U.W.: It seems that the escalation in Eastern Ukraine aggravates internal contradictions amongst EU member-states. Would you agree on this?
The word “contradictions” may be a little too strong. The EU is the organization made of 28 member-states and you will never find 100% agreement. There is always a majority opinion and a minority one. Doubts will always be plenty and some countries will disagree, but, nevertheless, what matters is the action that comes out. We have just seen a new statement coming out from heads of states and governments of the EU saying that they “note evidence of continued and growing support given to separatists by Russia which underlines Russia’s responsibility”. They asked foreign ministers to assess the situation and to consider any appropriate action, in particular, further restrictive measures, i.e. sanctions. It takes a whole process to get there and, as I said, there are people who disagree.
On the one hand, you have the more hawkish view that advocates standing up against Russia and providing more support to Ukraine. Some people even suggest that it should be by providing Ukraine with defensive weapons. On the other hand, there is much concern that the relations with Russia will get worse and even become dangerous, potentially leading to a new Cold War. So, these differences in the emphasis have led to a double strategy with two different strains. One element is the sanctions, and the other is negotiations as an attempt to bring Russia back into a more cooperative position via diplomacy. However, with more intense warfare in Eastern Ukraine and with obvious Russian involvement, it becomes more difficult to have this double approach.
U.W.: When you mentioned “hawkish” views in the EU, how strong are they?
The countries that were tough from the beginning were Poland and the Baltic States, perhaps Romania to the certain extent. Southeastern ones, such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and others, have been rather reluctant to go into a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. But what was initially a minority position has become a majority one over the last year. The person who played a major role in this process was Angela Merkel as she was ready to move towards a more hawkish stance on Russia. However, the main driver of this change has been Russia itself, its aggressive behavior and warfare in Ukraine.
U.W.: With her hawkish position, will Angela Merkel succeed in persuading those countries that lean towards negotiations with Russia? This is especially interesting in the context of the Greek elections…
Germany has moved into a strong leadership position in the eurozone during the euro crisis. In fact, the Germans never wanted to lead Europe. They were just happy to stay in the background. But the euro crisis forced Germany to step up as the biggest country and the strongest economy. It has a lot of trust. From this leadership position during the euro crisis Angela Merkel has moved towards the same position in the conflict with Russia. Of course, leadership does not mean domination. What it means is the chance to bring the EU towards the common position, and Mrs. Merkel is fit for that better any anybody else. But this is the outcome of negotiations, not something given.
In addition to that, Mrs. Merkel constantly needs to figure out what others want and try to find an integrated approach, by bringing EU partners early in to the decision-making. That is why France is now a major partner for Germany in these negotiations with Russia. When the Germans get France on board, they have a good chance that other countries in the South like Spain and Italy are going to accept this outcome of the negotiations. France is in between, rather on the skeptical side on sanctions, but Germany has brought it at least halfway into the other camp. Germany needs this critical mass and it has a good chance to it by getting France involved.
The second point is that the countries in the South may not share Germany’s or Mrs. Merkel’s views on Ukraine, Russia and the conflict, but the internal dynamics inside the EU is such that they need Germany for other issues. That gives Germany leverage. It does not mean that Berlin can command them, but it does make it easier to make a deal for Mrs. Merkel. So, I think it is very likely that the sanctions policy will continue, especially as we have not see any sign of Russia trying to accept and fulfill the Minsk Agreement.
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U.W.: To which extent the results of the Greek elections can weaken the joint European position on Russian aggression towards Ukraine?
I am not so concerned about this. Some elements in the new Greek Government appear to be rather pro-Kremlin, but the big issue for Greece is not Russia or Ukraine, it is whether it will leave the eurozone or not, and what the conditions are to stay. So, the core of the negotiations is the economy.
The main partner here is Germany. It is possible that Greece is going to try to increase its leverage by signaling to Brussels and Berlin that it would use its veto power over Russia sanctions. However, I don’t think that they are in a very strong position. Greece might create some hiccups, but not a real obstacle. Countries that rely heavily on the EU for economic well-being usually fall in line with the EU broader policies, unless they have a very strong national interest, as Cyprus. The latter is blocking the EU’s relations with NATO because of its internal conflicts. It can do so, because it sees this as a major national interest, but I don’t expect this from Greece.
U.W.: When the European Union was just at its beginning, France and Germany were the two driving forces. Is it possible that they become the locomotives of the EU counter policy against Russian aggression?
France’s interest has historically and until today been in the south, including Maghreb, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, Sub-Saharan Africa where it had its colonies, and the Middle East – Syria – which had also been France protectorate. Germany is just the opposite, looking eastward. This is where its economic interests are and where it feels it can make a difference. And this is also a major concern of Germany’s neighbors in the East, especially Poland. When Frank-Walter Steinmeier became Germany’s foreign minister in December 2013, he tried to rebuild German-French cooperation on foreign policy by offering a joint lead and working together on both sides to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius. Under that deal, Germany would take more interest in what is happening in the South and cooperate closely with France in that direction, and France would work with Germany on problems in the East. They visited some countries in both Eastern and Southern neighborhoods together. Angela Merkel is doing the same with French president François Hollande, bringing him in on Russia. If you see who and how often speak to Vladimir Putin, Merkel is very much ahead, but Hollande is also in that game. But I do not think that the French interest is strong enough, so that France would really invest in these Eastern policies. In the future, as I see it, Poland is more likely to play an important role in Germany’s Eastern policies and France in Germany’s Southern policy. This is called the Weimar triangle – Poland, Germany and France – and for a while it worked well, including throughout the Ukrainian crisis. It was the three foreign ministers from Poland, Germany and France who tried to convince Viktor Yanukovych to sign the agreement with the Maidan. Unfortunately, Poland has been cut off from this group and now it is the Normandy format group. We do not know exactly how this will develop, but you can see that the German-Polish cooperation is very strong now in the European Council between Angela Merkel, whose grandfather was Polish, and Donald Tusk, now President of the European Council. Mr. Tusk and Mrs. Merkel worked very closely in the past and they continue to do that on Russia and Ukraine now.
Ulrich Speck is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. His research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic role in a changing global environment. From 2010 to 2013, Mr. Speck was an associate fellow at the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE. Prior to that he worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague and Brussels, and in 2006 he was a fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington, DC. He received PhD in Modern History from the University of Frankfurt.