Ukraine: The Quiet Germany Factor

Stephen Bittner

Professor Stephen Bittner

2paragraphs:  The current Ukraine narrative sets up an East v. West battle pitting Russia against the US–and now features China as a wild card. Why isn’t Germany a bigger part of this story? Don’t the Germans exert powerful influence in the region–and aren’t they likely to be most acutely affected by certain outcomes?

Stephen Bittner: There is a false premise in the question, namely, that Germany is not playing a large role in the present Ukrainian crisis. It would be more accurate to say that Angela Merkel has counseled a different response than Barack Obama, and to a lesser degree, David Cameron. Whereas Obama lobbies, among other things, for the exclusion of Russia from the G8, Merkel thinks it is counterproductive to shut down this and other potential avenues of diplomacy. But there are obvious limits to Merkel’s conciliatory approach. For instance, the most damning words about Vladimir Putin last week came from Merkel, who described (in what was surely an intentional leak) a Russian leader who has lost touch with reality. Visions of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” come to mind.

Germany’s preference for diplomacy and consensus reflects its own history. This is all the more true because the present controversy concerns Ukraine, which was ruled by the Reichskommissariat Ukraine between 1941 and 1944, and because Vladimir Putin has couched the anti-Yanukovych opposition as neo-fascist in orientation. While the latter is certainly an embellishment, it plays upon modern Germany’s fears about how it is perceived in Eastern Europe. If Putin can successfully make the case that the Ukrainian parties Svoboda and Right Sector are modern-day manifestations of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist who sometimes collaborated with German occupation forces in WWII, direct German involvement becomes more difficult. The past weighs heavily on modern Germany’s foreign policy.

Stephen V. Bittner is Professor of History at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of The Many Lives of Khrushchev’s Thaw.