German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began. The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks, Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.
At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real. This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.
Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here. Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world? In a word, no. In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe. While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct. The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War. The world is no longer divided into neat blocs. Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.
More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine. While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War. Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion. In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq. We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.
Germany, on the other hand, has real interests. It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc. While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back. If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.
The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive. The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of. The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.
Will it work? The odds are better than one might think. While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest. Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions. If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity. But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.
In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia. That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway. The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.
It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus. In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates. Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed. Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.