Merkel Lashes Out Against Russia In Post G-20 Remarks

Vladimir Putin's latest actions seems to have exhausted Germany's patience.

Angela Merkel Vladimir Putin

Recent events in Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent behavior at the G-20 Summit in Australia, seem to have prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to speak out in some of her harshest language yet:

LONDON — Tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats. Russian naval ships showing up as world leaders meet in Australia. Chancellor Angela Merkel ofGermany telling Russia sternly to play by 21st-century rules — and President Vladimir V. Putin practically spitting fury over Western reaction to his annexation of Crimea.

As relations between Russia and the West increasingly resemble the bygone days of the Cold War, Ms. Merkel abandoned her traditionally cautious tone on Monday, castigating Russia for its actions in Ukraine, for intimidating sovereign states in Eastern Europe and for threatening to spread conflict more broadly across Europe.

“The Ukraine crisis is most likely not just a regional problem,” Ms. Merkel said in a speech at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia. “In this case, we see it affects us all.”

“Who would’ve thought,” she said, “that 25 years after the fall of the wall, after the end of the Cold War, after the end of the division of Europe and the end of the world being divided in two, something like that can happen right at heart of Europe?”

Ms. Merkel’s speech followed a meeting of the Group of 20 leaders in Brisbane, Australia, where the souring relations were on full display as Western leaders pressed Mr. Putin on Russia’s Crimea policy and support for Ukrainian separatists — and the Russian leader slipped out early, insisting he had business to attend to back home.

President Obama said his meeting with Russia’s leader at the summit meeting was “businesslike and blunt.” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who in the days leading up to Brisbane had likened Mr. Putin’s actions to those of Nazi Germany, told the Russian president that he was at a fork in the road over Ukraine. Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada told Mr. Putin, “Well, I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: ‘You need to get out of Ukraine.’ ”

As the meeting wound up, Russia expelled multiple diplomats afterGermany, Poland and Lithuania apparently took similar actions against Russian envoys accused of spying. Sweden, which for days recently was transfixed by the appearance off its coast of what appeared to be a Russian submarine, has also said Russia increased its spying this year.

ut the real surprise was the tone taken by Ms. Merkel in her speech after the summit meeting. In recent weeks, the chancellor has made it clear she sees that “Putin is testing us,” as she told parliamentary deputies. In a discussion at the university, she developed that thought further, asking whether Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military and political interference in eastern Ukraine meant a return to the times when Moscow decided the fate of its near neighbors.

Ms. Merkel seemed to acknowledge that the West should consider Russian sensitivities to Ukraine — with long, close ties to Russia — joining NATO. But she said that was not the case with Ukraine drawing closer to theEuropean Union, which sparked the long-running unrest and conflict with Russia.

In such a case, “it cannot be that you forbid a country to act, or that it cannot itself decide freely,” she said. “Otherwise, we have to say: ‘We’re so weak, pay attention, people, we can’t take any more members — we’ll just ask in Moscow whether it’s possible.’ That was how it was for 40 years, or longer, and I really was not wanting to go back there.”

“And it is not just a case of Ukraine,” Ms. Merkel continued. “It concerns Moldova, it concerns Georgia. If things go on like this, one can ask: Should we ask about Serbia? Should we ask about the western Balkans? That is certainly incompatible with our values.”

While the real test, as always, is what action Merkel is willing to take going forward when it comes to sanctions and other measures aimed at Russia and its actions in Ukraine. To date, Germany has been a somewhat reluctent partner when it comes to sanctions against Russia’s business, banking, and energy sector. In no small part, of course, this is due to the fact that there are strong ties between the German and Russian business communities and that Germany’s businesses and banks would likely suffer to at least some degree if stronger sanctions were imposed, or if the Russians decided to impose retaliatory sanctions. Germany would also be impacted significantly if the Russians decided to use its energy supplies, which are largely sold to eastern and western Europe, as a something of a weapon in what is quickly becoming a new Cold War. That last possibility, though, seems unlikely given that those energy sales are Russia’s primary source of revenue and cutting them off would suck a huge amount of revenue out of the Russian economy, which would have consequences far beyond the Russian economy and impact the Russian war machine directly. Given all of this, the prospect of Germany becoming a more aggressive backer of sanctions and other actions against Russia in relation to its ongoing intervention in Ukraine, and threats to other part of Eastern Europe is potentially a big problem for Putin going forward.

