Germany’s not-so-iron chancellor

 

In contrast to her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who saw himself as an advocate for Russia in Europe and was rewarded with a lucrative Gazprom job for his troubles once he left office, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has never had an exactly friendly relationship with Vladimir Putin. Over the years, it’s been marked by serious disputes over human rights and foreign policy, as well as some pettiness: The Russian president has reportedly exploited the chancellor’s cynophobia by siccing his black lab on her during meetings.

This dynamic doesn’t seem to have changed. According to Peter Baker of The New York Times, Merkel told President Barack Obama on Sunday that “after speaking with Mr. Putin she was not sure he was in touch with reality.”

But personal feelings aside, of all the major leaders in the current standoff over Ukraine, Merkel — the de facto leader of the EU in situations like this — has been the most cautious. Though Berlin played an important diplomatic role during the anti-Yanukovych protests, the Germans were the last to pull out of a planned G8 summit for June and its leaders have expressed skepticism about ideas like kicking Russia out of the grouping entirely or imposing punitive sanctions on Russian leaders.

Russia did agree to allow Merkel to form a fact-finding mission to defuse tensions in Crimea, but this hasn’t gone far enough for some officials in Washington. “The EU is dysfunctional, but Berlin is the real problem,” said one former official quoted in Der Spiegel. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., described Merkel’s proposal as “milquetoast.”

So why is Merkel so hesitant? For one thing, increased tensions with Moscow could be costly for Germany, which relies on Russia for more than a third of its oil and natural gas. As Germany moves off nuclear power, that reliance may increase. The two countries are also major trading partners.

Beyond the economic facts, it’s worth keeping in mind that the stakes of this standoff likely seem a lot higher in Germany — as Der Spiegel points out, it’s just a three-hour flight from Frankfurt to Simferopol — than in the United States.

When German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that “Europe is, without a doubt, in its most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall” and that “there’s a new, real danger that Europe will split once again,” he’s talking about something a bit more salient to Germans with a memory of the 20th century than when U.S. politicians make the case that American interests are at stake in Russia’s near-abroad.

With Putin sounding a bit less bellicose this week, or at least less enthusiastic about the idea of expanding military operations into eastern Ukraine, it could be that the good-cop/bad-cop diplomacy combined with the financial markets is helping to de-escalate the crisis.

But even if you think Merkel’s position in this crisis has been hopelessly feckless and naïve, I don’t think the sniping from Washington is really going to do much to convince her to be more resolute.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

© 2014, Slate

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • After plane horror, Europe must stand up to Putin

    Vladimir Putin has become a global menace.

  • Blue-state disgrace

    Immigration is a complex problem. So is the long-term question of how the United States should handle the influx of tens of thousands of children from Central America. Beyond the legal mandates, we owe them basic human decency. On the other hand, to say that they should all simply stay here for good begs big questions about encouraging more children to make this journey, and the rights of all the people abroad who are waiting their turn in line. Unless you believe in open borders, it’s all thorny. What seems right for an individual child can seem wrong systemwide.

  • Moon landing 45 years ago brought us together

    It was, after all, only a boot-crunching dust. You wouldn’t think the sight would affect so many or change so much.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category