Stopping Putin: Can Merkel Succeed Without Force?

Angela Merkel
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walk during a meeting in Rio de Janeiro July 13, 2014. Alexey Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

In the course of the Ukraine conflict that erupted in 2014, Germany has for the first time taken the lead on a major international crisis. The main center of Western action and coordination hasn't been Washington, Brussels, Paris or London, but Berlin.

The crisis has illustrated the strength of Germany's foreign policy: its skilled use of economic power and diplomacy. But the confrontation has also demonstrated Berlin's weakness: the lack of a military dimension to German power.

Germany has become a leader in the Ukraine crisis for three reasons. First, German power has grown since the country's reunification in 1990. Germany not only has the biggest economy and the largest population in the EU but also lies geographically at the center of the union and is deeply embedded in EU structures.

Second, the crisis is of vital importance for Germany because the entire geopolitical order to the country's East is at stake. Third, there was no one else to take the lead. Paris has weakened in recent years. London is increasingly disconnected from the EU. Washington has taken a step back from European affairs. And Brussels lacks the capability to lead the EU on foreign policy.

As the Ukraine conflict continues, the question is whether Germany will be able to maintain a leadership position by permanently moving the conflict from the field of military confrontation, where Russia has the upper hand, to the diplomatic and the economic spheres, where a German-led EU has the comparative advantage.

Germany Steps Up

Against the background of Germany's interests, it was already likely that the country would play an important role in the Ukraine crisis. And yet, the decisiveness and dedication with which German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken on a leadership role on Ukraine came as a surprise.

Merkel, in office since 2005, had not previously shown a great appetite for foreign policy leadership. She had tended to follow the mainstream on most dossiers. The only important foreign policy issue on which she played a leading role was the management of the slow, difficult process of integrating the Western Balkans into the EU; but she did so only behind the scenes.

When Merkel did use Germany's growing power, it was in most cases to apply the brakes on the initiatives of others, such as the NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 or France's efforts to build a coalition to stop the civil war in Syria.

When the Ukraine crisis broke in February 2014 with the ouster of then president Viktor Yanukovych, a combination of factors put Berlin in the driver's seat. On the one hand, Merkel was already used to occupying a leadership position in the EU because of Germany's dominant role in the euro crisis. On the other hand, the political unrest in Ukraine was simply too important for Germany to stand on the sidelines.

Since 1990, Germany had moved away from being a frontline state to become a country surrounded on all sides by friends. If Russia were to change its character, return to an imperialist attitude and challenge the status quo reached at the end of the Cold War, then the entire geopolitical order to the East of Germany would be at risk.

While the Middle East and North Africa are important areas for German foreign policy, it is the Eastern neighborhood—Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Russia—that is vital to German security and prosperity. Russia is not only a provider of energy and an important market for German exporters but also the country that has the biggest potential to threaten German security, as it did for decades during the Cold War.

Berlin's Eastern neighbors have become deeply interwoven with the German economy. And Poland has in recent years risen to be Germany's second most important partner in the EU after France, as Berlin and Warsaw have built a close relationship based on considerable mutual trust.

There is also a personal dimension to Germany's leadership role: the Merkel factor. The chancellor grew up in East Germany, a country that was a satellite of the Soviet Union and had a large Soviet occupying force. Merkel speaks Russian but never entertained the kind of close, buddy-like relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin for which her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, became notorious.

While she cautiously cooled the relationship between Berlin and Moscow to some degree, the parameters of Germany's Russia policies that had been put in place by former chancellors Helmut Kohl and Schröder remained largely intact when Merkel came to power in 2005. That is partly because Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a close aide to Schröder, was foreign minister in Merkel's first term.

Kohl and Schröder's approach had been to invest heavily in the relationship with Moscow in the hope that Russia would modernize economically and politically, and Steinmeier continued in the same vein when he became foreign minister in 2005.

Yet German policy vis-à-vis Russia started to change slowly when Putin came back to the presidency in 2012. Merkel maintained close contacts with Moscow but changed the tone. Having no illusions about the character of the Russian regime, she clearly saw the necessity to push back against a regime that was becoming increasingly aggressive against alleged internal and external enemies.

