February 21, 2016

The Role of Germany in the Formation of the EU's Common Position Regarding the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

Sydoruk Tetiana — Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies of the National University “Ostroh Academy”, Rivne.
T. Sydoruk is engaged in scientific research in the field of integration processes in modern Europe, including in Ukraine and other countries; the theory of international relations and the history of diplomacy. Has a lot of scientific works on these issues.


The article analyzes the role of the Federal Republic of Germany in the EU association for the development of a common policy in relation to the sides of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. It is proved that Berlin is the conductor of the EU policies, including diplomatic and economic pressure on Moscow and financial support to Ukraine. Effect of Germany has played a key role in the introduction of effective EU sanctions against Russia, the pipeline failure of the project “South Stream-2”, a stop/slow convergence skeptical towards the EU Member States sanctions on Russia, “dragging” of France from the group of skeptics (in question sanctions) in the opposite camp and indirect influence through Paris on the other southern EU Member States. At the same time, the German position is that the crisis does not lie in the elimination of the military plane, and because Berlin and Brussels are very reluctant to respond to the military aspects of the crisis. It is also shown that the current position of Germany in respect of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict revealed a significant modification of its eastern policy. Russian annexation of the Crimea and the war in the East of Ukraine (in the Donbas) was the cause of manifestation of greater realism in the policy of Germany in relation to Russia, and it gives reason to believe that soon Ostpolitik Berlin will become more realistic and balanced in the context of relations with Russia, on the one hand, and the countries of the EU program “Eastern partnership” — on the other.


The relevance of the subject of the article was predetermined by the fact that in the circumstances of the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict that began in 2014, Germany initiated uniting of the EU and the West in general to implement a common policy towards the conflict parties, in particular the sanctions against Russia and support to Ukraine.

However, as a result of the debate on the sanctions that continues in the EU, the question arises: how long can Germany stick to its vision of settlement of the conflict, and how long will the EU Member States skeptical about the sanctions be willing to endure. Other questions — how do Germany's goals meet Ukrainian interests, and in which direction can Germany and the European Union's eastern policy be transformed under the influence of the conflict in Ukraine. The study of these problems is the objective of this article. German activity during the crisis in the East of Ukraine and its role in shaping the EU's sanctions policy towards the Russian Federation have been the subject to dispute for a number of Ukrainian and foreign authors. But as the conflict in Ukraine continues, and the positions of the European Union on it undergo certain modification, the analysis of Berlin's efforts to maintain the EU's joint position regarding the conflict is still relevant.

The Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian war, unfortunately, did not initiate the process of forming a broad consensus in the united Europe on the events and consequences of these processes. On this occasion, the American realist R. Kagan points out that “...even Europeans of the 21st century, despite all the advantages of their union, are not able to unite against the predator in their environment and like in the past, are ready to throw under the bus the weakest to save their own (financial) skins”. In our opinion, such a verdict is exaggerated and perhaps premature. After all, although there are some doubts, and some countries of the EU do not approve of, for example, strengthening of economic sanctions and other restrictive measures towards Russia, but the essence is the ultimate: so far not a single EU member country has dared to openly veto the EU's joint actions or position on these issues. June 22, 2015 without discussion at the EU Council on Foreign Affairs, sanctions against Russia were automatically continued until January 31, 2016. The EU countries hold a common position of non-perception of Russia's actions in Ukraine and imposition of sanctions against Russia by consensus of all the 28 member countries is considered to be a significant achievement.

However, we must agree with the Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House G. Sherr, that Russia's policy towards Ukraine is largely predetermined by confidence that a lack of resources and the basic national interests of the leading European states will outweigh and allow Russia to implement its interests in the post-Soviet space. However, the Kremlin's views were wrong. “We cannot behave as if we are merely a community of economic interests, because we are a political union and should do everything possible to ensure peace on the continent,” pointed out the German Minister of Economy and Energy, socialist Sigmar Gabriel. So far, such statements do not seem to ring hollow.

Consensus-building by the 28 EU Member States is a complicated process. When discussing the extension of sanctions against Russia, not to mention the introduction of new restrictive measures, there remain serious differences and ongoing debates on this issue. Among the EU countries, on the one hand, there are “hawks” calling to firmly stand up to Russia, increasing the economic sanctions and providing more active support to Ukraine. Some even allow the possibility of defence weapons supplies to Ukraine. From the very beginning, such a firm line was chosen by Poland, the Baltic States, perhaps to a lesser extent, by Romania. Each of these countries has its own internal reasons, related primarily to the recent historical events. To this group also tend the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries.

