BERLIN, Germany — As violence and disorder in Ukraine continued Thursday, Germany's foreign minister met with representatives from both sides of the country’s current face-off, beginning what could be the first real test of Germany's pledge to take a more robust role in world affairs.
But accepting its natural responsibilities as the European Union's most powerful nation could come at a cost: the deterioration of improved ties with Moscow that have taken years to build.
For while the EU has entered the diplomatic morass on the side of Ukraine’s protesters, condemning police violence against them, Moscow has blamed radicals among the protesters themselves, and the EU for failing to condemn them. After all, the protests originally started with citizens demanding greater integration with the EU, which President Viktor Yanukovych rejected in November in favor of greater closeness with Russia.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier — a longtime advocate of a so-called “special relationship” between Germany and Russia who last month pushed for Germany to take a bigger role in international affairs — is now in the eye of the storm, says Judy Dempsey, a senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Europe branch.
“It's not easy for Steinmeier because the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin is very harsh against the EU and against the protesters in Ukraine. So Steinmeier for the first time is forced to actually speak out against the violence in Ukraine without alienating Russia,” Dempsey said.
Early Thursday, Steinmeier met with opposition leaders along with his counterparts from Poland and France. Later in the day, after erroneous reports suggested the EU negotiating team had left the country, the negotiators met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for four hours of closed-door talks.
The EU team exited the negotiations with Yanukovych with grim faces and declined to answer questions from reporters on the scene Thursday evening. But the trio of negotiators have reportedly proposed a roadmap for solving the crisis, and are staying overnight in Ukraine to continue the discussions, according to Der Spiegel.
Under their proposal, Ukraine would be put under control of a provisional government and embark on constitutional reforms until new parliamentary and presidential elections can be held.
It's too early to say what the outcome may be. But Nina Schick, of the EU-focused think tank Open Europe, suggests that Steinmeier's place at the head of the table and Germany's decision to back targeted sanctions against those responsible for the ongoing violence in Kviv already marks something of a watershed.
“It's hugely significant that Steinmeier is there with the Polish and French foreign ministers and that other countries that usually take the lead in EU foreign policy or try to create an aligned foreign policy, like the UK, have been far more hesitant,” Schick said.
On Thursday, the EU was preparing to impose sanctions against those responsible for the violence and impose an arms embargo on Ukraine, according to a draft ministerial statement obtained by Reuters.
Germany has traditionally opposed sanctions and is perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest thing to an advocate in Europe. But German politicians were in fact instrumental in this case in pushing an otherwise divided EU to take a stand.
“If Germany hadn't come out supporting the sanctions, I wonder whether or not the other countries of the EU would have agreed to pass them,” Schick said. “Countries like the UK, Spain and Italy were not keen.”
Germany's role could be as problematic for the protesters in Ukraine as it is for Yanukovych and Moscow, however. It is by no means certain that Steinmeier's presence will smooth the course toward a political solution, says Strategic Europe's Dempsey, who notes that the German foreign minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov before traveling to Kviv.
Pushing for an end to violence, Steinmeier continues to view Ukraine through the prism of Russia, Dempsey said. Meanwhile, the protesters and the opposition in Ukraine are deeply suspicious of Moscow, following Putin's efforts to effectively buy them off with $15 billion in soft loans and cheap natural gas in December.
In essence, it's Russia's monetary (and military) might against the more nebulous power of Europe's democratic values, with Ukraine caught in the middle. And the ambiguity of Steinmeier's, and Germany's, relationship with Russia won't make things any easier.
“There are two diametrically opposed players on the west of Ukraine and on the east of Ukraine. The Ukrainians themselves have to decide who they want at the negotiating table,” Dempsey said.
Easier said than done: That’s what these protests were about to begin with, right?