Time’s Simon Shuster says that Merkel’s comments and harsher tone indicate that Putin’s relationship with the West have reached yet another low point, and that they are another indication among many that the Russian leader may have miscalculated when it comes to his country’s relationship with Germany:

The letdown seemed all the more painful considering his recent attempt to reach out to the German public. A few days before the G20 summit began, Putin decided to give a rare one-on-oneinterview to the national German television network ARD, whose correspondent grilled him on Russia’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin tried to sound conciliatory. “Of course we expect the situation to change for the better,” he said. “Of course we expect the Ukrainian crisis to end. Of course we want to have normal relations with our partners, including in the United States and Europe.”

Particularly for Germany, he argued, it is important to work things out with Russia, because their economies are so closely intertwined. Trade with Russia accounts for as many as 300,000 German jobs, Putin said, and by going along with the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia, Berlin risks hurting its own economic growth. “Sooner or later,” he said, “it will begin to affect you as much as us.”

The warning, more plaintive than defiant in its tone, was aimed as much at the political elites in Germany as its powerful business interests, which rely on Russia for natural resources and a huge consumer market. Last year the trade between the two countries was worth more than $100 billion, compared to less than $40 billion between the U.S. and Russia. To fuel its energy-intensive industrial base, Germany also gets a third of its oil and gas from Russia, and 14% of everything that Russia imports is made in Germany.

But Putin, for all his appeals to German pragmatism, was wrong to hope that Russia’s isolation could boomerang back on the German economy, or on Merkel’s popularity. Even as the sanctions war choked off trade between Russia and the West, Germany’s total exports reached an all-time high in September. At the same time, Russia’s reputation among the German public has been scraping bottom. In a nationwide survey conducted in August, a German pollster reportedly found that 82% of Germans do not believe that Russia can be trusted, while 70% called for tougher sanctions against the Russian economy.

“So it seems clear that Putin has miscalculated,” says Joerg Forbrig, an expert on Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Certainly when it comes to Germany.”

The big question, of course, is whether the new, stronger rhetoric from Merkel and other western leaders leads to stronger action against Russia in the future. To some extent, of course, that depends on what Russia does going forward. While it seemed as though things were calming down in Ukraine after the summer recent events, including apparent troop and equipment movements across the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine, along with a renewal of the violence that marked the area before the cease fire. Some have even speculated that Russia, or at least the pro-Russian separatists in the east may be planning a winter offensive that would bring renewed major fighting to the region during the coldest, harshest part of the year. Obviously, a military response from the west in this type of situation is out of the question for a wide variety of practical and political reasons, but Merket’s comments suggest that further escalation from Putin would lead to further efforts from Europe to continue Russia’s isolation from the West and the further end of the ties that had developed between Russia and the West in general, and Russia and Germany in particular, in the two decades or so since the Cold War came to an end. While that’s likely to have some economic impact in the West, it’s likely to hurt the Russian economy far more. The question is whether that will lead to any changes in Russian policy. So far at least, sanctions haven’t had any impact at all, though, which makes it all the more difficult to figure out what, if anything, the West can do to counter Putin’s current moves other than to respond in ways, such as enhancing NATO preparedness, especially among the members who were once part of the Warsaw Pact, that seem guaranteed to return us to the tense, albeit largely stable, days of the Cold War.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    That last possibility, though, seems unlikely given that those energy sales are Russia’s primary source of revenue and cutting them off would suck a huge amount of revenue out of the Russian economy, which would have consequences far beyond the Russian economy and impact the Russian war machine directly.

    Russia just inked another $400 billion energy deal with China.

    And really, Doug. “War machine”?