At the same time, some EU countries have chosen an ambiguous position on Ukraine and Russia in the current war. They are conventionally called “Russia's understanders” (“those who understand Russia”). France, Southern Member States of the EU (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, South-East Europe) are in no hurry to confront Russia over Ukraine. It is possible that some EU countries in the future could veto new sanctions against Russia or block their extension. Such intentions have repeatedly been voiced in government circles in Italy, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Greece and Hungary.

Some warnings at different points were put forward by representatives of authorities of the Czech Republic, Austria and France.

Despite the fact that the position of Poland and Baltic countries which long ago pointed out to the threat from Russia (in 2009 a group of experts from Central Europe warned in an open letter to the Obama Administration, published in “Gazeta Wyborcza”, that Russia was returning to the 19th century's policy with the tactics and methods of the 21st century), for some time was a minority position, and these countries were called alarmists, with the increase in Russia's aggressive behavior and the growing intensity of the fighting in the East of Ukraine, it gradually became the position of the majority.

The most prominent role in this process went to Germany; in particular, its Chancellor Angela Merkel has made great efforts to align the EU institutions' common positions in relation to Russia's actions in Ukraine, and considers sanctions against Russia as “necessary and inevitable”. A. Merkel's clear and unambiguous position was presented in November 2014 after the Brisbane G20 summit: “We cannot afford to let win the old ideas of spheres of influence with disdain to international law. [We will oppose such policy], no matter how long it may continue, no matter how difficult it may be and no matter how many setbacks it may bring”. According to G. Sherr, with her resolute, methodical and consistent approach, Angela Merkel during the past year has been the epitome of Western firmness and solidarity. Moreover, Germany has taken the initiative and led the process of removal of the international crisis in Ukraine. And she managed to unite the EU for the implementation of the common policy, in particular, of diplomatic and economic pressure on Moscow, despite the resistance of some EU countries.

As the analyst of the Carnegie Foundation W. Speck points out, from her leader's position during the Euro-zone crisis, which forced the Federal Republic of Germany, as a big country with a strong economy, to be at the forefront, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in the lead on the issue of the conflict with Russia. Germany's influence has played an extraordinary role not only in the process of entering effective EU sanctions against Russia in March 2014 and their extension in July and September 2014, but also in the failure of the “South Stream” project pipeline, termination of Hungary and Russia's rapprochement, moving France in the issue of sanctions from the group of skeptics into the opposite camp and indirect influence through Paris on other southern member states.

An alternative candidate for a leading position in Europe's response to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could be Brussels in the face of the EU institutions. However, despite some strengthening of the Common foreign and security policy of the EU following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, in particular, the creation of the European External Action Service, the expansion of powers of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU's authority on the most important foreign policy issues remained in the hands of the Member States and the High Representative today plays a role, most likely, not of the leader, but of a coordinator for foreign policy.

The absence of another centre of power was one of the reasons (along with Germany's important geopolitical interests in the East), why Berlin has taken a leading role in the conduct of a common European policy at the time of the crisis in Ukraine and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. In turn, the basis of Germany's strong position within the EU is its economic strength, which provides significant leverage in internal negotiations among member countries. Most of the countries from the group of Russia's understanders are highly dependent on the EU and Germany in matters of economic well-being, and they need Brussels and Berlin to address other issues. Therefore, they agree to the common principles of the EU's policy on the non-perception of Russia's actions in Ukraine.

Berlin's efforts to form the West's common position in relation to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict consist of two key components: coordination of the West's actions with the United States and ensuring the support to its vision of the solutions to the conflict. In general, Germany's policy, as well as the EU's common approach to the conflict, has three components: seeking formats of negotiations for the settlement of certain aspects of the conflict through diplomacy, sanctions against Russia and financial support for Ukraine.

