Beyond Ukraine: Russia’s Imperial Mess


SPIEGEL Staff – TRANSCEND Media Service

Russia’s occupation of Crimea has violated international law and created a new crisis among world leaders. Now the EU and the US are fighting over the best means to address Russia’s reawakened expansionary ambitions.

Everything in Simferopol, the capital of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea, has suddenly changed. Shortly after noon on Thursday of last week, Cossacks from Russia sealed off the Crimean parliament building. The Russians, who had identified themselves as tourists a short time earlier, claimed that they were there to “check identification papers.” Now Russia’s white, blue and red flag flies above the building.

Two men accompany us as we walk up the steps to meet with the new premier of Crimea, who has taken over the office in a Moscow-backed coup. Under his leadership and with instructions from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean lawmakers have just voted to join the Russian Federation. Their decision is to be sealed with a referendum scheduled for Sunday, March 16.

Prime Minister Sergey Aksyonov, 41, a former businessman with a highly dubious reputation, tries to make a serious impression, but so far, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to shed his reputation as an underworld figure nicknamed “Goblin.” Despite the Russian flag on display in the reception room, Aksyonov insists that rumors that he was installed by the Kremlin are nothing but lies. “The people here asked me to do it,” he says. But he knows that neither Kiev nor the West will accept the annexation of Crimea. “No one dictates anything to us,” he insists.

The new premier speaks rapidly, as if to drown out any skepticism. “We want no violence or casualties,” he says, adding that everything should proceed peacefully. “However, we are not letting the Ukrainians out of their barracks, so that they can no longer act on any criminal orders from Kiev.” He says that his people are in control of all of Crimea, but NATO experts claim that at least 2,000 Russian soldiers have been brought to the peninsula by air, for a total of 20,000 troops in Crimea. Another 20,000 are supposedly standing ready nearby.

“Nonsense,” says Aksyonov, still insisting that Moscow has not sent in any soldiers at all. This, despite the fact that the men in ski masks and uniforms — which have been stripped of Russian insignia — are grinning under their disguises. If the situation weren’t so serious, it would almost be comical.

At this point, no one is laughing. Russian soldiers have repeatedly prevented military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from entering Crimea. Pro-Russian “civil defense squads” have threatened United Nations special envoy Robert Serry in Simferopol. “Militarily speaking, Crimea is already lost,” says a NATO general. “The Ukrainian army is fighting a lost cause.” According to a German military internal situation report, the events in Crimea could be repeated in eastern Ukraine.

So far, Moscow’s provocations in Crimea haven’t resulted in any deaths. Nevertheless, all it takes is one murder or one gun battle to ignite the powder keg of tensions in the region. It begs the question: Almost 100 years after the beginning of World War I, and almost 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the realignment of Europe, could there possibly be a new military conflict between the major powers in Europe?

‘Most Serious Crisis’ Since Cold War

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called it the “most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall” — seemingly ignoring the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. US President Barack Obama characterized Moscow’s intervention as a “violation of international law,” while former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Putin’s alleged concerns over “ethnic” Russians in eastern Ukraine to Adolf Hitler’s actions in Sudetenland in 1938.

Officials at NATO and the European Union have been meeting almost around the clock. Late last week, Obama spent more than an hour on the phone with Putin, who has shown no sign of backing down. The Western leaders now face the challenge of exerting pressure on Russia while simultaneously keeping the channels of communication open.

They are also being confronted with a different series of questions: What kinds of sanctions could even persuade Russia’s aggressive leader to withdraw? What does Vladimir Putin want? Does he want to annex Crimea or even eastern Ukraine, or perhaps seize control of even more territory along Russia’s borders? And are these merely the actions of a cornered fighter or does he truly believe he can create a modern reincarnation of the Soviet Union?

The United States and the EU approved initial sanctions against Moscow late last week, Washington sent military reinforcements to Poland and the Baltic countries and the German federal police promptly suspended half a dozen cooperative programs with Russia. On Sunday, the Polish Defense Minister announced that the US was sending 12 fighter jets to Poland.

