Ukraine crisis: Germany's Russian conundrum

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin (16 November 2012) Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin at a meeting in November

Politicians do not tread more carefully than Angela Merkel. She does not shoot her mouth off. She does not do rhetoric. She is not a hot-head. So what should one make of her reticence in the current crisis with Ukraine?

So far she has confined her public comments to the less than bombastic "What is happening in Crimea worries us", and stressing the importance of "preserving the territorial integrity" of Ukraine.

She has talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin at least twice.

Start Quote

She thinks like a scientist so she takes out all emotion”

End Quote Dr Ewald Boehlke German Institute for Foreign Policy

The statement from her office after the first conversation was clear and non-confrontational: "They underlined their common interest in the stability of the country in political and economic respects."

In the second phone call, they agreed to maintain a dialogue.

Fundamental differences

Those who know her way of operating say that Chancellor Merkel's background as a scientist is apparent.

Ewald Boehlke, from the German Council on Foreign Relations, told the BBC: "She thinks like a scientist so she takes out all emotion. She will be keeping in contact to work out how to de-escalate the situation step by step."

He thinks, though, that the two have a fundamentally different approach.

Chancellor Angela Merkel (27 Feb 2014) Mrs Merkel reportedly told President Obama that Mr Putin seemed like he was "in another world"

Dr Boehlke thinks President Putin's is more emotional, with a sense of the weight of history and Russia's historic role as a power, compared with her pragmatic focus on economies.

This may help explain why, according to the New York Times, Chancellor Merkel told US President Barack Obama that Mr Putin had seemed like he was "in another world".

Her office has not commented on the alleged remark apart from saying that the conversations were "confidential".

The reported comment seems to have come from the American end and clearly the tone - or even if it was said at all - remains unclear.

So Chancellor Merkel's tactic seems to be to keep this continual dialogue open.

According to Dr Boehlke, it is important that it is a person-to-person dialogue, a president-to-chancellor dialogue.

Others in the West may ramp up the rhetoric but Mrs Merkel will damp it down, perhaps in a good cop/bad cop combination with other Western leaders.

Old adversaries

This sense that Germany is trying to give Russia acceptable options before the West as a whole wades in with sanctions seems to be underlined by what German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Tuesday.

Giant Putin caricature at a carnival parade in Duesseldorf, Germany (3 March 2014) Germans made their opinion of President Putin clear at a carnival parade on 3 March in the city of Duesseldorf

Mr Steinmeier did not state bluntly that Russia should pull back but, rather, that it should do more to reassure the West about its intentions - or sanctions might follow when EU leaders meet on Thursday: "I think that if we don't see decisive steps in the next one-and-a-half days in terms of coming to an international agreement, for example on the creation of a contact group with which Russia is ready to work, then I think the discussion among leaders in the European Council will indeed lead to measures being taken."

Start Quote

Diplomacy does not mean weakness but is more needed than ever to prevent us from being drawn into the abyss of military escalation”

End Quote Frank-Walter Steinmeier German Foreign Minister

They do seem to have the respectful relationship of old adversaries. In the past, they have not been warm and tactile with each other in the way, say, Mrs Merkel and US President Barack Obama were when he visited Berlin (before the revelation that his people were listening in on her phone). But that is not her way, or his.

The two of them talk the same language - literally. President Putin speaks very good German, no doubt honed in his years as a KGB officer in Dresden. And Chancellor Merkel would at least have learnt Russian in school in the old East Germany (over which Agent Putin was keeping watch).

For Mrs Merkel, too, the thought of war in Ukraine sharpens the mind more than it might in Washington or London. The country is only 10 hours' drive from Berlin. Germany, Ukraine and Russia inhabit the same region of the world.

Chancellor Merkel has involved herself in the politics of the region. She has maintained links with heads of state, including President Putin, but also with dissidents in both Russia and Ukraine - remember that the jailed Russian oligarch and Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky flew straight to Berlin when he was freed from his Russian prison.

Chancellor Merkel has repeatedly raised the case of the jailed (now freed) Ukrainian dissident Yulia Tymoshenko with the government in Kiev. When the Ukrainian politician was released, Mrs Merkel was careful to "welcome her to freedom", but not to endorse her as the country's potential new leader.

Ukrainian marines watch a Russian ship off the Sevastopol coast

It's true that the Russian and German leaders' visits to each other's country are not always happy. When President Putin came to Germany last year, he was confronted by bare-breasted female protesters with slogans on their chests. He seemed amused and shrugged it off.

When Chancellor Merkel went to St Petersburg, there was a tiff when President Putin objected to a speech she was going to make at an exhibition of art taken by the Russians from German museums at the end of the war. Mr Putin said it was "hardly worth starting an argument now" and that the two sides should seek "ways to resolve it" - but the speech wasn't made.

Economic needs

Both will have some facts in their minds, primarily that each country needs the other economically. There are about 100,000 Russian-speakers in Germany. Some 6,000 German companies operate in Russia.

Gazprom power plant in Sochi (30 November 2013) About a quarter of Russia's natural gas exports go to Germany

Germany does take about a quarter of Russia's exports of natural gas but, on the other hand, Germany's stocks are currently high and prices are low (so Russia needs the revenue more than it did when prices were high).

On the other hand, Germany's trade surplus with Russia is substantial. Germany exports about 2.1bn euros (£1.7bn; $3bn) more in goods to Russia than the other way round.

As if to emphasise the German government's emphasis on jaw-jaw to avert war-war, Mr Steinmeier said: "Diplomacy does not mean weakness but is more needed than ever to prevent us from being drawn into the abyss of military escalation."

No country has benefited more from the fall of the Iron Curtain than Germany.

It has gone from being a divided country on the eastern edge of the EU to a united country bordered by former Eastern Bloc states whose economies are now improving within the EU.

The country is the central power among a clutch of former Soviet satellites (including East Germany itself) where people may be wondering what a belligerent Russia in Ukraine means for them in Warsaw or Prague or in the Baltic EU capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.

Their concerns are also felt in what used to be East Germany - where Angela Merkel grew up.

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