German angst is leading Europe back to Yalta - Following events in Ukraine, Berlin has to face the sort of choices it has sought to avoid

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Ukraine burns; and Germany is gripped by angst. Angela Merkel has a choice to make. Did the German chancellor mean it when she said Europe cannot be divided again into spheres of influence, with its borders redrawn by bargains between the great powers? Or does Berlin’s hesitant response to Russian aggression in Ukraine tell us that, deep down, she is ready to accept a return to the geopolitics of Yalta?

A few months ago Joachim Gauck gently admonished his compatriots for Berlin’s failure to punch its weight in global affairs. Germany, the president told the Munich Security Conference, should stop hiding behind its guilt. It should instead match economic might with a willingness to take responsibility for the safeguarding of the international order. Mr Gauck seemed to have caught a political tide. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat foreign minister in Ms Merkel’s coalition government, chimed in that “Germany is really too big to only sit on the sidelines and comment on world politics”.

That was February. Neither man could have imagined their intentions would so soon be tested by Russia’s march into Ukraine. Faced with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its efforts to turn the rest of Ukraine into a failed state, Berlin has learnt that a serious foreign policy imposes the sort of choices it has sought to avoid. Sure, the country’s elites have accepted modest sanctions against Russia, but they have had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the way.

The Christian Democrat Ms Merkel takes a tougher line than her SPD partners. Brought up in Germany’s formerly communist east, the chancellor has a more clear-sighted view of the motives and methods of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer turned Russian president. Ever cautious, however, she is reluctant to step too far ahead of the Berlin establishment. As for Mr Steinmeier, well, to borrow a phrase, he has now made a determined dash for the sidelines.

Germany has prospered as an onlooker. Joe Kaeser, the chief executive of Siemens, spoke for many business leaders when he paid personal homage to Mr Putin after Russian troops had seized Crimea. On the political left, many still hanker after Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. Gerhard Schröder, the former SPD chancellor, has sold himself to Gazprom and counts Mr Putin a close chum. Helmut Schmidt displays the latent anti-Americanism that once troubled his relationship with US President Jimmy Carter.

The business lobby would be the easiest to deal with were Ms Merkel to take a stand. Of course, German industry has big interests in Russia. But it also needs to do business in the US. My guess is that Mr Kaeser’s admiration for Mr Putin would fade somewhat were western sanctions to threaten his company’s much larger sales in the US. As for Germany’s dependence on Russian gas, Moscow cannot afford to cut off supplies.


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