The main goal of policy of Germany, the EU and the West in general in relation to Ukraine is to move the conflict from military confrontation into diplomatic and economic spheres. Berlin has worked hard to make Russia and Ukraine sit down at the negotiating table, which resulted in signing of two Minsk Agreements. The latest agreement, known as the Minsk-2, is the basis for the West's efforts to minimise the conflict in the Eastern Ukraine, and that is why all the West's efforts till the end of 2015 were focused on implementation of this Agreement.

Another component of the West's strategy, supported by Berlin, is using sanctions. The first phase of the EU's restrictive measures was put in force after the Russia's annexation of the Crimea in March 2014, the second and third — in July and September 2014 respectively. Germany strongly supports sanctions against Russia to put pressure on Moscow in order to stop hostilities in the East of Ukraine. “We are ready, if necessary, to introduce new sanctions against Russia, but we do not want to.” said Angela Merkel in early June 2015 after the G7 summit. At the same time, Berlin actively creates conditions under which sanctions could be lifted in the future. We are talking about Germany's efforts in the bilateral format with France for a political settlement, support to the work of the contact group established under the auspices of the OSCE, harmonizing the actions of the united Europe with the United States, and so on. Angela Merkel realizes that to lift the sanctions against Russia (in favour of which disgruntled EU Member States speak more and more loudly), a progress in resolving the conflict has to be achieved first. It is unknown for how long will endure the skeptical about sanctions Member States. In this aspect, Germany's goals do not always meet Ukraine's interests: the former's policy is aimed at a cease-fire and freezing of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine for the sake of a speedy resolution of “the Ukrainian crisis”.

Great importance is given to the third element of the EU's strategy in the conflict — support to Ukraine. However, according to F. Burkgardt, a scientist from the Munich Research Center Geschwister-Scholl-Institut, still out of sight is a far-sighted policy over Ukraine of the EU in general and of Germany — in particular. Even if sanctions do achieve the goal, and Russia's position changes in the direction of de-escalation, the difficult situation in the East of Ukraine will remain the same. Ukraine will need significant support to overcome its economic troubles. And the focus on revival of economically strong Ukraine could become part of the new EU and Germany's eastern policy. This would create new opportunities for German business in Eastern Europe and would turn Ukraine into a reliable eastern outpost of the Old World.

Paying tribute to Berlin as a conductor of the policy of the West, including diplomatic and economic pressure on Moscow and financial support to Ukraine, at the same time it should be noted that Berlin is very reluctant to respond to the military aspects of the crisis. Germany's position is that the end of the crisis is not in a military plane, and there is only a diplomatic way to resolve it. This manifests itself in particular in Germany's ​​resistance to the idea of possible permanent deployment of NATO troops in Poland, the Baltic States and Romania, which was actively discussed on the eve of the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014. In early July, Merkel publicly dismissed the idea, arguing that the continued deployment of NATO forces on the territory of the eastern Member States would violate the conditions of the 1997 Founding Act between Russia and NATO. But Berlin did support an alternative proposal to create a new NATO Response Force, and that decision was taken at the summit.

Like in the discussion about the permanent stationing of NATO troops in Central Europe, Angela Merkel February 2 this year publicly issued a statement against supplying Ukraine with weapons. Berlin in every way impedes providing Ukraine with weapon with lethal effect. So, the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of Germany's foreign policy: the skillful use of diplomatic means and economic power, and the lack of a military component in Germany's influence in the international arena.

Germany's current position over the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has also demonstrated a significant modification of its eastern policy. During Chancellery of Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel, Germany's Eastern policy accents were focused primarily on Russia — a close relationship with it has a long historical tradition, and now the two sides are each other's important partners, first of all in the economic sphere. According to the Federal Service of State Statistics of the RF, in 2013, bilateral trade turnover between the countries amounted to 74.943 billion US dollars, in 2014 — 70 billion US dollars. In Russia, according to the Russian-German Chamber of Commerce, are working approximately six thousand German companies. In 2014, in Germany's imports, Russian gas amounted to 36 %, Russian crude oil — 30 %, Russian coal — 23 %. Germany is the biggest buyer of Russian natural gas in Europe.

Russia's annexation of the Crimea and the war in the East of Ukraine have resulted in the emergence of more realism in German policy toward Russia. This gives reason to believe that in the nearest future the paradigm of Germany's Eastern policy may change, in particular its attitude to Russia and countries of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus covered by the Eastern Partnership Program.

