Merkel, Putin and the Lessons of History

March 25, 2014 Topic: History Region: Germany

Merkel, Putin and the Lessons of History

Germany doesn't see Putin as Hitler. It sees Russia through the eyes of Willy Brandt.

On March 18, the Crimean peninsula became part of the Russian Federation. So far Russian President Putin has shrugged off global protests about his flagrant violation of international law. He has decided to simply ignore the warnings of leaders such as President Obama and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Greeted by thousands of people on Red Square in Moscow, Putin said “Crimea and Sevastopol are returning to ... their home shores, to their home port, to Russia”.

Many foreign-policy experts in the United States and elsewhere are pronouncing that negotiations and engagement with the other side don’t work and are useless. Putin needs to be stopped immediately and punished. The imposition of severe sanctions on Russia and individual senior office-holders in the Kremlin, it is argued, is the least the US and the EU should do to force Putin and his clique to see reason and respect international laws and norms. Putin has to give in, is the mantra heard everywhere in Washington, DC, but much less so in Angela Merkel’s Germany.

In the U.S. it is not only foreign policy hawk John McCain but Secretary of State John Kerry and even the President himself who resort to this sort of demonstration of manliness and verbal muscle. French President Hollande, hugely unpopular in his own country, and the British in the form of Foreign Secretary Hague and beleaguered Prime Minister Cameron are not far behind. While Moscow points to the Western-supported separation of Kosovo from the Serb Republic in early 2008, which continues to be deeply resented in Russia, to explain the legitimacy of its takeover of Crimea. But many in the Western world feel reminded of an entirely different historical parallel.

Hitler's occupation and annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland with its many ethnic Germans in October 1938 appears to have certain similarities with the Russian annexation of Crimea. By early 1938, German propaganda had been claiming that the Czechs were committing atrocities against the 3 million Sudeten Germans (about 23.5 percent of the population). Nazi Germany threatened to protect them by military means. Hitler told the British Prime Minister that beyond Sudetenland he had "no further territorial ambitions in Europe." The attempted appeasement of Hitler by means of British and French agreement to the handover of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany encouraged Hitler’s belief that he could also get away with the invasion of Poland the year after. That invasion, of course, instead unleashed the Second World War.

Yet, comparing Putin to Hitler in this way is as misguided as talking about a new Cold War. Among the major EU countries, it is only in Germany that a somewhat more measured and more carefully balanced response to Putin's unacceptable behavior is heard. Chancellor Angela Merkel, recently elected to her third term in office, has begun to condemn Putin's annexation of Crimea in somewhat more outspoken terms during the last week or so. Still, she and her experienced foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a leading member of Merkel's Social-Democratic coalition partner, are among those who urge engagement and negotiations and are reluctant to agree on imposing too many EU sanctions on Russia.

The German political establishment is hesitant about the idea of punishing Putin publicly and expecting him to humiliatingly call it quits and resort to the status-quo ante in Crimea. This much more measured approach has confirmed Merkel as probably the most thoughtful head of government in the entire EU. The leading position she obtained during the Euro crisis (largely due to her skillful political approach and Germany's successful economic performance) is being confirmed during the current crisis.

There are three main reasons for Merkel's more sober and, on the whole, more constructive approach to dealing with Putin. These reasons have very little to do with Germany's dependency on Russian natural resources (35 percent of all of Germany's gas and oil imports come from Russia) and the long-standing existence of deep Russian and German trade relations. 31 percent of all EU exports to Russia are from Germany, and there are over six thousand German companies registered in Russia. Although these factors may have helped to develop an alternative approach to dealing with Putin, the main reasons for the German 'Sonderweg' toward Putin's Kremlin go much deeper. The reasons mostly can be found in both Merkel's personally cautious and culturally sensitive political approach and Germany's since 1949 traditionally un-militaristic civilian power approach to international relations.

