Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Merkel toughens up Frustrated with Putin, Germany and its chancellor may be tiring of Ostpolitik
ANGELA Merkel (pictured) is a disciplined and cautious public speaker. So when she makes statements that seem fired by passion and resolve, it is good to take note. If those statements prompt her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to urge a softer tone, something big probably happened.
So it did in Sydney, Australia, on November 17th, when Mrs Merkel talked at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Her main subject was the aggression of Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. At the G20 summit, Mrs Merkel had just met with Mr Putin for hours in what appears to have been another frustrating exchange. Mrs Merkel reiterated her assurances, mainly directed at the pacifists in her German home audience, that there can be no military solution to the conflict. (Germany’s allies in the Baltics and Poland are less sure about that.) But, she added, that does not mean that the West cannot respond resolutely in other ways, above all economically.
In particular, Mrs Merkel stated more clearly than ever her fears that the conflict could spread and become a “wider conflagration”. It is not just about Ukraine, she elaborated, but “about Moldova, about Georgia. If this continues, we must wonder: Do we have to ask [Putin] when it comes to Serbia, ask when it’s about the western Balkans? We cannot reconcile this with our values.”
Mr Putin’s aggression and cynical double-talk do indeed challenge Germany’s most basic assumptions. Postwar, post-reunification, postmodern Germany has learned to live by rules and norms. Among the highest such rules is the sanctity of modern borders. (One of the first things that Helmut Kohl, a former chancellor, did after the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago was to reassure Poland that Germany would forever recognise the Oder-Neisse border. This, among other gestures, made reunification possible.) Mr Putin, by contrast, “tramples on international law,” Mrs Merkel said.
Such clarity frightens many Germans, including many of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) who govern in coalition with Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Since the first SPD chancellor, Willy Brandt, in the early 1970s, they have subscribed to Ostpolitik—a policy of openness toward (and indefatigable dialogue with) the east, including the Soviet Union and now Russia. They credit this approach for bringing down the Iron Curtain, while Americans credit the toughness of Ronald Reagan.
Several leading Social Democrats reacted nervously to Mrs Merkel’s statements in Australia. Matthias Platzeck, a former governor of Brandenburg, urged the West to stay on its “course of partnership” with Russia. (One may wonder how he defines partnership.) Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD’s boss, backed him, saying that “the West must continue to talk to Putin” (which Mrs Merkel would hardly disagree with). And Mr Steinmeier, her foreign minister, called for prudence in the choice of words. Rather abruptly, he was this week invited to the Kremlin for a meeting with Mr Putin.
Mr Putin was a KGB agent in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell, and speaks fluent German. He is well aware of the rift in German sympathies and philosophies. On November 16th, German public television aired an exclusive interview with him in which he mixed charm, half-truths and fabrication to try to seduce the German public. He has understood that Germany may be the key country in the Western alliances, both NATO and the European Union, and Mrs Merkel the key leader.She, like Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, is from what used to be East Germany. She speaks Russian and is said to know Mr Putin better than any other Western leader does. Until now, Mr Gauck, who has a largely ceremonial office, has been the one talking tough about Mr Putin. If Mrs Merkel now adopts more of that tone, Mr Putin will find it harder to drive a wedge between Germany's aversion to conflict and its commitment to rules and norms. Even Germany's willingness to talk ultimately has its limits.