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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

Reiniers: Germany’s Juggling Act with Putin

More Than Words


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The United States has never been in as awkward a foreign relations predicament as Angela Merkel is with Vladimir Putin and Russia. The takeaway from this unfolding story is what our State Department can learn about the machinations of European power politics. Merkel is a realist. She knows Putin must be stopped.

I had recently written in Hernando Today that Europe has to get its act together and show some muscle to the Russian bear. NATO”s Secretary General – a European, of all people – said that “Europe must do more” because Russia’s land-grab of Crimea was a “game-changer.” Merkel has no choice but to get tough with Putin. This is not our responsibility. It is Europe’s.

Germany is Europe’s largest economy, and Merkel is Europe’s strongman – considered the de facto leader of the European Union – yet she is in a delicate situation with Russia because Germany is one of Russia’s largest trading partners in Europe, and almost totally dependent on Russian gas.

Given their own history with an earlier German chancellor, Adolph Hitler, Merkel cannot be certain that Putin will not follow in his footsteps as when Hitler invaded predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland after Nazi supporters started agitating for autonomy – just as Russian-speaking separatists are doing in eastern Ukraine.

To add to Berlin’s woes, Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat and Merkel’s immediate predecessor as chancellor, just celebrated his 70th birthday with Vladimir Putin in Russia. A bear hug and kisses from Vladimir in Russia. That didn’t set well with the public or the German media.

Der Spiegel excoriated Schröder saying that his close ties to Putin could undermine his country’s foreign policy. Many Germans are questioning whether the Social Democrats are more loyal to Russia than Germany. They have a storied past, and during the Soviet occupation of East Germany, they became a part of the Communist Party. Added to all this, her foreign minister is also a Social Democrat.

To further muddy up the political waters, Helmut Schmidt, another former German chancellor and Social Democrat, currently editor of Die Zeit newspaper, wrote that Putin’s approach to Crimea is “completely understandable,” and that the EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia “are a stupid idea.”

Needless to say the media in Moscow and the left-wingers in the Bundestag were thrilled over such remarks.

Germans are divided; many would like to see an easy way out, rather than sanctions. Others view this as blatant aggression. The editor of the Zeit probably summed it up best by saying, “This is the first time since 1945 when a great power has changed or is about to change Europe’s borders by force.”

The Bild newspaper, Germany’s largest tabloid, started a petition drive to urge its riders to petition the Bundestag to remove the Russian tanks at the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin. It is probably unwise for a best-selling newspaper to be so aggressive, given that negotiations are ongoing. (Recall the Hearst newspapers agitating its readers to call for war with Spain after the sinking of the Maine.)

All of these issues call for realpolitik, not idealistic nostrums – particularly when dealing with Putin, a talented former KGB official.

Merkel has publicly said, “Russia risks massive political and economic consequences if Russia does not enter into negotiations over the situation in Ukraine.”

Markel has also said, in a meeting with Canada’s Stephen Harper that she concluded things wouldn’t escalate much further. She has taken the military option off the table, and strangely said, “I am quite relaxed. Let’s put it that way.”

You have to wonder what she knows. We know she has had many telephone conversations with Putin. Ironically, Putin speaks German from having worked in Germany, and Merkel speaks Russian from having grown up in communist East Germany.(She was awarded prizes for her Russian language skills.) This is one smart woman, having earned a doctorate in chemistry for her thesis in quantum chemistry. When younger she was a member of a few Soviet sanctioned groups. She worked at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin from 1978 to 1990, so she is no political hack, but an accomplished professional. With her upbringing and work history as an East German, she must have a sense of Putin’s Soviet mindset.

It’s hard to read Merkel. She is quite reserved, not close to anyone, but yet a central figure in all things euro-Russian. Germany has the most consequential commercial investment and diplomatic capital in their next door neighbor. This had been going on for years preceding Merkel’s chancellorship, when the left-wing Social Democrats were in power.

We can only speculate what is going on in back-door channels, so keep your eye on Merkel as she and Putin engage in realpolitik European style.

John Reiniers is a retired lawyer and regular columnist who lives in Spring Hill. Email him at

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