Merkel Said to Reject Ukraine NATO Bid as Rousing Tension

Merkel & Putin
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly pressed President Vladimir Putin to use his influence to rein in rebels in eastern Ukraine, her rejection of the referendum proposal shows the limits of Europe's support for Ukraine's incoming government. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is alarmed by President Petro Poroshenko’s plan to hold a referendum on Ukraine joining NATO, seeing it as a dead end that would only inflame tensions with Russia.

Ukrainian membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not on the table for Merkel, according to one German official, who said that a referendum wouldn’t bring Ukraine closer to NATO since decisions on membership are made by Alliance countries and not voters. Any bid to join NATO can only end badly, a second official said. Both asked not to be named discussing German government strategy.

It’s a stance that Merkel and Vladimir Putin can agree on, even as she vents frustration at her inability to sway the Russian president to resolve the crisis.

“NATO membership for Ukraine isn’t on the agenda at this point,” Michael Grosse-Broemer, the parliamentary whip for Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc, said in an interview in Berlin yesterday.

German resistance to Ukraine’s membership in the 28-nation military alliance, echoed by France, is a warning to Poroshenko not to aggravate the conflict with pro-Kremlin separatists that has claimed more than 4,300 lives in almost eight months.

For Putin, the alliance once arrayed against the Soviet Union remains an adversary. Ukrainian membership in NATO would be absolutely unacceptable, a Russian government official said yesterday, asking not to be named discussing diplomatic policy. Any referendum that backed NATO membership in Ukraine would lead to further escalation which Russia wouldn’t tolerate, the offical said.

Unhelpful Statements

While Merkel has repeatedly pressed Putin to use his influence to rein in rebels in eastern Ukraine, her rejection of the referendum proposal shows the limits of Europe’s support for Ukraine’s incoming government.

“In recent days there have been a number of statements from the Ukraine side that have not helped,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France Inter radio yesterday. His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, told Spiegel Online this week that he sees “a cooperative relationship between Ukraine and NATO, but no membership.”

Combating Corruption

Germany is concerned that the new government isn’t going far enough in tackling corruption, the second official said. Suggestions in Kiev that welfare or pension payments to regions under the control of separatists could be cut off would result in a quagmire and offer a golden opportunity to Russia to intervene, the official said.

Merkel helped block a U.S. push to put Ukraine on a path to eventual NATO membership in 2008. Last week, she said she hadn’t changed her mind because beckoning Ukraine into the military alliance is “qualitatively different” from bringing the former Soviet republic closer to the European Union.

“At the very least, one has to be cautious,” Merkel said at a foreign-policy forum in Sydney on Nov. 17.

German industry is also wary of Poroshenko’s plans. His push toward NATO “will lead to further worsening of Russian-Ukrainian relations,” Rainer Lindner, the head of Germany’s Ost-Ausschuss that fosters business ties with Russia, said in Hamburg. That’s “something we don’t want to see.”

Merkel, who grew up under Communism in former East Germany, is striking a harsher public tone toward Putin after she became convinced that he isn’t willing to abide by a Sept. 5 truce signed in Minsk, Belarus, the first official said.

That recognition took hold after he committed to the peace deal in talks with European leaders including Merkel on Oct. 17, then failed to deliver, the official said. Putin kept Merkel waiting at those talks to attend a military parade in Belgrade, Serbia, marking the Soviet army’s role in liberating former Yugoslavia from the Nazis in World War II.

“As long as Russia contributes very little or nothing to overcome this crisis, we need economic sanctions,” Merkel said yesterday. “They’re unavoidable, although I know they impact the German and the European economies”

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