Ukraine crisis tests Germany’s diplomatic might

Berlin relishes increased role, avoids hard line

Students took part in a performance in Kiev Monday, a day after protesters ended an occupation of City Hall.
Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Students took part in a performance in Kiev Monday, a day after protesters ended an occupation of City Hall.

BERLIN — Germany is seeking to play good cop to America’s bad cop in Western efforts to mediate between the government and protesters in Ukraine in an early test of German attempts to bolster its foreign policy role.

The Germans have refused to back Washington’s calls for sanctions against Ukraine’s government to pressure it into accepting opposition demands for reforms.

At the same time, Germany has launched a flurry of diplomacy toward Kiev and Moscow, a key ally of President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, while trying to promote selected Ukrainian opposition leaders as legitimate negotiating partners.


On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister held closed-door talks with top Ukrainian opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, speaking with the two for about an hour.

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Merkel assured Yatsenyuk and Klitschko that Germany and the European Union would do everything possible to try to assure a ‘‘positive outcome’’ to the crisis in Ukraine.

‘‘We should not underestimate the role of Germany, especially not the role of the chancellor, one of the most influential political figures in the world,’’ Klitschko said through an interpreter. ‘‘The backing of Germany and the EU plays a big role in Ukraine.’’

In Kiev on Monday, the streets were mostly quiet, but some militant members of the opposition started reinforcing some of the barricades that were supposed to be removed after amnesty was granted for detained protesters.

Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the release of the jailed protesters and the handover of occupied buildings in Kiev on Sunday were signs that the government and opposition can find common ground, despite months of increasingly bloody confrontation.


Berlin’s diplomatic advance has put it at odds with some of its European Union partners, including Sweden and the Baltic nations, which have pressed for a harder line against the former Soviet republic, according to Stefan Meister, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

But it fits with the German government’s recent pledge for a more assertive role on the international stage.

For Germany, Ukraine is a good test case — a large European country undergoing a more difficult transition than other former Soviet states such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which joined the European Union years ago.

Germany believes it is in a better position than other Western countries to deal with Russia, which wields enormous influence in Ukraine.

‘‘German foreign policy is often quite reticent, but Berlin has taken a clear position on Ukraine,’’ said Meister.


Germany’s greater engagement in Ukraine began with the efforts to secure the release — or medical treatment abroad — for imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, he said.

Having misjudged Tymoshenko’s ability to bring about much-needed reform in the former Soviet republic, as well as her support among ordinary Ukrainians, Berlin also is keen to find out more about the two opposition leaders, said Susan Stewart, a senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

‘‘It’s important for the EU to get a clearer picture of these people because we may well have to deal with them as leaders in Ukraine in the future,’’ said Stewart.

While Ukraine is an important transit country for Russian gas supplies to the European Union, Germany’s overriding interest, and that of the European Union overall, is stability and reform in its eastern neighbor, while avoiding a diplomatic rift with Moscow.

In a speech to Parliament last year, Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, noted that ‘‘the shadows of the Cold War still exist and it is our task, not least the task of Germany, to contribute to the Cold War being over for everyone, including our eastern partners.’’