The euro crisis revealed that Berlin has become the EU’s most important capital today. But that crisis was mainly about internal relations among EU states. The conflict with Russia over Ukraine, by contrast, is the first serious foreign policy crisis the EU has faced where Germany is clearly in the driver’s seat. While Berlin will not be a leader on EU policies on the Middle East and North Africa anytime soon—here, France and Britain are much more active and interested—it has taken on a leadership role in dealing with Russia in the conflict over the joint neighborhood.

How has Germany performed in that role, and what are the shortcomings of its approach? Broadly speaking, the West has two goals in its confrontation with Russia, and it is against this backdrop that Germany’s handling of the Ukraine crisis should be assessed. The first objective is to defend key rules of the international order, especially the norms of territorial integrity and sovereignty of states, against the assault by Russia. Moscow must understand that the West stands ready to defend this order at least with nonmilitary means, and that Ukraine is an independent state with the same rights as all other states in today’s international order. The West’s second goal is to keep Russia engaged, to prevent it from becoming a hostile power.

Ulrich Speck
Speck was a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic role in a changing global environment.
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Western and, by implication, German policies in Europe’s East need to deliver on both fronts: confronting Russia while at the same time keeping the door open to cooperation. So far in the Ukraine crisis, Germany has pursued just such a two-pronged approach—and with a fair degree of success.

Merkel as Bad Cop

During the Ukraine crisis, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who took on the confrontational part of the game with Russia, on behalf of Germany as well as on behalf of the EU. Merkel was a key factor in bringing together a broad Western coalition—the EU and the United States—that threatened Russia with massive sanctions if Moscow openly attacked and invaded Ukraine (beyond its annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which has been accepted as a fait accompli). Merkel also played a central role in keeping the coalition together over several months. It was the German chancellor who communicated the West’s views and expectations to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it was she who negotiated on behalf of the EU with U.S. President Barack Obama—despite not having an official mandate to represent all 28 EU member states.

To be effective, the West’s threat of massive sanctions had to be credible. Western nations signaled their determination to the Kremlin by achieving and upholding unity: light sanctions against individuals were applied by both the EU and the United States, in tandem. This was a clear demonstration to Russia that the West was united and ready for confrontation, and that there was no chance for the Kremlin to break up the Western coalition by playing divide and rule.

Moving an EU of 28 countries with very diverse positions on Russia toward a joint approach was a major achievement that would have been impossible without Merkel’s strong engagement. And keeping up the threat of massive sanctions over a lengthy period of months was another considerable success for Germany and like-minded countries in the EU.

Critics have noted that Merkel has moved the goalposts several times by shifting her position on the question of what behavior from Russia would trigger massive economic sanctions. On March 13, 2014, she warned that such sanctions would follow “in the event that Russia further destabilizes the situation in Ukraine.” On May 10, she said this would happen if presidential elections in Ukraine scheduled for May 25 failed.

Overall, however, the threat of sanctions seems to have worked. The West’s united stance played a major role in limiting Russia’s policy options and shaping its behavior in the second chapter of the Ukraine crisis (the first being the annexation of Crimea). By acting in concert, the West used its economic leverage to force Russia to use only indirect means of destabilization in Ukraine. Western decisiveness appears to have compelled the Kremlin to act in a way that allowed it to deny any direct involvement in the insurgency in the east of the country. Russia has constantly been forced to pretend it is nothing but a concerned neighbor, not an active player inside Ukraine (beyond Crimea). That Merkel and Obama could wield the stick of sanctions in their regular conversations with Putin was, to a great extent, the feat of the German chancellor.

Steinmeier as Good Cop

What made Merkel’s “sticks” approach politically acceptable was that it came in tandem with a “carrots” approach by the German foreign minister.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had already worked with Merkel as foreign minister in a previous grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats between 2005 and 2009, was enormously engaged in finding a diplomatic, cooperative solution to the crisis. In that first term, Steinmeier, who had been former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s chief of staff from 1999 to 2005, already put a lot of emphasis on cooperation with Russia. In 2008–2009, he pushed for a “partnership for modernization.”

When Steinmeier was reappointed foreign minister in December 2013, he made clear that “building bridges” with Russia would again be a main point on his agenda. At the same time, he clearly condemned Russian aggression against Ukraine. While Steinmeier wants to build Europe with Russia, as he said at the Munich Security Conference on February 1, 2014, he has consistently stated that this cannot happen at the expense of fundamental European values and norms.

During the Ukraine crisis, Steinmeier has put the German diplomatic machinery into high gear to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict with Russia. Together with Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, Steinmeier tried on February 20 to strike a deal between the forces of the Maidan pro-democracy movement and Ukraine’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych. He pushed hard for diplomatic talks between the United States, the EU, Russia, and Ukraine, which took place in Geneva on April 17. The following month, he was a key promoter of roundtable talks in Kiev headed by former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger. And he has held countless other meetings with all players in the crisis, often with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

What Steinmeier did through these activities was to keep Russia constantly engaged. He used Germany’s considerable weight in Moscow to try to calm emotions, to constantly exchange views and information, and to help prevent misperceptions from arising. Steinmeier kept the door open for the Kremlin to renormalize relations, making clear that the West would be ready to reengage with Russia if Moscow started to play a constructive role in Ukraine.