Today among German politicians, researchers, activists and journalists dealing with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict from scientific, social or journalistic positions, there is discussion concerning the interpretation and estimating the events in Ukraine. December 5, 2014 60 prominent representatives of German political, business and cultural circles published in newspapers Die Zeit and Der Tagesspiegel and later on the Russian site of inoSMI.Ru an appeal “New War in Europe? Not in Our Name!” known as the “Call of 60 German Celebrities”. In it, they asked Berlin to continue its partnership with Moscow. A week later, in mid-December 2014, 142 German expert on Eastern Europe published in Zeit Online newspapers (Hamburg), Der Tagesspiegel, Die Welt, Berliner Zeitung (Berlin) and Der Standard (Vienna) an appeal-response, by which they called to base Germany's policy on Russia on reality and not on illusions. Stating that “... in this war there is a definite aggressor and the victim is clearly identified,” the signatories said that “... we Germans cannot close our eyes again, when it comes to the sovereignty of one of the former Soviet republics, to the survival of the Ukrainian state,” “...it is in our own interests to oppose the export of the Kremlin's anti-liberal ideas to the EU.”


This discussion, formal statements of many members of the German political elite and the position of Germany in the European Union on Russian-Ukrainian war show that many representatives of the German political elite, in particular, Social Democrats, as well as the business community have changed their attitude to Russia, and, consequently, there is every chance that in the nearest future Germany's eastern policy will be more realistic and more balanced in the context of relations with Russia, on the one hand, and the countries of the Eastern Partnership — on the other. However, it is difficult for Berlin (as well as for Paris or Rome) to give up its long-term policy based on the hope that the economic cooperation with Russia will eventually transform it politically (Nonsense!). A more sober and realistic views on Russia are still in the making. And it is the crisis in Ukraine that has helped Germany to understand that Germany and Russia differ too much in their views of the world.

Germany's main partner in the negotiations with Russia is France. Angela Merkel coordinates her work with French President Francois Hollande, involving him in the issues related to the Russian-Ukrainian war (the “Norman format”). Although France's foreign policy interests are still focused on the South (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Africa south of the Sahara, the Middle East), Paris, trying to strengthen its positions in Europe, in recent years, has been actively participating in the formation of the EU's Eastern policy. In general, we can speak about two informal units within the European Union in terms of the geography of the major political and economic interests of individual member states. On the one hand, it is the “Eastern bloc”, the central participant of which is Germany, and which expects to shift the balance of the Union center further to the East, on the other hand — the “Southern Bloc” led by France. Acting jointly with the French in the “Norman format”, Germans get more chances for the results of the negotiations to be positively perceived by other southern Member States, especially by Italy and Spain. Paris' support is to Berlin a key to reaching agreement within the EU on common positions and actions: as soon as these two capitals have agreed among themselves, it is quite easy for them to convince the other 26. Besides, as a result of the German-French compromise, a compromise will be found between the two opposing camps in the EU.

It is a pity that the “negotiating team” on the part of the EU does not include Poland. The format of the Weimar Triangle, which at one time worked well to promote European integration in Poland, could be useful in resolving certain aspects of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. These capabilities have been demonstrated during the “Ukrainian crisis” when the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France and Poland acted as intermediaries in Yanukovych's negotiations with Maidan February 20, 2014. Today, there are favorable conditions for a much deeper involvement of Poland in the case of forming the EU's Eastern policy — I mean the presidency of the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the European Council and his close interaction with A. Merkel (whose grandfather was a Pole).

So, the different approaches of the EU Member States to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have resulted in the formation of the supported by the Federal Republic of Germany double strategy of the European Union: on the one hand — its sanctions against Russia and support to Ukraine, and on the other — seeking the format of negotiations to resolve the conflict by diplomatic means. However, after the already numerous agreements with Russia in various formats (“Geneva”, “Normandy”), and first of all, Minsk-1 and Minsk-2, the RF does not fulfill them and continues its aggressive actions against Ukraine, a diplomatic way to bring Russia back into the more “cooperative” state is quite problematic.

Consequently, the European Union's sanctions against Russia are likely to continue. And although some of the EU countries would gladly lift them at the Kremlin's smallest movement towards resolving the conflict, or even without any conditions, it is unlikely that their position will really hinder the implementation of joint EU's actions, at least as long as the sanctions regime is supported by Berlin.