Merkel's Ukraine Resolve Tested as Putin Holds Refugee Key

  • Ukrainian premier in Berlin as Syrian conflict looms large
  • Germany, France said to reject sanctions deal with Putin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is signaling to Russian President Vladimir Putin that she’ll stand firm on defending Ukraine, even at the risk of denying herself a possible ally in stemming Europe’s refugee crisis.

With Russia’s leverage boosted by its military involvement in the Syrian civil war, Merkel turned attention to Ukraine by hosting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Berlin on Friday. Though a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine’s separatist conflict is largely holding, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande -- architects of the peace plan -- won’t make a deal with Putin to ease sanctions on Russia to win his cooperation on Syria, according to two government officials with knowledge of their thinking.

Merkel and Yatsenyuk
Merkel and Yatsenyuk
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

That contrasts with members of Merkel’s government and the U.S. administration, who are suggesting it’s time to move on. For Merkel, an easing of Syria’s war could have the added benefit of reducing the flow of refugees, which she has called Europe’s biggest challenge of her decade in power.

“In the long term, if the conflict gets frozen at this level and Putin doesn’t escalate, then of course it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the same level of political capital, to make the case again and again,” said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

Russia Needed

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has subsided in the last two months, reducing the urgency for Merkel and Hollande. The shift has left diplomats to push ahead on a 12-point peace plan negotiated in February in Minsk, Belarus, while Putin changes focus to propping up President Bashar al-Assad, his Syrian ally. He hosted Assad at the Kremlin on Tuesday.

While the European Union and the U.S. accuse Putin of fomenting conflict in Ukraine by supporting the separatists, Merkel says Syria can’t be resolved without Russia. Even so, she said the terms for easing or lifting the sanctions won’t be eased.

“The sanctions are coupled to implementation of the Minsk accord,” Merkel said at a joint news conference with Yatsenyuk. That won’t change even “if it takes longer to make the Minsk accord a reality,” she said.

Merkel’s Dilemma

Syria’s war has emerged as the biggest threat to Merkel’s government this year as hundreds of thousands flee the country for Europe, with Germany as the main destination. Polls indicate the chancellor’s open-arms stance toward war refugees is eroding her public support as Germans increasingly say they’re overwhelmed by the newcomers.

Merkel cited the risk of a new wave of refugees from Aleppo, where Putin’s warplanes backed a renewed advance by Assad’s forces, during a visit to Istanbul on Sunday for talks with Turkish leaders. 

While Merkel has rejected backing off EU sanctions on Russia, which are scheduled to be renewed in Brussels in January, others in her government question whether that policy can hold as violence in the Middle East spirals.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Merkel’s Social Democratic coalition partner, said tension with the Kremlin over Ukraine cannot be allowed to overshadow lines of contact that would open a joint effort to deal with Syria.

“We need an understanding with Russia,” Gabriel, an acolyte of former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who cultivated a friendship with Putin, said on Sept. 25.

U.S. Stance

Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Merkel’s diplomatic efforts to help halt the fighting in Ukraine, saying President Barack Obama’s administration would prefer to have the conflict out of the way.

“For 50 days now, the cease-fire has held principally and progress is being made,” Kerry said during a visit to Berlin on Thursday. The conflict should be “reduced and ultimately eliminated as one of the conflicts that is taking so much time and energy and effort from other endeavors.”

While creating a distraction from Ukraine isn’t the objective of Putin’s Middle East strategy, the Russian leader benefits from the outcome, Carnegie’s Techau said in an interview.

“It’s a very positive side effect that Syria now takes all of the attention away from Ukraine,” Techau said.

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