Vladimir Putin spent five years in the former communist German Democratic Republic in the 1980s as an intelligence officer for the Soviet KGB. He prides himself on his understanding of Germany.
Yet the Russian president badly miscalculated the mood and determination of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, over the current crisis in Ukraine. His experience was obviously out of date.
When the 28 EU member states agreed to impose tougher sanctions on Russia last month because of Moscow’s support for armed separatists in the Ukrainian civil war, the decision was greeted with shock in the Kremlin. Putin had expected the German chancellor to resist taking any action that would seriously affect German exporters.
He was wrong. The sanctions package was driven by Berlin. Central to German policy, led Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister, was determination to maintain a united European front.
'Putin is an old-style KGB operator. He sees everything as a zero-sum game. He keeps different options open and tries to divide the EU and the West through bilateral contacts and sectoral contacts with business,' says Andreas Schockenhoff, deputy chairman of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the German Bundestag.
'The chancellor spent a huge amount of time and energy to get a united European position and bring business on board.'
Putin is not the first global leader to misread Merkel. David Cameron, UK prime minister, did the same when he sought her backing to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg as the next EU commission president. But Putin’s miscalculation is potentially far more serious.
His actions in Ukraine, since the Russian annexation of Crimea in March, have alienated the one European leader capable of finding a diplomatic solution. He dug himself into a hole without an exit strategy.
Yet the signals from Berlin have been there for months. Ever since Putin’s return to power as president in 2012, Merkel has shown her unhappiness at the authoritarian and nationalist drift in the Kremlin. She was appalled by Russia’s seizure of Crimea, unilaterally altering an agreed international border.
She finally lost trust in Putin, according to senior officials, because she believed he lied to her repeatedly (they have had more than 30 telephone calls) about Russia’s involvement and its willingness to restrain the separatists. Trust matters a lot to the chancellor.
Merkel took the lead over EU sanctions reluctantly. Her instinct to seek a peaceful solution saw her pilloried in Kyiv, London and Washington as a Moscow sympathizer. But she was always clear that Russia must compromise or face consequences.
The chancellor’s tough line in the face Putin’s intransigence has not happened in isolation. Indeed, the Ukraine crisis accelerated a rethinking of German foreign policy that was already under way.
Hitherto, Germany has been the dominant EU partner on questions to do with the eurozone crisis – on the face of it, matters of economic and fiscal policy – but never on foreign policy. It has left those to traditional global actors – France and the UK.
Christoph Bertram, a veteran analyst of Germany’s foreign and security policy, sees the euro crisis and 'the extraordinary weakness of other European governments' (he is too polite to single out London and Paris) as having galvanized the debate about the need for a more assertive German role.
'They were not rushing into it,' he says. 'Reluctantly they found themselves in this position.' A country that always preferred to be a follower, not a leader, on foreign policy was suddenly forced 'to be on the deck and occasionally taking the wheel'.
Bertram has been asked by Steinmeier to help lead a review of German foreign policy. It follows a much-heralded speech by Joachim Gauck at the Munich security conference in January, when the German president called for the country to show greater responsibility, and a willingness to do more 'to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades'.
Both Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, and Ursula von der Leyen, defence minister and leading member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, lent their support to the president. The chancellor, however, kept quiet, as she often does. She knows a more assertive foreign policy is not popular among voters.
That remains true. A poll carried out by the Körber foundation in May showed that just 37 per cent of respondents think Germany should 'engage more' in international crises, while 60 per cent wanted to keep a low profile.
There is certainly no enthusiasm in Germany for 'putting boots on the ground'. On that score, Putin is right to think Berlin is not prepared to intervene militarily in Ukraine. But he is wrong to think that means doing nothing.
Putin may have misread Merkel because her instinct is to wait and see. She is a pragmatist who looks for solutions to problems, and eschews ideology. Although the expression embarrasses most German politicians, she knows there is such a thing as the 'national interest'.
On Ukraine that means taking a stand against the unilateral redrawing of agreed international borders, even if it means paying an economic price. It is about security as well as prosperity. It involves European solidarity, defending the rule of law and protecting human rights. It is not just about protecting export markets.
This article was originally published by the Financial Times
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