Merkel visited Ukraine yesterday, on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet pact. She did not quite play the role of Frau Ribbentrop, but she, and the German government, are greatly assisting Putin.
Yes, she said that Germany cannot accept Russian control over Crimea. But this is cheap posturing, because, in fact, it does. Germany refuses to accept the seizure de jure, but it does accept it, through its deeds, de facto.
Beyond those words, Merkel and the German government say things that Putin finds very congenial. She called for an unconditional cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. So has Putin. He wants this to give his battered forces in Ukraine relief so that he can regroup, reinforce, and adjust his tactics. Merkel wants to oblige him, even though her ostensible subjective reasons are different: but objectively, she is pro-Putin. Then, her Vice Chancellor (of the SPD) Sigmar Gabriel said that the only solution to the conflict in Ukraine was federalization. That’s the Russian line. (Merkel quickly said he had misspoke, and meant “decentralization”, but it is clear that he committed a Kinseyesque gaffe: he had spoken the truth.)
So the top two officials in the German government have endorsed the measures called for by the Russian government, and opposed by the Ukrainian government.
Merkel also said no more sanctions for now.
After months of ratcheting up pressure on Vladimir Putin, concern is mounting in Berlin and other European capitals that an emboldened Ukraine’s military successes in the east are reducing the chances of a face-saving way out of the crisis for the Russian leader.
As a result, the focus of German-led diplomatic efforts has shifted, according to senior officials, towards urging restraint from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and averting a humiliating defeat for pro-Russian rebels, a development that Berlin fears could elicit a strong response from Putin.
If followed, this advice will create another frozen conflict that Putin will use to eat away at Ukraine, to continue to bleed it and prevent it from reforming, and growing, and most importantly (from Putin’s perspective) keep it from moving closer to Europe. A persistent conflict in the region will also result in mounting civilian casualties and misery, things that Merkel claims to want to stop.
Frau Merkel gives the impression of someone who is willing to consign Ukraine to purgatory, to avoid dealing with Putin today. This is foolish, because it’s not as if Putin is going to go away satisfied. He will continue to pressure Ukraine, perhaps attempting to expand his covert and ambiguous military operations to other parts of the country. He will turn his attention to the Baltics. Merkel is just delaying the inevitable, and there is little certainty that the west will be in better shape to confront Putin later than now.
Merkel went to Ukraine proclaiming friendship. With friends like her, Ukraine-and the rest of Eastern Europe-don’t have to go looking for enemies.