The confrontation between Russia and the West continued intensifying this week, with Russian and German officials criticizing each other's policies concerning Ukraine and the rest of the former Soviet periphery. In a Sunday interview with Welt am Sonntag, German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused Russia of "creating problems" for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, all of which are currently pursuing closer ties to the European Union. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded on Tuesday that Moscow is "concerned with the behavior of German leaders" and called on Berlin to play a more constructive role regarding the European Union's ties to Russia.
These rhetorical attacks are merely the latest incident in what has been a steady deterioration of relations between Russia and the West this year as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. But they also underline Germany's unique role in the crisis — as both the only European country that can put serious weight behind the European Union's moves in the former Soviet periphery and the key country in negotiations with Russia to reach a potential settlement.
Germany's Unique Position
Germany, as the most populous country in the European Union and the bloc's largest economy, has long played a dominant role in determining the bloc's political and economic direction. Over the past year, Berlin has also emerged as an active player when it comes to EU foreign policy in the former Soviet periphery. Germany was key in supporting the pro-Western opposition in Ukraine during demonstrations against then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to back out of a free trade deal with the European Union, and Berlin backed the pro-EU government in Ukraine that emerged following Yanukovich's ouster in February.
This development concerned Russia, which saw its ally, Yanukovich, replaced with an anti-Russian and pro-Western government in what Moscow considers the most strategic state to have in its orbit. Russia responded by annexing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, with both moves intended as a message to the West that the uprising would not be tolerated. However, Germany stood firm in its support of the Ukrainian government and followed through with EU plans to sign the association deal with not only Ukraine but also the pro-Western governments of Moldova and Georgia. Germany also supported the implementation of EU sanctions against Russia for its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, which initially were limited but eventually grew in intensity and scope.
These moves have generated substantial friction between Berlin and Moscow, with both the European Union and Russia looking to pull the borderland countries in their direction and neither side appearing ready to back down. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's visit to Georgia on Dec. 8 seems to support the idea that Europe is still in the fight. During his visit, Steinmeier reiterated Berlin's commitment to Tbilisi's choice to move closer to the European Union and criticized Russia's recently signed integration treaty with the breakaway territory of Abkhazia. Germany has also called on Russia to honor its commitments regarding the Minsk protocols in Ukraine, where the cease-fire is still breached regularly.
Room for Compromise
However, relations have not broken down completely between Berlin and Moscow. Russia continues to be a major provider of energy supplies to Germany, and Russia's economy is still dependent on trade and investment from Germany. Germany has been very cautious in expanding sanctions against Russia, despite calls from certain EU countries like Poland and the Baltic states to do so. This cautiousness reflects Germany's relatively moderate stance on Russia (compared to the more assertive positions of Central and Eastern European countries) and Berlin's own economic and commercial interests in maintaining ties with Moscow.
Even on the issue of Ukraine, there are still grounds for a potential compromise or understanding between Germany and Russia. Despite Berlin's backing of Ukraine's association deal with the European Union, Germany is still opposed to actually extending EU or NATO membership to Ukraine. Given the European Union's internal problems, Berlin is not interested in admitting another country into the bloc at this time — especially not one as economically dysfunctional as Ukraine — giving Berlin room to maneuver in talks with Russia. Moscow is able to tolerate a certain degree of cooperation between Ukraine and the West, but Kiev's membership in the European Union and particularly NATO is a red line for the Kremlin. As long as that level of cooperation is not under serious consideration, Russia and the West will continue to pursue substantial negotiations.
It is also important to consider that Germany is not the sole representative of the West when it comes to talks with Russia. The United States also plays a vital role. Even within Europe, Germany is not omnipotent, given that all 28 EU members must approve any serious decisions regarding economic or political policy toward Russia or Ukraine and related matters. Even other individual countries can play an important role in shaping the negotiations, as demonstrated by French President Francois Hollande's impromptu meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the Ukrainian crisis last week. Furthermore, while Paris and Berlin are at odds over how to manage the eurozone, they are coordinating on Russia to counter Moscow's backing of far-right groups to widen the split between them.
However, because of its political and economic leadership of the European Union and its robust ties with Russia, Germany continues to be in a unique position to guide the West's standoff with Moscow. Indeed, there have been some positive signs despite the criticism from both sides, such as Russia's resumption of natural gas supplies to Ukraine on Dec. 9 and Lavrov's reference to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as a "main partner" in looking for a solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Regardless, whether Germany decides to coordinate an increase of pressure on Russia or dial it down, it is and will continue to be a critical player in the evolution of the crisis.