“[Angela Merkel] will not like to have been called Ribbentrop, especially given that she has a record of confronting Putin about issues of human rights long before the world woke up to his darker side.”
During the last two days, Angela Merkel has found a new moniker in Ukraine. The German chancellor who has already collected such nicknames as Angie and Mutti is now better known as Frau von Ribbentrop. More than 40,000 Ukrainians wrote on her Facebook page, referencing her recent appeal, issued together with Putin, to hold direct talks with the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and to include as one of the negotiators the controversial Victor Medvedchuk. She also came under fire for sitting in the same row as Putin and for pictures that showed them in friendly conversation. Most of the postings included the phrase ‘Danke frau von Ribbentrop’ – quite characteristic in its misspelling of ‘Frau.’ Such was the ire in the last few days that one wonders if Germany was fighting in the Donbass or if indeed a new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been signed. As has been pointed out by level-headed observers, three-sided negotiations had already been announced as official policy by the head of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry. Mediators are rarely the result of preference but of acceptability. Anyone familiar with diplomatic protocol knows that heads of state have little choice where to sit, whether at a dinner or a football match. All of the pictures of Putin with Merkel circulating on the net and in social media – with the exception of the grim-faced one from Rio – were taken long before the Ukraine conflict began. So how to explain this sudden heap of disdain? And who is served by it?
Not Ukraine. That is very obvious. For better or worse Germany and the EU are still Ukraine’s best hope for survival. Ukraine needs and will need massive financial backing to repair the damage of war and create a state that is attractive to its citizens in East and West. Campaigns such as the ‘Frau von Ribbentrop’ flashmob are likely to have little impact on German foreign policy. Abuse on Facebook is nothing compared to the powerful interests of German business and the sharp condemnation in the German left of Germany’s support for Ukraine. It will, however, leave a sour taste. Germans are very sensitive when it comes to vocabulary associated with the Third Reich. Angela Merkel is human too. And she will not like to have been called Ribbentrop, especially given that she has a record of confronting Putin about issues of human rights long before the world woke up to his darker side. She was instrumental in making Yanukovich’s and Putin’s opponents Julia Timoshenko and Mikhail Khodorkovsky the subject of diplomatic talks over many years. Both thanked her in particular after their release. The truth is that there is only one clear winner of the current hate campaign against Germany and the EU (France is also under fire but with less acrimony): Russia. Disillusionment by Ukraine with the West is what Russia wanted all along. This was at the very heart of the conflict from the very beginning. Russia cannot make Ukraine love its ‘big brother’ anymore. But it can make it hate the West too. Germany because of its history, its economic strength and its business ties to Russia makes the best target. The posting of old pictures with hateful subtitles bears similarity to other propaganda items coming out of Russia in recent months. The whipping up of emotions in an excitable society, the use of social media postings by people who have no real name, and the pointlessness of the exercise all suggest somebody with a motive that has little to do with Merkel and all to do with Putin.