1. Merkel is a very cautious and unemotional person. At least in public, she is not prone to excited outbursts and the flaunting of her ego. She detested, for instance, the male-chauvinistic behavior of both former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi, with his high-testosterone style, and former French President Sarkozy who never was happy if he could not be regarded as the most important person in any room he happened to be in. By contrast, Merkel's leadership style is characterized by a rejection of pomp and circumstance and knee-jerk decisions. Not least, it seems, the 'ego' factor is almost totally absent in her way of leading. She tends to resort to a frequently somewhat slow and contemplative approach to decision making, relying largely on a small circle of trusted advisers and gatekeepers in the Chancellery in Berlin. This makes her come across as enigmatic at times, but on the whole it appears she has a superior leadership style, one which is not unduly influenced by the drama of the moment and self-importance, but by long-term considerations and careful reflection.

Not surprisingly Merkel's upbringing as a research scientist in the former communist East Germany (she was thirty-five when the Wall came down) has deeply influenced her. In the GDR it was unwise to stick out too much and flaunt one's personal abilities. She also always had to be aware of state informers listening in to private conversations. This not only led to her outrage when she found out recently about the NSA listening in to her private cell phone conversations, but from an early age it has implanted a certain natural carefulness and suspicion in her personality.

2. Merkel's and Foreign Minister Steinmeier's historical reference points are not the appeasement of Hitler, the Suez crisis, the Kosovo war or America's Iraq invasion. Their point of reference goes back to the era of détente and West German Ostpolitik of the 1970s pursued by Social Democratic chancellor Willy Brandt. The "policy of small steps" and "change through rapprochement," as Brandt's confidante Egon Bahr called it, did indeed lead to a wholesale change of West Germany's (and the West's) policy toward the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. More importantly, it profoundly changed Moscow's way of dealing with the West.

After some initial hesitation, Brandt's approach was supported by the Nixon administration's policy of superpower détente with both Moscow and Beijing. It led to trade and disarmament treaties, cultural and educational interchanges and enabled an increasing number of people from the Warsaw bloc countries to travel to the West. To cut a long story short, over time it undermined the ideological hold of the Soviet Union over its people. Ostpolitik and détente, thus, indirectly contributed significantly to German and European unification in 1989/90. It is no wonder that one of the authors of superpower détente, Henry Kissinger, in a recent essay, proposed a very measured—but by no means soft—approach to Putin's illegal action in Ukraine.

This is also Merkel's approach. She saw and personally felt the positive consequences of Brandt's Ostpolitik from the other side of the Iron Curtain. She knows that a blustering approach which threatens consequences in the form of sanctions and the refusal of visas is unlikely to impress Moscow. The imposition of yet more red lines in the sand and calls for the humiliating punishment of Putin will not resolve this serious crisis either. This approach never worked with the Soviet dictators during the Cold War, even though they did not have solid domestic support. It is unlikely to work with Putin either, who rightly or wrongly does enjoy the nationalistic favor of many of his subjects, both in the Russian Federation and in Crimea itself.

3. Merkel is one of the few Western politicians who attempts quite genuinely to see the world through the eyes of the Russian president. And putting yourself into the shoes of your opponent is a crucial but much neglected foreign-policy skill. Again, her upbringing in Soviet dominated East Germany and her deep immersion in Russian culture benefits her.

Merkel is a fluent Russian speaker. In fact as a schoolgirl she received one of the GDR's coveted prizes for being the best speaker of Russian in the entire country. The prize consisted of a trip to Moscow. Naturally, her linguistic abilities have given her a much greater understanding of Russian sensitivities than other Western politicians, who generally know little to nothing about Russian history and literature. Putin speaks fluent German, which he perfected during his stint as a KGB officer in Dresden in the 1980s. Merkel and Putin have repeatedly telephoned during the current crisis, though not much progress seems to have been made. Merkel allegedly even told President Obama that Putin had lost touch with reality and was living "in another world."