Leadership Through Partnership

German leadership in the Ukraine crisis has always been multilateral. Berlin's efforts to build a joint Western position on the crisis have included two key components: coordinating on all important issues with the United States, and winning a critical mass inside the EU in support of Germany's approach.

The United States has been happy to see Germany to take the lead. Ever since former U.S. president George H. W. Bush spoke in May 1989 about Germany and the United States as "partners in leadership," there has been an American expectation that Germany would one day assume a leading role in Europe in close cooperation with Washington.

That Merkel has led on the Ukraine conflict has been welcomed by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which is particularly keen on sharing more of the burden of global crisis management with its partners. An in-depth report by American journalist George Packer confirms that Obama and Merkel "have consulted frequently on the timing of announcements and been careful to keep the American and the European positions close."

France has become Germany's second key partner. Having Paris on board for a given policy early on is usually key for Berlin to build a critical mass inside the EU. If these two capitals agree on their approach to an issue, they stand a good chance to convince the other 26 to support them.

In addition, France represents those EU countries that are more skeptical of a confrontation with Russia—mostly states in Southern Europe—with the result that a German-French compromise amounts to a compromise between the two opposing camps in the EU.

London has also given its green light to German leadership, helping Berlin secure the critical mass it needed within the EU. Because of the ongoing debate about a possible British exit from the union, Britain's weight in the EU has dramatically declined. London didn't play an important part in shaping the EU's response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, a task on which Britain has been happy for Merkel to lead.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that Merkel is one of the "weapons" the free world is using against Russia. In his view, the German chancellor's access to Putin is "the best chance we have of negotiating an effective solution to the problem in the Ukraine."

An alternative candidate for leadership on the Ukraine crisis besides Germany was the EU as represented by the institutions in Brussels. But the vision of a joint foreign policy led by those institutions, which was one of the driving forces of the Lisbon Treaty, has never become a political reality.

While the EU has built up a diplomatic service and beefed up the office of the foreign policy high representative since 2009, the most important external relations dossiers have remained in the hands of the EU member states. As a consequence, the high representative today is not so much a leader as a coordinator on foreign policy.

The absence of another power center willing to take the reins has given Berlin a relatively free hand to lead on the EU's response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The character of that response, therefore, has been shaped by the character of German foreign policy. That foreign policy is strong on diplomacy and in the economic dimension of power, but weak in the military dimension of power.

Making Use of Diplomatic and Economic Strength

The main goal of the Berlin-led Western strategy on Ukraine has been to move the conflict from the military to the diplomatic and economic levels.

Berlin has gone to extraordinary lengths to push for negotiations in various formats: many meetings and phone calls between Merkel and Putin, negotiations with Ukrainian and Western leaders and similar talks on the level of foreign ministers led by Steinmeier. Besides Russia and Ukraine, the diplomatic track has involved different countries at different stages of the conflict, mainly Poland, France, Britain, Italy and the United States.

The primary goal of these efforts has been to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. They have resulted in the two Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015. The second, known as Minsk II, now provides the main framework for Western efforts to wind down the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Implementing the deal by the end of 2015 is at the center of current Western efforts.

Another pillar of the Berlin-led Western strategy has been the use of sanctions. A first round of EU measures was put in place after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, and EU leaders agreed to so-called tier-three economic sanctions in July 2014. These sanctions have two purposes.

The first is internal, to build a consensus inside the EU. At the beginning of the conflict, there was considerable disagreement among the 28 EU member states on the character of a joint response. Each time European leaders agreed on a new round of sanctions, the EU was forced to reach an internal consensus to develop a common approach. EU unity during the crisis has been built around the sanctions policy.

The decision to impose sanctions clarified the position of the EU member states and of the EU as a whole—both internally, toward the public in the EU, as well as externally, toward Russia and the wider world. The Kremlin, probably to its surprise, had to learn that the EU was united in its rejection of the annexation of Crimea and Russia's attack on Eastern Ukraine, and that it was ready to pay a price for that unity in the form of economic sanctions that would affect the EU as well as Russia.