  2. @Ben Wolf:

    Yes the Chinese are certainly a good, and energy thirsty, alternative customer for Russia. But I’m not sure they can fully replace Europe. Also, the added factor of falling oil prices could have an interesting impact on the Russian economy.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: We have to take into account that China’s energy position isn’t static. Xi’s government is committed to ending the country’s dependency on coal as pollution has become a high priority issue. The close proximity of siberian natural gas reserves is a huge potential benefit for China, giving it every reason to make things sweet enough that Russia won’t consider buckling to western pressure. Net effect of sanctions is likely to be closer integration between the two.

  4. Ben Wolf says:

    Comment in spam, for some reason.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I was just about to point out that Russia’s economy is in trouble because of the falling oil prices. Prices which I don’t see reversing anytime soon. (but my ignorance on that subject is legend) I wonder how many shocks can they sustain themselves through?

  6. humanoid.panda says:

    @Ben Wolf: The problem with all those-Russo Chinese deals is that
    a) They are structured in a way that is far less profitable to Russia than sales to the West via already existing infrastructure and the infrastructure required to build them might be unprofitable to build if energy prices keep on slumping (and most experts think they will).
    b) Given Russia’s difficulty to acces Western capital, those deals depend on Chinese capital, and quite likely, technology. That puts Russia in a position of dependence on China that no Russian strategist will tolerate for long. As much as the Russian security structures hate the West, they are frigging terrified of China..

  7. Jack says:

    Merkel is more of a man than Obama, but we all knew that.

  8. stonetools says:

    Maybe it’s time to rebuild that Wehrmacht….

  9. humanoid.panda says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Russia has huge cash reserves, and a balanced budget (more or less), so it could definitely sustain 2-3 years of low oil prices. However, Russia’s economy is extremely dependent on imports, and the erosion of the ruble is just killing the middle class there, so most people think at some point the Russian Central Bank will be forced to start selling dollars indiscriminately. That, in turn, will deplete Russia’s cash reserves, and that can’t be good in an era of falling oil prices.
    That is quite a bind, but at least in the short run, I doubt that it will have major effects on the regime: the last 15 years were the best that country enjoyed perhaps ever, and that, and the foreign threat the state-ran media their hypes, built a solid foundation of support for Putin.

  10. humanoid.panda says:

    @Jack: Given you psycho-sexual issues, I suspect that you might be nearly as ignorant about masculinity as you are about the geopolitics of Eurasia.

    Seriously, anyone who had followed the Russo-Western clash of the last year knows that Merkel Putin’s main “appeaser” and Germany had seriously considered not going along with any sanctions at all. You deciding she was the “man” who is willing to stand up to Putin unlike Obama the appeasing “female” is a great proof of the wisdom of an ancient Hebrew saying “a silent fool has a chance to be considered wise.”

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Really is time to let go of the notion that Putin is some wily opponent working through some grand strategy. His grand strategy so far has degraded his currency, hurt his economy, caused his western neighbors to start re-arming, and now, Ukraine is cutting off all governmental and banking services to Donbas, meaning that Putin can also start paying the pensions and welfare of all his new subjects.

    This is blundering, pure and simple. Russia is growing weaker and poorer and more dependent on China, while Europe continues to reduce its dependence on Russia. A stupid, clumsy KGB agent.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @humanoid.panda: Thanx. I have heard reports of western goods disappearing from shelves, which hasn’t made any one happy, but that most Russians are willing to tolerate it in the interests of patriotism.

  13. humanoid.panda says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: According to my friends who do research in Moscow, those reports are exaggerated: most of the stuff people really want is reimported through Belarus, or smuggled, or is manufactured locally under a foreign brand name. Prices are climbing though, and travel abroad, something many Russians live for, is becoming a luxury fast.
    Also climbing fast: xenophobia (a friend of mine received multiple death and rape threat when speaking English in a rather swanky coffeshop in Moscow..)

  14. stonetools says:

    Dunno what can be done really, except to move more troops into bases in Poland and the Baltics (to signal “resolve”) and to expand sanctions. Longer term, the Euopeans need to beef up their military forces (and therefore military spending).
    The dirty little secret, here, is that NATO won’t intervene militarily to stop a Russian invasion of Ukraine. I don’t think that has changed, despite the tougher rhetoric.

