August 13, 2021

German Chancellor Merkel brings more ambiguity ‘uber alles’ to Kyiv


As Ukraine was still reeling from the news that Berlin and Washington had reached a compromise deal concerning the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 project without Ukraine’s input, it was suddenly announced by Ukrainian officials on August 9 that Germany’s outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, will visit Kyiv on August 22.

As the surprise wore off, it became clear, however, that the purpose of the trip was not to take part in celebrations of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s renewed independence on August 24, or the launch of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Crimean Platform initiative a day earlier.

So why, then, would Ms. Merkel visit Ukraine on August 22? Strangely, Ms. Merkel’s visit has been shrouded in secrecy and the rationale behind it is unclear. And whose initiative was the trip? Given the German chancellor’s stature, it is odd that both sides have remained conspicuously silent about the visit.

At first glance, it appeared to be a welcome gesture of German support linked to Ukraine’s celebrations. But on closer reading, given Berlin’s recent rather dismissive attitude toward Ukraine, it comes across as a rather hollow and self-serving move.

It comes on the heels of Berlin’s collusion with Washington over Nord Stream 2, in which Kyiv was sidelined and presented with an unpleasant fait accompli. Germany will go ahead with the project despite Ukraine’s protests and concern from many European countries and the United States as well. The assurances given by Berlin that it will not allow this scheme to harm Ukraine’s interests have remained vague and unconvincing.

Indeed, leaks reported by Bloomberg on August 2 suggested that Berlin may have even duped Washington into believing that it is serious about not allowing Moscow to exploit Nord Stream 2 against Kyiv.

Bloomberg reported that “according to Berlin officials familiar with the plans” Germany “has little intention of shutting off Nord Stream 2 if Vladimir Putin tries to use the controversial pipeline as a geopolitical weapon, whatever the U.S. might say.”

Berlin has heard Kyiv’s protests and expressions of dismay. It also knows that Mr. Zelenskyy’s team is working hard to salvage what it can from the unpleasant turn of events. The Ukrainian leader will be in Washington at the end of the month and will not only reiterate Ukraine’s concerns, but he will surely press for compensatory assurances of support not only in words but in deeds.

Berlin is also aware of Kyiv’s frustration with its attitude in other key spheres. Germany has remained opposed to Ukraine’s membership in NATO. While calling it a European friend, unlike some of its other NATO partners, Germany has refused to sell defensive weapons to Ukraine to help defend against Russian aggression.

Since 2014, Germany, along with France, Russia and Ukraine, has assumed the role of a “mediator” within the Normandy Four negotiating arrangement that aims to end the war in eastern Ukraine. But they have failed to make much of a difference and the so-called peace process remains as deadlocked as ever with Mr. Putin refusing to settle on anything but his own terms.

As British expert John Lough has pointed out, Ms. Merkel was indeed “instrumental in initiating the Minsk peace process aimed at resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine.” But “the poorly drafted Minsk agreements led to predictably few results…Crucially, Berlin never officially challenged Moscow’s claim to be a facilitator of peace when it was, in fact, a party to the conflict.”

Exactly one year ago, Germany’s minister of foreign affairs came to Kyiv for Independence Day celebrations. “We want to make more rapid progress in the Minsk process – that is why I am travelling to Kyiv today,” he said at that time.

It remains unclear why Berlin and Paris have not managed to make a difference. Perhaps they are reluctant to antagonize Mr. Putin unduly, or perhaps deep down they prefer to maintain a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. After all, in terms of Germany’s ambiguous realpolitik, it allows Berlin to keep its line to Moscow open, reduces Ukraine’s prospects of integrating into Euro-Atlantic structures and leaves Ukraine in the position of being a buffer zone in eastern Europe.

On July 12, Ms. Merkel unexpectedly embarrassed Mr. Zelenskyy by declaring at their joint press conference in Berlin that Germany expects Ukraine to implement the Steinmeier formula, a scheme that follows Moscow’s prescriptions and is inimical to Ukraine. Will she dare to repeat this in Kyiv, or will the Ukrainian president politely put her in her place? Time will tell.

Both Berlin and Paris know that Kyiv desperately seeks to get the U.S. to commit to a direct role in the eastern Ukrainian peace process and to bolster Ukraine’s security with concrete actions, not just words.

They are also aware that Poland, and numerous other Eastern European states, are very unhappy with Germany’s behavior and they are looking to President Joe Biden to live up to an earlier pledge to stand up to Mr. Putin.

It therefore seems that Ms. Merkel’s unexpected visit to Kyiv at such a sensitive time serves two purposes: the first is to conduct a degree of damage control, especially after Bloomberg’s claims, and the second is an effort to head off any awkward questions Mr. Zelenskyy may ask Mr. Biden before the two presidents meet in Washington on August 30.

Washington and Paris will be watching closely what Ms. Merkel has to say and offer at this stage. Ever since the U.S.-German deal that allowed Nord Stream 2 to be completed was announced, official Paris has remained deafeningly silent. We don’t even know if French President Emanuel Macron has responded to Mr. Zelenskyy’s invitation that he be at the Independence Day celebrations in Ukraine.

Kyiv will now have to handle Ms. Merkel’s visit very diplomatically. Unless she brings something new that has significant added value, Ms. Merkel should not be allowed to upstage the many foreign dignitaries who will be in Kyiv for the Crimean Platform and the Independence Day celebrations the following day.

Germany remains important as a key European partner, but this is no excuse for it to be allowed to ride roughshod over Ukraine’s independence.