Steinmeier’s “good cop” approach was not only useful in balancing Merkel’s confrontational approach in relations with the Kremlin. It was also tactically important as it gave the chancellor the room for her “bad cop” role. Steinmeier demonstrated to the German public as well as to EU partners that Berlin was trying everything to change Russia’s behavior through talks and offers of cooperation. By exhausting diplomatic means, he demonstrated that Russia, not Germany or the EU, was to blame for the lack of cooperation. This, in turn, made a shift to more robust measures such as sanctions appear inevitable.

Building Domestic Support for Sanctions

Germany’s “good cop, bad cop” approach was not the result of a carefully drafted strategy. Rather, it was the upshot of two competing views in the current government on how Germany should deal with Russia.

Merkel, large parts of her conservative Christian Democratic Union party, and the foreign policy team in the Chancellery are in favor of a more robust stance. In their view, the partnership for modernization has failed to deliver. Russia has not modernized, despite the many incentives offered by the West in recent years. This camp sees no alternative to at least a selective confrontation with Moscow if vital German and Western interests, such as the European peace order enshrined in the UN Charter and numerous other international agreements, are violated.

The other camp is centered around Steinmeier, his center-left Social Democratic Party, and large parts of the German public. While they agree that the modernization path has failed, they think that the way forward is to try harder and to engage even more with the Kremlin, as they see no alternative to the attempt to bring Russia into an ever-closer relationship with the EU. In their view, Russia has legitimate grievances against the West, especially against the United States and its partial reliance on military means in the confrontation with Russia. Steinmeier and his supporters consider a more confrontational approach dangerous, as Russia might completely slip away from the West and move toward a more hostile position.

To keep up the threat of sanctions, Merkel had to convince her junior coalition partner, hesitant public opinion, and the business community of the necessity of a tougher stance toward Russia. In line with the behind-the-scenes approach that is typical of her policymaking, Merkel did not address the German public by laying out her views and policies. But she did have several meetings with business leaders that led to statements supporting her tougher course of action. And she gave Steinmeier the green light for his attempts to find a cooperative solution to the crisis. As a consequence, Merkel was able to build sufficient domestic support to be able to wield the big stick against the Kremlin, namely the threat of massive economic sanctions.

The Limits of German Leadership

The German approach to the Ukraine crisis has been partly successful. Together with its partners, Berlin has played a key role in forging a joint Western position built on the threat of massive sanctions in combination with constant diplomatic engagement. However, despite restricting Russia’s room for maneuver to some extent, Germany’s approach did not prevent the annexation of Crimea, and it has not deterred Russia from raising tensions in eastern Ukraine.

More limits of the German approach became visible during the crisis. On all issues related to hard power, Berlin has kept a low profile; the center of action on the military side of the West’s response to the crisis has clearly been Washington, together with NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. Attempts to reassure NATO allies in Central Europe were driven by the United States, while Germany did only the minimum. Germany did not support Poland’s call for NATO to move its assets permanently to the East, despite the fact that Berlin and Warsaw have closely cooperated on nonmilitary aspects of the crisis.

The overwhelming view in Germany, broadly shared by both Merkel and Steinmeier, is that using military means in the confrontation with Russia only leads to an escalation and makes the relationship unnecessarily hostile. Placing NATO assets permanently in Poland and the Baltic states would anger and provoke Russia; it would therefore be counterproductive. A postmodern Germany remains wedded to the idea of itself as an overwhelmingly civilian power. That popular sentiment has developed over decades and has only been strengthened by negative Western experiences with military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

While remaining limited to the civilian side of the response to the Ukraine crisis, Germany has nevertheless demonstrated leadership. Berlin has used various mechanisms of cooperation in the crisis: the Weimar Triangle of Poland, Germany, and France; the EU; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; and close coordination with Poland, the United States, and others. German leadership was reinforced by the fact that both Putin and Obama saw Merkel as their key interlocutor on the EU side. Ever since German reunification in 1990, Germany has played a hugely important role in the EU’s relations with Central and Eastern Europe.

But in the past, Germany’s role has been limited and overshadowed by U.S. leadership in Europe and by the fact that Germany and France have usually worked in tandem. In the confrontation with Russia, both of these factors have changed: The United States has played a substantial role, as it has done in the past, but it seems to have done so less as a European power than as an outside partner to an EU largely led by Germany. And Berlin has tried to keep Paris in the game, but France has shown little interest in being at the center of the action.

So far, Germany’s approach to managing the Ukraine crisis has been fairly successful in limiting Russian meddling. But the confrontation between the West and Russia is far from over—in fact, it has just begun. The Ukraine crisis is going to continue, and new crises could erupt in Moldova and Georgia relatively soon.