Threat of EU split as Angela Merkel gives up on Russia

Threat of EU split as Angela Merkel gives up on Russia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has given up on Russia. And the Ukraine crisis could now precipitate a massive division within Europe itself, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.

Following numerous phone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and months of German diplomacy Ms Merkel is no further forward in defusing the crisis Ukraine.

The watershed arrived during the G20 in Australia in November 2014. In the late evening of November 15, Ms Merkel met Mr Putin in the Brisbane Hilton. They spoke with no aides or interpreters present. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker joined them halfway through the four-hour marathon.

But nothing was achieved. Ms Merkel wanted Mr Putin, a fluent German speaker, to spell out what he wanted to come out of the crisis in Ukraine and for the two of them to explore compromises.

Her approach was met by an icy-cold response and the same denials over what is happening in Ukraine that has destroyed every shred of credibility Mr Putin may have ever had.

After the meeting, Ms Merkel gave her harshest speech on Russia yet. She accused Moscow of ‘trampling international law’ with ‘old thinking’ based on spheres of influence. Even her own Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was moved to comment about sabre-rattling.

But when Mr Steinmeier went to meetings in Moscow, as part of his tireless efforts to find a compromise, he was called to see Mr Putin and given a dressing down on the EU’s handling of Ukraine.

Communication between the Kremlin and the West has now broken down completely. But should we be surprised?

Having spent months heaping every conceivable form of abuse on the Kremlin, can the West realistically expect that its master will still be ready for cozy and courteous small talk?

We should remember US diplomat Henry Kissinger’s prophetic words from March 2014, ‘The demonisation of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.’

Having spent months casting about for a policy, Western governments now have to face the fact that Mr Putin’s gloves may be coming off.

In preparation for a possible resumption of major combat operations in Ukraine, Russia is preparing the ground with a combination of heavy troop reinforcements and a stealthy campaign to erode the resolve of the Europeans. A propaganda campaign aimed at hearts and minds could divide not only the EU but Germany itself.

Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT launched a German language station in November 2014 to air Moscow's view of the Ukraine crisis.

The first round of EU sanctions are due to expire in March 2015 and German officials are concerned that Italy, Hungary and Slovakia will be difficult to keep on side if the sanctions are to be renewed.

France's National Front has confirmed it has secured a nine million euro loan from a Moscow-based bank.

Mr Putin is working hard at unravelling the fragile EU consensus.

Over the past weeks, European leaders have gloated on how they had demonstrated to the Russians that they could reach consensus on a forceful policy of sanctions. It may now be time to stow that smugness and to start looking at reality.

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