he ran the story to torpedo a deal that Putin wants. But he could be under pressure. Or he could be wanting to curry favor in Moscow, and thinks this would help him do so. So maybe the story has its roots in the murky world of Putin and rich Russians.
The story paints Merkel in a very bad light: maybe it has been leaked (and slanted) by one of her foes, domestic or foreign. Or maybe someone thinks that she will have to distance herself from the allegations of treachery by becoming more stern in her stance against Putin.
Or maybe this has been planted by the Russians. It could be their statement of the terms they are willing to offer, and to accept. Perhaps Putin even presented it to Merkel, and maybe more than once. Perhaps Merkel rejected it, or she presented a counterproposal and continues to talk, which could be twisted by the Russians to suggest that she has endorsed the basics of the proposal.
I don’t know. But I do know one thing. It is precisely this sort of story, and the possibility that it has its roots in the truth, that makes it imperative that the United States collect intelligence on Germany, German leaders, and German dealings with foreign governments-especially governments like Russia’s. This is exactly why we spy, and why large and important countries that endeavor to exercise their sovereign right to craft and implement an independent foreign policy, are legitimate targets of spying. Germany pursues its interests, and in that pursuit, it might seriously damage American interests. Thus, it is in our vital national interest to know what Germany is up to.*
That’s the price you pay when you want to be an independent actor on the world stage, so Germans from Angela on down can spare us their outraged protests at American espionage.
* Which suggests yet another explanation for the Independent story. Namely, the source is US (or UK, or Ukrainian, or . . . even German) intelligence, which is leaking it to torpedo a perfidious Merkel deal.