But aside from these measures, the situation has thus far been characterized by a horrifying sense of helplessness. On the one hand, Russia is part of the globalized community of nations, tightly interconnected through regular political consultations, the economy and tourism. Russia’s commodities exports to Europe make up close to half of the central government budget, and its connections to the rest of the world are obvious. But then, on the other hand, there is the Russian president, who is apparently trying to break ranks with this interdependent, civilized world.

Ignorance and Incomprehension

The events of the last few weeks have underscored a lack of understanding between East and West, as well as the West’s crass ignorance and incomprehension of Putin’s motives. As much as the leaders on both sides feel that they know each other, vast differences remain.

“Putin is living in another world!” German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly exclaimed in a phone call with Obama last week. Putin, for his part, voiced almost identical opinions about the West in a press conference with handpicked journalists, saying, “They sit there across the pond as if they’re in a lab running all kinds of experiments on rats, without understanding consequences of what they’re doing.” By “rats” he apparently meant the new Ukrainian leadership, which Putin believes is being controlled by Washington.

But the Kremlin leader has succeeded in one respect: He has divided the West. This process began months before his foray into Crimea, when he granted temporary asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden had leaked documents on the massive surveillance activities of the NSA, heightening the distrust among the Western allies to levels unseen since World War II. And the fact that Washington has made no effort to conclude a no-spying agreement with Berlin has only worsened the sense of alienation between the two countries.

Searching for the Right Measure

Germany is playing a central role in resolving the current Ukraine crisis. Both the United States and Russia see Merkel as the politician who is best equipped to defuse the explosive situation in Ukraine. She addresses Putin with the informal “du” in German, and has met with him dozens of times. Despite their many differences, their close partnership has created a bond between Berlin and Moscow. And with its aspiration to embark on a new, more active foreign policy, the German government has placed itself under more pressure to succeed.

But Europe’s impotence and trepidation are not as clear-cut as they appear. Even though a reversal of the Russian takeover of Crimea may seem hopeless at this point, joint EU actions against Moscow could be promising in the long term. Putin is not as strong as he makes himself out to be, and Russia is vulnerable, particularly on the economic front.

It is merely a question of finding the most effective way to make an impression on Putin and curb his expansion plans — and of whether the West has the will to follow a course of action that will be painful for everyone involved. Either way, the decisions now being made in Crimea, Kiev, Moscow, Brussels and Washington will shape policy in the coming years and possibly even decades.

In Kiev: Pride and Powerlessness

While Russians and Ukrainians continue to face off in Crimea — with US President Obama threatening to skip the G-8 summit in Sochi in June and the Russian parliament, the Duma, considering the seizure of Western company assets in response to sanctions — the new government is meeting in Kiev. Less than two weeks after entering office, it is desperately trying to regain control over the situation in Ukraine.

The seat of the government, located in a massive Stalin-era building on Kiev’s Grushevsky Street, seems caught in the past. The hallway floors are covered with sound-absorbing green carpeting from the Yanukovych era, the names of the country’s new leaders have already been engraved onto brass signs on the doorways.

Room 460, on the fifth floor, is the office of the new economics minister, Pavlo Sheremeta. The office hasn’t been completely furnished yet, and there are only two pictures on the wall — a portrait of national poet Taras Shevchenko and a photo, titled “Heavenly One Hundred,” depicting the photos of the 67 people who died on Maidan Square. The view from the window is of a barricade on Grushevsky Street, now covered with flowers, where many of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s opponents died.

“We owe a great deal to the dead,” says Sheremeta. It angers him that Moscow is calling the change in government in Kiev a “coup” and the protesters “fascists.” Radical right-wing agitators, he says, were clearly in the minority among the protesters on Independence Square.

