Ukraine Crisis Threatens to Derail German Ostpolitik

Stephan Wallace

Defense and Security Policy Analyst

Stephan Wallace is a defense and security policy analyst following political, military, and economic developments in Europe. He has worked more than 33 years on this area for the U.S. government, most recently for the U.S. Department of Defense.

The new government made improving relations with Russia one of its foreign policy priorities.  The coalition agreement devoted an entire page to this theme and put it immediately after the section stressing the importance of NATO and transatlantic relations. [1]  The government also replaced Kremlin critic Andreas Schockenhoff with the more Russia-friendly Gernot Erler as its Coordinator for Relations with Russia, Central Asia, and the EU’s Eastern Partnership countries. [2]  The coalition working group on foreign and security policy had already rejected attempts by Schockenhoff to insert tough language toward Russia in the coalition agreement along with language explicitly supporting pro-democracy movements in Russia. [3]

  • The coalition agreement contains the assertion that “security in and for Europe can only be achieved with Russia, not against it.” [4]  This phrase was often repeated by Foreign Minister Steinmeier during and after his term in the previous grand coalition government. [5]

Steinmeier made a two-day visit to Moscow on 13-14 February in an effort to put relations with Russia on a more positive track.  In an interview with the Russian daily Kommersant, Steinmeier said it was important to him at the beginning of his new term as Foreign Minister to offer “a trusting and cooperative relationship with Moscow.”  The centerpiece of his visit was an extensive series of discussions with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov addressing a full range of global issues such as the situation in Syria and nuclear talks with Iran, but focusing mainly on German-Russian relations and relations between Russia and the European Union. Steinmeier said he remained convinced that cooperation with Russia is indispensable to resolving the major conflicts threatening global stability, and that “we need each other” to make progress on these issues. [6]

At the joint press conference following their meetings, Lavrov said Moscow is ready to further develop relations in the strategic partnership format and believes the new coalition government in Germany has demonstrated the same intention.  He claimed the two countries have close positions on the majority of international issues and need to work more closely “to advance general European processes and regulate key foreign policy problems.” However, with respect to human rights and civil society issues, Lavrov suggested progress is possible only so long as one group of states does not attempt to impose its concept of universal values on others.  Lavrov also criticized the EU for trying to expand its sphere of influence into Ukraine at Russia’s expense and warned Steinmeier that the EU was playing a divisive geopolitical game that could damage Ukraine if not abandoned immediately. [7]

When the confrontation between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and anti-Yanukovych protesters in Kiev escalated into deadly violence in mid-February, Berlin responded to the worsening situation with a major diplomatic effort to defuse the crisis.  Foreign Minister Steinmeier traveled with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski to Kiev, where the trio mediated an agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders providing for a unity government, restoration of the 2004 constitution, and early presidential elections in 2014. [8]  Chancellor Merkel reportedly convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to send moderate Vladimir Lukin as his envoy to the talks.  Lukin initialed the proposed agreement, although he did not sign it. [9]

This brief opportunity to deescalate the crisis quickly unraveled when protesters in the streets of Kiev refused to accept the agreement and Yanukovych fled the country after losing the protection of his security forces.  Instead of the proposed unity government, an interim government was formed that included anti-Russian right-wing nationalists, some of whom were given senior positions in control of Ukraine’s security and defense sectors. [10] Moscow denounced the development as a coup, refused to accept the legitimacy of the new government, and sent military forces into Crimea, ostensibly to protect the region’s ethnic-Russian majority. Crimea’s regional parliament organized a referendum to break away from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation.

As the crisis worsened, the German government took a leading role in diplomatic efforts to deescalate the situation.  Chancellor Merkel made repeated calls to Russian President Putin, U.S. President Obama, and European leaders, while Foreign Minister Steinmeier engaged in a series of meetings with Russian officials in Brussels, Paris, Geneva, and Bern in an effort to find a solution. [11]  Simultaneously, Berlin began to make preparations with its EU partners for the phased implementation of political, financial, and economic sanctions against Russia. In an address to the Bundestag on 13 March, Chancellor Merkel said, “None of us wishes that it comes to such measures, but we are all prepared and committed in case it becomes unavoidable.” [12]

Although Berlin is under pressure, especially from allies in central and eastern Europe, to take a harder line toward Moscow and make it pay a high cost for its violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it is uncertain how far Berlin is prepared to go in enacting and sustaining sanctions that will impose a heavy cost on the German and European economies as well as on Russia. More than 6,200 German companies have a presence in Russia, and many exporters of heavy industrial and consumer goods rely on sales to Russia paid for by the revenues generated from Russia’s oil and gas exports to Europe.

