Merkel is dead wrong on Ukraine

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ainius Lasas [University of Bath]

During her recent visit to Budapest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that the Ukrainian conflict “cannot be solved militarily” and thus Germany has no intention to support Kiev with weapons, writes Dr. Ainius Lasas. 

Dr. Ainius Lasas is a Lecturer at the University of Bath.

Her comments came after the US announced it might consider supplying arms to Ukrainian forces. While Merkel’s reluctant position may be explained in terms of Germany’s historical experiences related to the Second World War, it is nevertheless cunning, ahistorical and damaging to Western diplomatic efforts. 

Let us first turn to “cunning,” a trait so common in politics that it is almost normal. Merkel’s statement comes at a time when the Minsk agreement has essentially become null and void. The Russian-backed rebel leaders not only refused to come to Minsk for the latest round of negotiations, but also started a new military offensive. In response to the military escalation, EU foreign ministers were barely able to agree upon the extension of current economic sanctions with potentially a few more people and entities added to the list in the nearest future. This is hardly a proportional response to Moscow’s relentless appetite for yet another frozen conflict on its borders.

If Ukrainians were to take Merkel’s words to heart and put their weapons down, there would be no independent Ukraine today. And this is not a hyperbole. Ukrainians tried “Merkelian” strategy in Crimea and now Crimea is a part of Russia. More importantly, the Western reluctance to militarily strengthen Ukrainian forces invites more military adventurism from Russian-backed militias. They know that Ukraine is vulnerable and that creates incentives for military adventurism.

Chancellor Merkel seems to forget that current Russian leadership has nothing but disdain for the so-called European democratic values. They breathe, think and talk realpolitik reinforced by Russian nationalism. In such a Hobbesian world, the most effective strategy for containment is probably the one that approximates the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. No, this is not a call for the West to provide Ukraine with nuclear weapons, but it is a call for the West to supply the Ukrainian forces with the most sophisticated defensive military technologies. They would shield Ukraine from indiscriminate rebel attacks and make these militias more vulnerable (and thus more reluctant to engage militarily).

The statement about the impossibility of military solution is also ahistorical. Ironically, it is Germany that should be best aware that diplomacy is no solution for political leaders, who seek to dominate their neighbors at any cost and with no regard to human life. Nazi Germany could not be stopped solely by diplomatic measures. The Hutu-led government in Rwanda could not be stopped diplomatically. The Bosnian war is littered with diplomatic failures. Today neither ISIS, nor Boko Haram is particularly susceptible to diplomatic pressures either. The list can be continued, but the point is clear: in the face of indiscriminate aggression, diplomacy has to be supplemented with appropriate military measures when in search of solutions.

Western countries seem to perfectly understand that when it comes to the security of Eastern European NATO members. Following the Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO took no chances and significantly increased its military presence in the region. Recently, it announced plans to establish six command centers along its eastern perimeter. While the same measures cannot be taken in Ukraine, the outright rejection of any military support is not only hypocritical, but also undermines diplomatic efforts.

When military support for Ukraine is a priori off the table, Western leverage vis-à-vis Russia is that much weaker. Being aware that the most severe portion of EU economic sanctions can be reversed, the Kremlin is now tempted to quickly implement the “final” solution in Ukraine i.e. to take over the whole of Luhansk and Donetsk regions and to further weaken Kiev. Once that is achieved, the Kremlin can then strike a more conciliatory note and hope to gradually reverse the sanctions with both regions in its pocket.

Finally, Russian military adventurism in Ukraine carries a very high human cost. Innocent people perish and get maimed daily right here in Europe just because one autocrat has a personal ambition. The last time such a tragedy was taking place, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder insisted that Germany “must not tolerate violations of human rights and stand aside with the cheap excuse that our abstinence is justified by our history.” While Schröder sacrificed his last shred of moral authority on the altar of strategic friendship with Putin, one can only hope that Chancellor Merkel will not follow in his footsteps. After all, Eastern Ukraine leaves little doubt about who is the principal aggressor and who is the principal victim.   

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