Dismal Economy

Sheremeta is not a member of any party. He is part of the contingent of ministers selected by the Maidan protesters and his position is now probably one of the most important in Kiev. The 42-year-old economist teaches business strategy in Eastern Europe and Asia and, most recently, was president of the Kiev School of Economics. When he received the call asking him to join the new government, he was skiing in the Alps with his wife and two daughters.

He never saw his predecessor, who held his last meeting at 11 a.m. on Feb. 27 and then left the building. Sheremata was appointed at 2 p.m. that day. Since then, he and other members of the new government have been working around the clock.

A staff member walks into the room. He has brought along Ukraine’s daily economic figures, which look like the fever chart of a deathly ill patient. Industrial production declined by another half a percent in January, while inflation is sharply on the rise, tax revenues are down 20 percent and the national currency, the hryvnia, continues to lose value.

“We are going to review government contracts, where corruption is taking a heavy toll,” says Sheremeta. But first he has to meet with experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who have been in Kiev since Tuesday to discuss a $15 billion (€10.8 billion) loan the country urgently needs. But natural gas prices will also be a topic of discussion. It is clear that, effective April 1, the Russians will reverse the substantial reduction in prices they had promised Yanukovich. It is also clear that Naftogaz, Ukraine’s national oil and gas company, is unable to pay the current bill for gas deliveries, which has grown to $2.1 billion.

This means Ukrainians will now — in accordance with the IMF’s conditions — have to pay up to three times as much for heat and hot water, a change which will hurt the new government’s popularity and thus play into Putin’s hands. “We have to explain this to the people. If we are not willing to pay more for the gas, then we truly belong in the East. But then what did those 67 men die for?” asks Sheremeta.

Chaos in Kiev

Three levels above Sheremeta’s office, a cabinet meeting is beginning. The attendees include the governors of Ukraine’s nine provinces, including the two oligarchs — banker Igor Kolomoisky and steel magnate Sergey Taruta — who will now be running the provinces of Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk. Many were surprised by the choice of the two men. They have experience and their wealth makes them seemingly unsusceptible to bribes, but, Sheremeta says: “I’m not happy with these choices. How are these people supposed to separate business and politics?”

The cabinet meets for three hours. It cancels 82 government projects, for a total cost of 48 billion hryvnia (€3.8 billion), and decides to auction off 1,500 official cars owned by ministries and other agencies. With funds in such short supply, government officials will now be expected to take the metro.

Then Sheremeta is called back to Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s office to attend a meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. When he arrives on the seventh floor, he learns that the prime minister has just left in a hurry for Brussels. This leaves Sheremeta to negotiate alone with Bildt over a planned association agreement with the European Union. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party is demanding that the agreement, from which Yanukovich withdrew in November, be signed as quickly as possible. But now Brussels is stepping on the brakes, unwilling to rush into anything.

Sheremeta is no politician. This can work in his favor, but it can also be a drawback. He isn’t caught up in the political games being played in the cabinet, between Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party and the nationalist Svoboda party.

‘A Candid Investigation’ is Needed

But he is working together with cabinet members about whom many have reservations. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a former governor of the eastern city of Kharkiv, was suspected of abuse of office and spent more than two years in exile in Italy. Agriculture Minister Igor Shvaika is an ardent right-wing nationalist. Energy Minister Yuri Prodan and Minister of Social Policy Lyudmyla Denisova have both served in other governments in the past. And finally, there is Dmytro Bulatov, one of the leaders of the Maidan protesters, who disappeared for a period of time and was apparently tortured, and who is now the new minister of youth and sports.

Reporters from a Ukrainian television station come to see Sheremeta. Later, the new economics minister is smiling and seemingly in high spirits during a live interview with CNN. Only once does he become pensive, after hearing a rumor that the Estonian foreign minister had told EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton. The minister had claimed that it wasn’t Yanukovych’s men who had fired the shots during the bloody clashes on Maidan Square on Feb. 20, but members of the opposition.

