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Merkel and Putin meeting in Novo Ogaryovo, near Moscow, on March 8, 2008
Merkel and Putin meeting in Novo Ogaryovo, near Moscow, on March 8, 2008
Klaus Bachmann

WARSAW — While protests swept Maidan Square in Kiev, both Polish and German media reported the same storyline: Ukraine was overthrowing a bloody dictator and changing its course toward the West. German politicians, much like their Polish counterparts, made fiery speeches and pushed the European Union to address a "serious offer” to Ukrainians.

The pro-Ukrainian climate in Poland only gained strength after the annexation of Crimea. In Germany, however, something very different happened: media commentators, known for their pro-Russian inclination, became suddenly very silent.

For more than 10 years, Berlin shaped its relations with Moscow according to the concept of a "partnership for modernization," which in practice is a dense network of contacts, transactions, trade, financial and political agreements entwining Russia that was supposed to make the Kremlin a more predictable geopolitical player.

The annexation of Crimea was proof that this doctrine was a spectacular failure. The subsequent panic that overtook German think tanks, commentators and diplomats was a result of the lack of plan B. In Berlin, nobody ever could have imagined that Russia would turn out to be so aggressive.

Moreover, any escalation of the conflict in Ukraine would demand a shift of funding from infrastructure or social policy into security, which for Germany means going backwards on the path it took after the unification of the country in 1990.

Thanks to an effective pro-Russia lobby and out of fear of war, any warm feelings towards Ukraine were superseded by empathy for Russia and its “justified security interests.”

But unexpectedly, it turned out that the “partnership for modernization” worked the other way around: it ties not Putin's but Merkel's hands.

Independent from facts, the majority of Germans is persuaded that their country is economically dependent on Russia, even though in reality the Russian market is less important than the Dutch, Italian or Polish ones. It is, however, quite valuable to some big concerns who have easy access to the Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Ever since the era of Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian leader who shaped German and European politics in the second half of the 19th century, Germans had seen Russia not as a partner but a colossus on feet of clay, which would eventually crumble from within.

During World War I, Germans tried to speed up this process, pitting Polish or Ukrainian allies against Moscow.

Today, German conservatives transfer their fascination for pre-communist Russia to the contemporary Russian Federation, seeing in Mr. Putin a latter-day czar. The left feeds itself on sentimentality after the USRR and is shocked by the “fascist” politicians participating in the new Ukrainian government.

The TV debates on the conflict between Kiev and Moscow host exclusively Russians and Germans. News comes from Moscow-based correspondents, Russian diplomats and Russian correspondents in Germany. Everybody knows something about Russia and it is usually something positive. Meanwhile, on the German map of memory, there is a black hole where Ukraine should be.

The German policy towards Russia reached its apogee of absurdity after a group of OSCE monitors -- including four Germans -- were kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists from the east of Ukraine. The Kremlin reacted explaining that it had lost control over the pro-Russian fighters in Sloviansk, until finally Merkel had to call Putin to ask for help. After the monitors were released, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that Russia had returned on the path of compromise and diplomacy.

Symbols of weakness

Germans, who try to mediate between everybody -- the USA and Russia, Russia and the EU, themselves and Russia – are trying to pull off quite a show of acrobatics. Instead of taking the initiative and building a common front against Russia, they do everything to maintain the status quo — not the one from February, but the one Russia is recreating every day.

The current counterproductive system of sanctions against Russia was guided by German influence, and consequences were symbolic rather than dissuasive. If they were really meant to stop Russia, they would have been severe from the very start.

In reality, more than sanctions, it’s only the internal situation in Russia that stops Putin from annexing Eastern Ukraine. He knows that once conquered, Donbas would have to stay inside Russia and could not serve as a card in negotiations with the West. Russian public opinion is now so immersed in nationalism that it would never forgive the handing back of any overtaken territory. That is why Putin prefers instead to destabilize Ukraine and push it towards federalization.

Now the German Minister of Foreign Affairs suggests a roundtable solution which would not include either Russia or pro-Russian separatists. It is like organizing the round table in Poland in 1989 without the representatives of the communist regime.

Rather than resolving the conflict, this idea aims at postponing the moment where Germany will have to lean towards the American proposals of harsher actions against Russia.

That is the strategy of one of the most important members of the EU and NATO, whose place should be clearly on the Western side of the conflict, not somewhere between Washington and Moscow.

The times when Germans could lead the European Union or be a serious partner inside the NATO structures are gone. Today, the telephone is the main tool of German politics. The number it dials connects straight to Moscow.

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