  15. Jack says:

    Given Obama’s overwhelming willingness to bend over whenever Putin enters a room, Merkel is definitely more manly than Obama. But you keep trying to prop up the princess in chief.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Jack: I don’t think you understood @humanoid.panda:’s comment.

  17. humanoid.panda says:

    @Jack: @gVOR08: In his defense he can’t seem to shake sexualized images of Obama from his mind. A terrible affliction that is.

  18. Tillman says:

    In the middle of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression, U.S. urges allies (mostly Germany) to stimulate economies more. Europe doesn’t to the extent we do, and now they’re looking at double-dip recession. Russia annexes Crimea, U.S. urges allies (mostly Germany again) to sanction Russia heavily to discourage further upheaval. Europe doesn’t, goes with “measured and appropriate response” instead, and here we are a year later.

    They call it German pragmatism, but I’m starting to think it’s closer to stubbornness myself. I get that the Bush years may have left the U.S. with less international clout, but come on.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Jack:

    Supporting evidence? Or are you just repeating whatever you heard on Hannity? Assertions are not evidence.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    By the way, on the topic of Mr. Obama and foreign policy, we have this just in from Kobani. Remember when ISIS was trumpeting their victories in Kobani and urging wanna-be jihadis to join them for the fun? This is from a jihadi inside Kobani:

    “Brothers and sisters, I will try to be brief, for you this will be just a text, but for us they are fully experienced feelings, you read this on the screen, and we are going through this in real life, you get tired after 10 minutes of praying…but we do not rest, you’re all comfortable in a soft bed, and we are anxious under a rain of missiles.

    “You will not understand the feeling when the sky is torn up from drones, and the earth is bursting from what is falling on it.

    “You do not understand the feeling when you lie, hoping to sleep an hour before your next turn guarding the front, and there are bombs falling and fragments of the ceiling drop on you, when you do not know which of the walls will fall on you in the next few minutes, or even worse, the roof.

    “When brothers are killed in front of you, yes, yes, we have seen all that in the movies, but few have experienced it, when you know there is no turning back, that hell is behind you and ahead of you are trials.”

    ISIS is getting its ass kicked by Kurdish women and men, and by the USAF. In a matter of a few months Mr. Obama has destroyed the myth of the 10-foot-tall ISIS. They are contained, they are being degraded. Total US combat deaths to date? Zero.

  21. sam says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Dude, is that you in the top picture of the sidebar of the link you provided (under the header, Latest Blog Posts)?

  22. michael reynolds says:

    @sam:
    That’s my day job, running RFE for Iran.

  23. John425 says:

    @Jack: Well, being an unabashed heterosexual, I side with Jack and add that Margaret Thatcher was more manly in politics that President Obama. I noted elsewhere that I believe that in foreign policy, Obama is a pussy. And…just to clarify–domestically, Obama does resemble Putin.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @John425:
    Maybe you can supply the supporting evidence that Jack has not.

  25. John425 says:

    @michael reynolds: No, I am not licensed to do gynecological exams. Ask Cliff Clavin. He seems to have an interest in urological things.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @John425:

    Thank you for that frank admission that you have precisely zero evidence to support your strongly-held opinion. Future statements by you will inevitably be judged accordingly.

  27. John425 says:

    @michael reynolds: Why does a blatant political hack like you need evidence? You regurgitate your robotic prattle almost on cue from your elitist commissars. I disregarded your comments months ago. America’s foreign policy is a shamble, just bother to read up on world events- and Obama’s strong arm Executive Order ploys certainly are reminiscent of Putin’s beloved USSR.

  28. michael reynolds says:

    @John425:

    That’s false. I provide evidence on request – and often when it’s not requested. Every single thing I believe, I can support with evidence and argument. Every single thing.

    This is why you and Jack and Jenos and the various Jenos sock puppets get nowhere around here. You never, ever, have any sort of evidence or rational argument to make.

  29. Grewgills says:

    @John425:

    Why does a blatant political hack like you need evidence? You regurgitate your robotic prattle almost on cue

    and now my irony meter lies melted and smoking on the floor