On Wednesday, the new Ukrainian intelligence chief stated that the shots were fired by “snipers from foreign countries,” but declined to elaborate. Sheremeta says that many questions remain unanswered. He believes the coalition government is not overly eager to investigate the bloody clashes. “Our government will fall under a shadow unless it conducts a candid investigation.”

USA: Marbles and Chess

The American president is visiting Powell Elementary School in Washington, where he has come to talk about the importance of education. The children greet the president in a half-circle, and when he steps into a classroom, they chant in unison: “Good morning, Mr. President.” Obama, with one of the little boys sitting on his lap, begins to talk about opportunities for the socially disadvantaged. But even here, the crisis in Ukraine is on everyone’s mind.

When a reporter asks Obama for his assessment of the situation in Crimea, Obama’s response reveals a great deal about his worldview: “The course of history is for people to want to be free to make their own decisions about their own futures. And the international community I think is unified in believing that it is not the role of an outside force … to intervene in people trying to determine their own destiny.”

This statement, directed at Russia, could double as the US government’s maxim on the current crisis. Washington is currently grappling with the sustainability of Obama’s approach to US military troop reduction. It is also wondering whether it is right for the most powerful man in the world to be taking such a cautious approach to this sort of conflict.

Major Test for Obama

The Crimean crisis is, more than any other event, testing Obama’s policy of reconciliation with the rest of the world. Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas R. Burns calls it the “most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of his presidency,” noting that there is “no one in Europe who can approach him in power. He’s going to have to lead.”

Political scientist Ian Bremmer, president of the renowned New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm, fears that the events in Ukraine could reflect a “broader geopolitical shift.” Russia, Bremmer writes, will use the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with China. “We are in a world with a distinct and dangerous lack of global, coordinated leadership.” Meanwhile, the Republicans are critical of the president for engaging in a foreign policy in which “nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” as Senator John McCain bitterly notes.

Obama himself says that the impulse to expand, in terms of geography, economy and ideology, is a central part of the American identity. There is a nostalgia in Washington for the country’s former strength, a desire for a more self-confident approach. “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles,” says Republican Congressman Mike Rogers.

Obama perceives this is an outdated Cold War ritual, dating from a time when the world seemed divided into good and evil. Before he became president, he described his view of foreign policy by quoting from former President George Washington’s farewell address: “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”

Words as Weapons

At Powell Elementary School, Obama responded to suggestions that Putin had been clever strategically by saying: “I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength. It will push many countries further away from Russia.”

On Thursday, to ensure that no one misinterprets his mild words, Obama imposed the first sanctions on individuals held responsible for the crisis. They will be denied entry into the United States, and the assets of former President Yanukovych are being frozen. Obama also sent his Secretary of State, John Kerry, to visit Kiev.

Kerry was driven directly from the airport to Independence Square, where he engaged in a conversation with a woman about how the wealthy live in luxury, hiding their assets, while the majority of the population lives in poverty. These kinds of encounters feed into the American desire to be perceived as ambassadors of freedom. But Kerry has a problem: He only has weak weapons to use against the Russians. Those weapons are his words. “It is diplomacy and respect for sovereignty, not unilateral force, that can best solve disputes like this in the 21st century,” Kerry said in Kiev.

But what if Putin continues to escalate the crisis? “Then,” says Kerry, “our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand upon steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically.”

Reason and Roulette in Moscow

Is it possible to take a trip inside Putin’s head? The CIA has experts who can provide the US president with psychological profiles of foreign leaders, which he can use as tools in making his decisions. They place Putin on a virtual therapist’s couch and try to explain what makes him tick and what is truly important to him. It helps to look at the world through Putin’s eyes, through the lens of his experiences and priorities.

Conversations with Putin’s associates and his own remarks suggest the factors that shaped the wannabe czar: his childhood in a small, shabby apartment in a Leningrad working-class neighborhood, his father’s stories about the Great Patriotic War against the Germans, his role as an outsider in school — and his desire to be accepted into the KGB community.