  • According to a Politbarometer poll taken in mid-March by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, only 26 percent of Germans support economic sanctions against Russia.  Another 44 percent believe sanctions should be limited to political measures, and 25 percent believe the EU should stay out of the conflict entirely. [13]
  • A survey conducted by the German polling firm Infratest dimap in early March found little support among Germans for political efforts to isolate Russia.  Only 19 percent supported excluding Russia from the G8, and only 7 percent favored breaking off all political relations with Moscow. [14]

Germany’s response to the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated a close and effective working relationship between Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier. They have remained in constant contact throughout the crisis, and officials around the duo claim they are completely in accord about the course of action. [15]


 Stephan Wallace is a defense and security policy analyst following political, military, and economic developments in Europe. He has worked more than 33 years on this area for the U.S. government, most recently for the U.S. Department of Defense. He can be contacted by email at The views expressed are those of the author alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute (AGI).

[1] Benjamin Bidder and Oliver Bilger, “Moskau setzt auf einen Außenminister Steinmeier,” Spiegel On-line, 4 December 2013.

[2] “Richtungsentscheidung – Bundesregierung streitet über Russlandpolitik,” Spiegel On-line, 20 December 2013.

[3] Rolf Mützenich, “Außenpolitik mit sozialdemokratischer Handschrift!,” 25 November 2013;

[4] Deutschlands Zukunft gestalten – Koalitionsvertrag zwischen CDU, CSU und SPD, 18. Legislaturperiode, CDU, 27 November 2013.

[5] “Germany’s Steinmeier warns against isolating Russia,” Reuters, 31 August 2008; Frank-Walter Steinmeier,Speech at the Department of International Relations of the Urals State University in Yekaterinburg,” Auswärtiges Amt, 13 May 2008.

[6] Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “An einer gemeinsamen Zukunft mit Russland arbeiten,” Auswärtiges Amt –(German text of interview with Kommersant), 14 February 2014; “Ausführliche Gespräche in Moskau,” Auswärtiges Amt, 14 February 2014.

[7] Sergey Lavrov, “Speech by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, during the press conference summarising the results of the negotiations with the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Moscow, 14 February 2014,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 14 February 2014; Thomas Maron, “Steinmeier bleibt ganz cool,” Stuttgarter-Zeitung, 14 February 2014; “Lawrow greift EU wegen Konflikt in Ukraine an,” Spiegel On-Line, 14 February 2014; Matthew Bodner, “Lavrov Has Harsh Words for EU,” The Moscow Times, 17 February 2014.

[8] “Krisen-Diplomatie in der Ukraine,” Auswärtiges Amt, 21 February 2014; “Vereinbarung zur Lösung der Krise in der Ukraine unterzeichnet,” Auswärtiges Amt, 21 February 2014.

[9] Antje Sirleschtov, “Merkel/Steinmeier: Ein eingespieltes Team,” Der Tagesspiegel, 5 March 2014.

[10] Reinhard Veser, “Alte Minister und neue Helden,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 March 2014.

[11] Majid Sattar, “Strategische Mehrdeutigkeit,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 14 March 2014.

[12] Angela Merkel, “Regierungserklärung von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel,” Bundeskanleramt/Bundeskanlerin, 13 March 2014.

[13] Ruth Ciesinger, “Mehrheit der Deutschen will keine Sanktionen gegenüber Russland,” Der Tagesspiegel, 14 March 2014.

[14] Jörg Schönenbom, “Solidarität mit der Ukraine,” ARD-Deutschland Trend (results of poll conducted by Infratest dimap), 6 March 2014.

[15] Antje Sirleschtov, “Merkel/Steinmeier: Ein eingespieltes Team,” Der Tagesspiegel, 5 March 2014.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.