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28 June, 2014

“With the current crisis, it is seen in Berlin as key for German foreign policy not to act on its own, but in conjunction with others”

The Ukrainian Week speaks to Susan Stewart from the Berlin-based SWP research center about the reasons for Germany’s ambivalence in the current Ukrainian crisis, Poland’s role as the geopolitical player in the region, and Euro-Atlantic relations

U.W.: What is Germany’s genuine stance in the current crisis in Ukraine regarding Russia? As a core player in Europe, will it try to stick with the US position and consolidate the EU around tough response to Russia’s actions, or is it leaning to a softer approach to Russia that could eventually undermine European unity?

I don’t think that that is the way it is seen here in Germany. It is not seen as a bipolar option whereby Germany’s Russia policy could eventually undermine Europe. The idea is more that not isolating Russia but rather trying to talk to it and have some kind of negotiation format regarding the crisis as well as other issues – which is the German position - is actually in the interests of the EU and Europe in general. It is not seen as being in their interests to isolate Russia and have it as an enemy.

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U.W.: What about Poland and US? Both countries have appeared “hawkish” and tough in their reaction to Russian aggression. Could this mean that there is some sort of a new US-supported Polish core forming in Europe, by contrast to the Old Europe center?

Certainly, there are well-established ties between Poland and the US. But, first of all, you can’t completely leave the EU out of this. The EU does exist, and even if it is weak as a foreign policy actor, it does have some kind of foreign policy. Both Poland and Germany are operating under this EU foreign policy rubric.

I don’t see a potential for Poland going completely in its own direction to do something with the US, and Germany going in a different direction. They are both engaged in this EU framework. So far, there has been a serious attempt to coordinate actions between the EU and the US.

It seems to me that in the past 5-6 years, there has been a fairly close relationship developing between the foreign policy elites in Germany and Poland. But with the current crisis, this relationship is being tested . Yet, Germany still sees Poland as an important actor with which it is necessary to consult. However, it is also trying to act on a larger, multilateral context. With the current crisis, it is seen as key for German foreign policy not to act on its own, but in conjunction with others, especially the Weimar Triangle which embraces Germany, Poland and France, or in the larger framework of the OSCE to have some dialogue that would also include Russia and other OSCE members.

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The internal debate in Germany reveals one of the problems: Germany does not currently have a clear policy towards Russia and the whole region. In fact, it used to be all about the policy based on the Ostpolitik idea of engagement. That approach has been strongly questioned, but not (yet) rejected. So, the internal debate focuses on whether or not that policy is still valid.

At the same time, Germany has to function and take some actions because the crisis is forcing some kind of response. So, it has a sort of ad hoc approach depending on what Russia and Ukraine do, and what other members of the international community say. It is a time of turmoil for Germany on how it should act regarding the post-Soviet region.

Besides, when the issue of Germany’s position towards Russia comes up, I notice certain anti-Americanism among some actors, especially some Russia-friendly ones. You don’t notice this in times when things are going well and the Euro-Atlantic relations as well as relations with Russia are good (like they were to a large extent before the Ukrainian crisis). But in times of crises, people tend to take sides.

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U.W.: Is there any debate in Europe, in particular Germany, about an opportunity of a new security bloc with, say, Poland and other Eastern European states, Baltic States?

Right now, different positions on security are definitely a subject of discussion. The Poles are concerned about German hesitance regarding the stationing of permanent troops or reassurances for Poland or the Baltic States. All sides have their concerns. But it’s not the forming of a separate bloc. We will probably know more after the NATO summit in Cardiff in September. But I wouldn’t say that it is happening now.

U.W.: Is Poland seen as a more proactive foreign policy player in Europe with a tough line on Russia now?

That is a stereotypical view of the Polish foreign policy. Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has in fact just published an article where he emphasized similarities between the German and Polish positions. I don’t know whether that he is emphasizing the positive in order to deflect attention from the negative, i.e. the differences in approach. But I don’t have the sense that there is some kind of a rift between Germany and Poland. 

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