Putin was 15 when then Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in response to a “plea for help” from Communist Party leaders, sent tanks to mow down the reform movement in Prague. He was 37 and a major in the KGB when he was forced to defend himself against angry demonstrators in Dresden, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wearing civilian clothing, he went to the gate of the KGB villa and appeased the crowd by saying: “This is a property of the Soviet military, and I am the interpreter.” In reality, as Putin would later relate, he had been burning secret documents inside the villa “until the furnace almost broke.”

The Soviet withdrawal from East Germany was a humiliating moment for Putin. Beginning in 1989, the superpower he had served and in which he had believed was disintegrating everywhere. Soviet republics from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia were declaring independence. For Putin, it was especially painful to see Ukraine — whose “Kievan Rus” had become the historic cradle of the later Russian Empire after the 9th century — separating itself from Moscow.

He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Since then, he has made it his mission to save — or recapture — whatever he can. To add insult to injury, in Putin’s eyes, the West has flouted its commitment not to send NATO troops up to Russia’s borders. Putin refuses to give up the dream of making Russia a superpower once again and the aspiration to make it an empire.

Limited Influence

He has experimented with cooperation with the West. After Sept. 11, 2001, Putin hoped that by supplying arms for the campaign against the Taliban, he would secure a modicum of control over the former Soviet republics, expanding Russia’s sphere of influence from the Kirghiz steps to Crimea. But the West had no intention of granting him his wish, especially now that countries like Georgia and Ukraine were demanding more autonomy and turning to the West.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin struck back, accusing the United States of having “overstepped” borders, partly through the “expansion of force.” In 2008, the Russian army intervened in Georgia when Georgian troops, provoked by Moscow, launched a regional war of aggression on the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

After five days, Putin had President Dmitry Medvedev declare the two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as protectorates. Although only a handful of countries besides Russia recognize them as independent nations, the West accepts Moscow’s control. Are they a potential model for Crimea?

Heir to the Russian Empire

When addressing the global public, Putin likes to portray himself as a champion of international law and the territorial integrity of countries. Again and again, most recently in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has used its veto to obstruct outside intervention in cases involving human rights violations. Putin does not accept the United Nations view of its “responsibility to protect” a threatened civilian population — unless Russians are involved and he can determine whether they are being threatened, as he now claims is the case in Ukraine, allowing him to personally “rescue” them.

Russia’s strong man only offers insights into what truly worries him when speaking to small groups. In October 2012, for example, activists with the pro-Kremlin People’s Front for Russia met with Putin at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow. Referring to the appearance of an employee of the state-owned television station known for his strident polemics, he said: “I like this superpower way of thinking.” This shows that Putin sees himself as the heir of the Russian Empire.

In 2013, Forbes named him the most powerful man in the world, ahead of the presidents of the United States and China. And it must have stroked his ego when everyone in the West claimed that without him, there could be no solution in the Syrian civil war and in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Putin’s Weaknesses

In reality, his influence in these countries is limited. China outstripped Russia long ago in Central Asia and Africa. No one would hit upon the idea of referring to a “Russian model” worth imitating. And even Putinists often resignedly quote Russian national poet Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said: “In Europe we are mere Tatars.” By Tatars, he meant provincial.

Russia’s population has stopped growing. With its 143 million people, the world’s largest country ranks ninth in population, behind Nigeria and Bangladesh. And the economy grew by a paltry 1.4 percent last year, despite the world’s largest natural gas reserves, massive oil production and many natural resources, from nickel to gold.

Russia has little to offer other than its mineral resources, so Putin needs markets in the West. The oft-proclaimed diversification of Russian industry has never happened. In addition, Russia is ranked 127th in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, only 17 spots ahead of Ukraine, which Putin has just accused of being plagued with “unimaginable corruption.”

Uncertain Future for Gas

There is also no guarantee that Russia’s oil and gas revenues will remain strong. Given the recent emergence of fracking and oil shales, global market prices for these commodities will likely decline significantly in the future. If that happens, it has the potential to open up an enormous hole in the Russian treasury. If events unfold as many observers believe they will, then Putin will soon no longer be able to afford the kind of inflated and inefficient military he has today. He will be forced to freeze pensions and will no longer be able to offer the new middle class a better standard of living.

