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28 September, 2021  ▪  Omid Nouripour

Time to make a choice

Two major European countries, Germany and Russia, are electing a new parliament this month, yet only one of these elections will have an impact on Ukraine

The Russian Duma election is more of a formality, a symbolic affirmation of Putin’s regime. The German Bundestagswahl, on the other hand, is set to cause a major shift in Berlin’s political landscape, with potentially far-reaching consequences for German-Ukrainian relations.
Whatever the outcome of the election will be, one thing is for sure: Christian-democratic chancellor Angela Merkel will not lead the next German government. After sixteen years in office, she is retiring from politics, leaving behind a mixed track record in foreign policy. Under Merkel, Germany has asserted itself as a major—perhaps the major—player in European politics. When it comes to Ukraine, however, Berlin has mostly fallen short of realizing its ambitions.
As German voters are heading to the polls, this would seem the perfect moment to reflect on how German-Ukrainian relations have developed over the last years—and what the future might bring.
The history of German-Ukrainian relations has, throughout the centuries, often been volatile: from peaceful and mutually nourishing co-existence to cataclysmic violence and mass displacement. It was Ukraine which once became a new home for German settlers in the late XVIIIth century. And it was Ukraine which became one of the main theatres of war in both WWI and WWII. Ukrainian toponyms like Babyn Yar are inseparably linked to the memory of Nazi crimes and to Germany’s historical responsibility today.
And let us not forget the establishment of the contemporary German and Ukrainian states essentially resulted from the same historical event—the fall of the “Iron Curtain”.
Over the last three decades, Germany has been a particularly close European partner of Ukraine, launching numerous initiatives to strengthen ties in the areas of economy and governance, but also science and culture. Early on, Berlin recognized Ukraine’s significant struggle to become a populous democracy after the Maidan events, as well as its struggles in transitioning into an open society.

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With the ratification of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in 2014, the German engagement with Ukraine has acquired new dimensions. Berlin has joined efforts with Ukraine’s civil society to promote rule of law and good governance in the country. This was an unprecedented and complex alliance, yet it has proven effective in tackling the occasional reluctance of Ukrainian politicians and bureaucrats come through with crucial reforms. Development and economic cooperation received an additional boost with the adoption of the Ukraine Action Plan by the German government in 2015.
All in all, Ukrainian affairs have enjoyed a prioritized position on Berlin’s foreign policy agenda during the last years. However, the closer the relationship became, the more it revealed an inherent ambiguity in German foreign policy.
Traditionally, Berlin regards itself as a representative of the West in relation to Moscow—due to geographical proximity and historical ties. German politicians often claim this position is a unique asset which allows them to reconcile the ever-diverging political trajectories of the Western and Kremlin leaderships.
Exactly this conviction prompted Germany to take the lead-along with France-in the EU’s response to the annexation of Crimea and of Kremlin-controlled proxy aggression in Donbas. The results of which, however, are far from satisfactory. Germany’s contribution was, and still is, crucial in upholding EU sanctions against Moscow. Merkel’s leadership has also had limited success in the Normandy process, negotiating a cease-fire and creating room for humanitarian action. Yet it has proven incapable of delivering tangible political results at the negotiating table.
The trouble lies at the very root of Germany’s approach to the conflict: from the very start, Berlin has treated Moscow as a negotiator in the peace talks, instead of seeing it for what it is: a party to the conflict. This situation has fueled frustration in Kyiv and ultimately led to a practical dead-lock on both the Minsk and Normandy tracks of the peace process.

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Another major failure of the Merkel administration is its refusal to drop Nord Stream 2. The gas pipeline, which is set to become operative this autumn, breaks the transit dependencies between Russia and Ukraine and has the potential to economically destabilize Ukraine. Thus, it fulfills one of the Kremlin's geostrategic objectives – for instance, strengthening its position in Normandy process—and at the same time effectively undoes much of the efforts Germany has invested in Ukraine over the last years.
Germany’s commitment, against better judgment, to warm relations with Russia is increasingly at odds with its ambition of fostering resilient democracies in its near abroad and becoming carbon neutral soon. If the next German government holds on to its “special relationship” with Moscow at all cost, it will ultimately call into question the entire value orientation of European foreign and security policy in the long run.
It is evident that Putin's system is essentially based on the overexploitation of natural resources for the benefit of few and on building autocratic structures. Giving further ungrounded incentives – economically and politically - to the Kremlin will only strengthen its revisionist claims to enjoy a special sphere of influence in the Eastern European neighborhood. It not only undermines perspectives to reach a political solution for the war in Ukraine – it negates the future for Russian democratic opposition, as it could be observed in the current Duma election
The demonstrations on the Maidan in 2014 already showed how the desire for closer ties with Europe developed into the demand to reform one's own dysfunctional and corrupt state. The new German government should act decisively and give Ukraine a clearly defined road map to keep open the road for future EU accession. Standing behind Kyiv’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations is a genuine German interest. If Ukraine reaches a stable state of law and prosperity within the EU, it will create positive incentives for greater democratization of the Eastern European neighborhood – and may ultimately open a door to a value-based dialogue with Russia.
Thus, only overcoming its ambivalent policy in Eastern Europe - at ultimate cost of Ukrainian democracy - Germany could realize its aspiration to integrate Moscow into European security order. It is time to make a choice.

Omid Nouripour, Alliance 90/Greens spokesman for international relations and chairman of the German-Ukrainian group for interparliamentary cooperation.

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