The second purpose of the sanctions has been to limit the Kremlin's options in Ukraine. In combination with a falling oil price, sanctions have led to an economic crisis in Russia, which may result in a crisis of legitimacy of the current regime.

Whether the EU's measures have played a role in stopping the advance of Russian-controlled troops in Eastern Ukraine is difficult to say. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has argued that without the sanctions, the Russian army would have invaded the southern part of Ukraine as far as Odessa.

Military Weakness

Germany has been successful in uniting the EU behind tough sanctions, in cooperating closely with the United States, and in leading on Western diplomacy with Russia. One may conclude that the U.S. vision of partnership in leadership and of elevating Germany to the role of America's primary partner in Europe, at least on the continent, has come true during the Ukraine conflict.

However, Germany has also shown some weaknesses, which reveal the limits of a German-led EU foreign policy. Berlin has been quite reluctant on the military aspects of the crisis. Of course, there was a broad agreement in the West that sending troops to Ukraine or providing arms or training on a massive scale was not an option. But there were nevertheless important shades of gray when it came to other military aspects of crisis management. Germany regularly spoke out early and publicly against anything that could appear as a more muscular, hawkish approach.

The military dimension of the West's response to the Ukraine conflict was largely limited to an internal reorientation of NATO toward collective defense. In April 2014, NATO decided to increase its presence on its Eastern borders through more air policing, deployment of ships in the Baltic Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean and NATO land training and exercises.

And in the months before the September 2014 NATO summit in Wales, a debate began about the possible permanent deployment of NATO troops in Poland, the Baltic countries and Romania. Leaders in those countries argued that this was necessary for the alliance to have a credible deterrent. General Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, said that the organization had to "consider" a permanent deployment of troops on its Eastern flank.

Already in early July, however, Merkel publicly pushed back and ruled out such a permanent deployment. Instead, Berlin put its weight behind an alternative proposal: to build up a new rapid-response force able to operate at short notice to counter threats against NATO members (as part of a larger, longer-term Readiness Action Plan, which reorients NATO toward collective defense).

For Germany's Eastern neighbors, the new "spearhead force" was a weak substitute for permanent troops. Only if a considerable number of U.S. and Western European soldiers were permanently stationed in NATO's Eastern member states, they argued, would there be a credible guarantee that the West would defend NATO's Eastern front in case of a Russian attack. That is a view, it must be noted, that West Germany itself had shared when it was a frontier state during the Cold War.

But Berlin argued that a permanent deployment of NATO forces on the territory of the Eastern member countries would violate the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, which set out a road map for cooperation between the two sides. Berlin was not willing to scrap this document, even if Russia itself had significantly violated the agreement by annexing Crimea and attacking Eastern Ukraine (as the conclusions of the Wales NATO summit stated).

The counterargument has been that Germany's unwillingness to put its weight behind a permanent deployment would not induce Russia to honor its commitments but would instead invite Russia to test NATO's Article 5—that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. In other words, the failure to station permanent NATO troops at the alliance's Eastern front might result in the very Russian escalation that Germany feared would follow from such a deployment.

Since the Wales summit, however, Germany has shown considerable engagement in building up NATO's new rapid-reaction force, and it has, from the beginning, participated quite willingly in other alliance reassurance measures. While Germans are unwilling to consider permanent deployment in the East, there is a broad consensus in Germany about the vital need to have NATO as the cornerstone of German security. As Berlin frustrated the hopes of its NATO allies in its Eastern neighborhood, it had to provide them with some ersatz measures.

As in the debate about permanent troop deployment, Merkel again came out early and publicly with a statement on February 2 against arming Ukraine in its fight against the Russian-controlled separatists in the country's East. In doing so, she deprived herself of a potential stick in the peace negotiations she subsequently held with French President François Hollande, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin in Moscow on February 6. Saying that every option was on the table, as the U.S. side did at the same time, would have given her a much stronger hand in the negotiations.