It’s no surprise that Putin is seeking a breakthrough in foreign policy that would lead to a prestigious alliance of nations under his leadership. Ukraine was intended to be a key, perhaps even the most important, member of his planned Eurasian Customs Union.

But ever since Kiev began orienting itself toward Western Europe, Putin has seen his expansion plans in jeopardy. With only Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia and possibly Moldova on board, Putin won’t be creating much of an empire.

It is hard to explain why the leading politicians in the West failed to recognize, or perhaps were unwilling to see, the fact that the Russian president would not simply allow Ukraine to turn to the West.

An Imperial Twitch from a Shrunken Russia

Putin’s decline began at the moment of his greatest triumph. The Russian president, who invested billions in Sochi, could no longer enjoy the magnificent Winter Olympics. And the next prestigious event in the city, the G-8 summit of the world’s leading industrialized nations, is on the verge of being cancelled because of Russia’s forceful actions in Crimea. Western sanctions would further decimate Putin’s range of options, possibly even threatening his power. Travel bans imposed on a previously pro-Putin elite accustomed to Western luxury could trigger considerable resentment.

From his standpoint, the president has only one good card to play: He needs a successful operation in Crimea.

It is a high-stakes gamble, but perhaps the odds are better than in a game of Russian roulette. And in taking his current approach, Putin enjoys broad support among a largely nationalist public, with even liberal intellectuals celebrating the annexation. Hardly anyone is troubled by the highly dubious attempt to justify Russian intervention as “brotherly aid,” and few believe that Putin also intends to march into eastern Ukraine for the same reason.

Still, merely the threat that the Russians could possibly come to the “aid” of ethnic Russians in Kharkiv and Donetsk is probably enough to prevent any Ukrainian government from becoming too cozy with the EU and NATO.

Putin’s aggressive approach in Crimea and his actions, clearly in violation of international law, may remind Hillary Clinton of the Nazis’ “Anschluss” of the Sudetenland. But Putin is no gambler, nor is he looking for excuses to raze cities to the ground.

And even though he is playing a high-stakes game of poker, he also isn’t putting everything on the line. Instead, it seems highly likely that Putin will stop when he faces the threat of a major war. In this respect, he has not lost touch with reality in the way the German chancellor believes. Instead, he is ruthlessly exploiting all his options, taking things to a limit which he knows very well.

He is not doing so out of strength but out of weakness. In fact, this Crimean campaign could be the last imperial twitch of a Russia that has shrunk to the point of being a medium-sized power.

Germany Takes a Key Role to Little Effect

Germany is playing a key role in the Ukraine crisis. The chancellor has spoken with the Russian president by phone three times in the last few days, and the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has met three times with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in addition to almost daily telephone conversations. Last Monday, Steinmeier even made a trip to Geneva to speak with Lavrov in person and to keep the conversation going.

This is in keeping with the new, more active German foreign policy Steinmeier announced in January. At the same time, the German government is also clearly feeling the limits of this policy. “I don’t know if we are prepared for this type of foreign policy,” says a senior official in Berlin. He is referring to the mixture of the geostrategic Great Game of the 19th century and the intelligence methods of the 21st century, with which Putin is trying to protect his interests, and which stands in contrast with the Germans’ more gentle diplomacy.

Merkel spoke with Putin by phone on the Friday before last, after pro-Russian militias had taken over government buildings in Crimea. Putin denied that Moscow was involved, and he would do so more frequently in the coming days. The German government’s position was clear early on: An international contact group was needed as a forum for talks with the Russians.

