By traveling to Kiev and Moscow with French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a huge gamble. Rarely one for taking any kind of risk, Merkel has been catapulted into foreign policy and the dangers that go with it.
She has been at the forefront in trying to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop backing the pro-Russian separatists who are wreaking havoc and destruction in parts of eastern Ukraine.
In Munich, the delegates attending the Munich Security Conference, which brings together some 20 leaders and scores of defense ministers and security experts, are waiting for news about Merkel’s visit to the Kremlin. She arrives in the Bavarian capital on February 7.
By going to the Kremlin after six hours of talks with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, Merkel has chosen to gamble in the hope of averting a full-scale war.
Merkel’s visit to Moscow, her first since the Ukraine crisis began over a year ago, takes place at a time when the dynamics of the conflict have radically changed. The fighting has escalated. At the same time, senior U.S. officials, former and present, are now talking about arming the Ukrainians.
The Europeans have been much more cautious, although leading German officials, including Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, are now proposing that the West should arm Ukraine if diplomacy fails.
Ischinger told Deutschlandradio on February 6 that Merkel’s overtures to Putin were the “last attempt at peace.” Ursula von der Leyen, the German defense minister, warned against raising too many hopes.
For Merkel, much is at stake—for her personally, for Ukraine’s existence as a stable and democratic country, and for the transatlantic alliance. By taking on the task of being the West’s main interlocutor for negotiating with Putin and Poroshenko, Merkel has had to second-guess Putin’s intentions.
#Merkel has concluded after more than 40 phone calls that she cannot trust #Putin.Tweet This
After 40 or so phone calls with the Russian leader over the past several months and a lengthy meeting in Brisbane in January, the German chancellor has concluded that she could not trust Putin.
Yet the past few days have changed the situation, for now. Because there is talk of arming the Ukrainians, Merkel can show Putin that the climate in the United States is shifting, and that even leaders in some European countries would support sending weapons to Ukraine.
Merkel, who has always ruled out the use of military force as an option, dreads the idea of an all-out war. But it is too hard to know how Putin would react if he were faced with a well-armed and highly motivated Ukrainian army. That is the gamble that Merkel—and Putin—have to weigh up.
Before she traveled to Kiev and Moscow, Merkel phoned Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, and U.S. President Barack Obama to brief them about her peace proposals. Hers was no freelance peace mission but one in which she tried to garner considerable support from Germany’s allies.
She presented her plans to Poroshenko on the night of February 5 and then flew to Moscow on February 6, where she will present them to Putin over dinner. If her diplomatic overture fails or, worse, if the ceasefire holds for a while but then breaks down, as it has done repeatedly over the past several months, there is little doubt that the Ukrainians will receive weapons.
The other dynamic coming into play is Ukraine itself. The value of the country’s currency has plummeted. Reforms, especially to fight corruption, have been slow, which is not surprising given the war. Above all, Ukrainians do not want to lose their country and their chance to establishing a strong and stable democracy. Yet that is exactly what could happen as Putin’s forces continue to destabilize eastern Ukraine.
A weak, impoverished, and unstable Ukraine is not in Europe’s interests. The human costs would be immense. That is why, if Merkel does manage to clinch a verifiable ceasefire (and the mechanics of that are another matter), Ukraine is going to need an enormous amount of European and U.S. economic, financial, and political support. This is not the time to go wobbly over Ukraine.
Then there is the transatlantic relationship. Westerners who oppose plans by some U.S. officials to arm the Ukrainians argue it would split the alliance. The German government would almost certainly back away from supporting any such U.S. move. The Europeans as a whole would be divided over supplying weapons.
A divided Europe and a divided transatlantic relationship would suit #Putin.Tweet This
And not only that. By unsettling the transatlantic alliance, supplies of U.S. arms to Ukraine would fuel anti-Americanism, which is never difficult to do in Europe. A divided Europe and a divided transatlantic relationship would suit Putin. All the more reason for the West to pull together to defend what they claim to have always wanted: a free, independent, and democratic Ukraine.