Merkel's early efforts to block proposals that would have forced Germany to participate in collective measures with a military dimension can be defended as a reasonable policy: a message that there is almost nothing that the West can do on the military side of the conflict.

But her stance on the military aspects of the crisis also points to other possible motives. One of them appears to be domestic. A large majority of Germans tend to reject the use of military power as a foreign policy tool. Pacifist statements resonate powerfully in Germany, and being branded a militarist can endanger political careers, as Merkel experienced personally.

As an opposition leader, Merkel in 2003 argued in an op-ed in the Washington Post against then chancellor Schröder's populist criticism of the Iraq War. In return, she was labeled a warmonger in Germany and saw her road to the chancellery at risk.

Against that background, Merkel may feel that distancing herself early on from anything that could be attacked as "militaristic" is an important prerequisite for keeping domestic support for her engagement in the Ukraine conflict. A more muscular approach may also risk breaking the governing coalition with the Social Democrats, the party of Steinmeier, which is more dovish on Russia than Merkel's Christian Democratic Union.

In addition to the dislike of military engagements, there is also an element of fear at play in the German reluctance to adopt a more assertive response to Russia—fear of a return to the Cold War, when Germany expected to become the core battlefield in a nuclear war between the two superpowers.

A broader, more systemic reason for Merkel's reluctance to engage more in the military side of power is Germany's own dependence on others when it comes to security issues. As a non-nuclear power whose security is ultimately guaranteed by U.S. military might, Germany has only limited ability to lead on behalf of the West in a confrontational setting with a nuclear power such as Russia. Berlin does not see eye to eye with Moscow on the military dimension of power.

Germany cannot credibly threaten those who are on the opposite side of a conflict, nor can it give security guarantees to weak or threatened countries. Germany's relative weakness in military terms makes the country naturally vulnerable to threats and blackmail itself—tactics that Moscow has used during the Ukraine crisis.

While the Russian president has plenty of military options, German leaders don't have any military options in their foreign policy toolbox. What they can do on their own initiative is support Germany's allies in their military missions—preferably by offering nonlethal backing such as training, equipment or transportation. On all other dimensions of military power, Germans rely almost entirely on the NATO alliance, which in practice means its key member, the United States.


German leadership in the Ukraine crisis has demonstrated both the strengths and the limits of German power. That power is multilateral, diplomatic and economic, but it largely lacks a military dimension.

In the Ukraine crisis, Germany has done what in the past only the United States did: It has unified the West behind a single policy in a major crisis. Berlin has led the diplomatic negotiations with Russia and has pushed through sanctions on Russia against the resistance of a number of reluctant EU member states. That is a major achievement.

One key strength is Berlin's diplomacy. Many countries trust Germany to take the lead because it is seen by many as nonpartisan, or less partisan than others. Of all Western states, Germany has the best communication channel to Moscow, and at the same time, Kiev views Berlin as a reliable partner. No other country has a better chance than Germany to build consensus inside the EU; and Merkel is a leader who is taken very seriously in the White House.

Another, related source of German power is the country's economic strength. This strength is one of the preconditions for Germany's relatively powerful position inside the EU. It gives Germany leverage in internal EU negotiations as well as in bilateral talks outside the EU. In concert with the EU, Germany can offer non-EU countries advantages such as investment or market access or present them with disadvantages such as sanctions (provided it can find a majority for its policies inside the EU).

However, Germany does not have the full spectrum of power at its disposal. With regard to military matters, the country is weak. In a conflict, German civilian power can only work if it is backed up—reassured and supplemented—by U.S. military muscle.

German power has developed in the postmodern context of the EU and the transatlantic alliance. In that specific international environment, military might has lost its primacy, while diplomacy and economic strength have become much more important currencies of power.

But German foreign policy leadership reaches its limits if an adversary is not responsive to its tools, diplomacy and economic pressure—if the other side does not share the principles of postmodern governance that shape international relations among liberal democracies.

Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. This article first appeared on the Carnegie Europe website.