A Familiar Relationship

In her phone conversations with Putin, Merkel repeatedly pointed out that if Russia hoped to avoid sanctions, it would have to agree to a contact group. But Putin proved to be unwieldy. He said he was not opposed to a contact group, but that the current Ukrainian government could not be represented, because it consists of fascists and is not democratically elected. Merkel replied that the government was elected by the Ukrainian parliament, and that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk had even appointed two members of the Jewish faith to his government.

The tone in Merkel’s and Putin’s conversation has been calm but clear. Officials in Berlin are convinced that Putin does not speak as openly with any other Western leader as he does with Merkel. He usually speaks German, only switching to Russian when important details are at issue. His words are then translated, even though Merkel understands Russian.

After years of interaction, the chancellor knows Putin well enough that she can readily draw a picture of his character and his motives. It is an image of a highly intelligent man interested in the world, but also a man with complexes and self-doubts. According to Merkel, Putin knows very well that he cannot modernize his country without Western investment. He also knows that under purely economic criteria, Russia would have no business being part of the group of the eight most important industrialized nations.

A Mood of Resignation in Berlin

In their telephone conversations, the chancellor and Putin have been unable to agree on any of the central issues, from events in Crimea to the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government. Putin is also offering no concrete commitments. During a conversation last Wednesday, however, he did indicate that he could perhaps agree to a contact group that would include the Ukrainian government.

So far, though, German efforts have not been truly helpful, leading to a mood of resignation in Berlin. Even cabinet ministers are saying “Crimea is gone,” and that the West should now focus on preventing the Russian president from creating more precedents in eastern Ukraine. They warn that if Putin were to stir up separatist sentiments there, too, it would be a “game changer.” Keeping eastern and western Ukraine together is currently Merkel’s most important goal.

The planned G-8 summit in Sochi could be an opportunity to teach Putin a lesson. If there is indeed an independence referendum in Crimea next Sunday, Merkel will have no choice but to cancel her attendance. That, at least, is the current assessment of the situation within Merkel’s cabinet and at the Chancellery.

Putin Prefers Risk of Sanctions

When German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel met with Putin in Moscow last week, he told the Kremlin leader that Russian would suffer considerably under sanctions. He also tried appealing to the Russian president on a personal level, saying it was now up to him, Putin, to prevent Europe from sliding into a new Cold War. But the Russian leader remained impassive.

On the previous day, the foreign ministers had met for several hours, but emerged from the meeting without having agreed on the format, the principles or the goals of a contact group. During the meeting, Lavrov left the negotiating table several times to speak with Putin by phone. In the end, it was clear that Putin would rather accept the risk of sanctions than make any concessions. This is why the German government believes Washington’s push for a quick, tough reaction against Russia is the wrong approach.

When the EU leaders consult each other about sanctions against Russia, the association agreement with Ukraine, which triggered the crisis in the first place, is also back on the table. The interim government in Kiev is eager to sign the agreement as soon as possible.

Important Lessons

The history of the agreement is a lesson in what happens when modern economic policy and classic power politics clash. Officials in Berlin already had their doubts when negotiations on the agreement began in 2009. Some argued that Ukraine was too fragile to be forced to choose between Russia and the West. But that concern never reached the department in Brussels in charge of European enlargement and neighborhood policy, whose officials negotiated the treaty. No one even hit upon the idea that Moscow might assert its influence in Ukraine as aggressively as it did, and yet there were warning signs.

At the very latest, officials in Brussels ought to have been paying closer attention after February of last year, when EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle visited the White House in Moscow, the seat of the Russian government. Füle raved about the progress being made in Ukraine. At that point, the EU’s association agreement with the government in Kiev was practically in the bag. The official signing was to take place at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Lithuania in November. Füle spoke with great enthusiasm about Ukraine’s efforts.

His audience in Moscow, the assembled Russian government, headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, was not nearly as enthusiastic. What effects, it asked pointedly, would such an agreement have on the planned Eurasian economic union, which Moscow was assembling with countries like Kazakhstan and Belarus, and possibly Ukraine?

“Looking back,” says a senior official at the European Commission, “we could have sensed at that moment what was threatening to happen. But that would be against our nature. We EU representatives are always a little naïve and believe that our mission is bound to succeed, because we are fighting for the right values. We never plan for the worst case.”

A Changed Man

After Füle’s meeting in Moscow, Alexey Miller, the head of Russian energy giant Gazprom, suddenly noticed that Ukraine was behind in paying for its gas deliveries, and that the government in Kiev still owed the company $882 million. As a result, Miller said, Gazprom had to insist that Ukraine pay its debts on time. Then Russia’s consumer protection agency suddenly claimed that the products of Ukraine’s largest confectionary company contained carcinogenic substances, and its trucks were ordered to turn around at the border.

On Nov. 19, 10 days before the official signing of the agreement, Füle traveled to Kiev once again. He had already met with then President Yanukovych three times that year. The Europeans always had the feeling that the president, who was fond of telling stories from his childhood, was being completely open with them.

But on that day Füle felt that he was facing a changed man, someone who seemed to be acting on instructions. Indeed, Yanukovich had met with Putin in Sochi for hours before meeting Füle. When the EU negotiators met with Yanukovich in Kiev, the foreign minister, a glaring apparatchik, was sitting next to him, and they knew that this meeting would have a different outcome.

Suddenly Yanukovich was talking about “problems” and “costs.” He said that a Russian expert had explained to him how high the price would be for turning toward Europe, noting that Ukraine would be losing $15 or $16 billion a year. Füle was speechless and switched from English to Russian, hoping to reach Yanukovich. But he merely held onto a piece of paper from which he was stubbornly rattling off figures indicating how far trade with Russia had already declined.

The meeting was over after an hour. The EU commissioner planned to make another trip to Kiev on Nov. 21, but the visit never took place. Füle was about to board his flight in Brussels when the Ukrainian government announced that it was unfortunately unable to sign the planned association agreement.

“They didn’t even call us first,” says Füle. When he met with Yanukovich again in late January, the meeting lasted only 30 minutes. The Ukrainian president spent 29 of those minutes speaking.

Heroes and Scoundrels in Crimea

The armed Russian and Ukrainian “brothers” will continue to face off until at least next Sunday, the day of the planned Crimea referendum. This is especially true in the Severnaya, or northern bay of Sevastopol, where the Black Sea fleet was divided up between the two newly created countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and where the Russian and Ukrainian navies have been docked, practically ship’s side to ship’s side, ever since.

From a forward observation post above the harbor, Oleg, a Russian elite soldier, has the officers of the Slavutych, a Ukrainian warship, within the range of his Kalashnikov. He can see that they have hung mattresses over the side of the ship to protect themselves against grappling hooks, and that they are using ropes to inconspicuously pull food on board. This is how the Ukrainians intend to hold out, as they have refused to submit to Russian demands to surrender.

Oleg calmly watches the spectacle below. Only his brown eyes are visible underneath a ski mask pulled down over his nose, and he speaks Russian. The soldier says he’s from the area near Rostov-on-Don, but he refuses to provide any information about his unit. He has the muscular body of one of the elite fighters who were reportedly transferred directly to Crimea after the Olympics in Sochi.

Oleg and a dozen of his fellow soldiers are manning their posts to “help Crimea,” as he calls it. “We will stay here at least until the referendum,” he says. In early February, only 40 percent of Crimeans were in favor of joining Russia, even though ethnic Russians make up the majority on the peninsula. In the current mood, however, the vote is likely to shift much more clearly in Putin’s favor.

When asked what will happen to the Ukrainians down below — the ones he has in his sights — he says, “If they want to get out of here, then no problem. But they’ll have to leave their ships behind.”


Reported by Nikolaus Blome, Erich Follath, Matthias Gebauer, Christiane Hoffmann, Uwe Klussmann, Walter Mayr, Christian Neef, Ralf Neukirch, Matthias Schepp, Fidelius Schmid, Gregor Peter Schmitz, Holger Stark.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan.

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