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Ukraine & NATO: German deferment vote based on reality, not Russian bias

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Since April’s start, Germany has become considerably less popular in Kyiv and Ukraine’s western oblasts. Patriotic Ukrainian elites are largely correct in their evaluation of the effects of recent German foreign policy. At the NATO Summit in Bucharest, Germany’s refusal certainly was not the least important factor in not extending Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), postponing consideration until the December meeting.

Political commentary on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s behavior before, and at the Bucharest Summit, varied widely. Among the most radical reactions was the opinion piece, “Germany Against Kyiv’s Westward Push” by Dr. Taras Kuzio, the West’s most prolific commentator on current Ukrainian affairs, which was published in the April 3 edition of the Kyiv Post ( click here ). It would be no particular exaggeration, as Kuzio might himself agree, to call his article anti­-German. Kuzio talks about, among other things, German nationalism and sees parallels between pre­ and post­war German foreign policies – sensitive themes in Germany today.

Being German, I am still sympathetic to Kuzio’s motivations and from other commentators. Ukraine’s MAP inclusion seemed near in early April. And indeed, the German chancellor’s dissenting opinion was an important ­ perhaps even the major factor – in preventing it.

However, Kuzio and other commentators tend to misunderstand and misrepresent German intentions, and take too seriously German public references to Russian interests. Germany has indeed a history of special relations with Russia. Yet those times are long gone, contrary to what many Russian politicians and intellectuals continue to believe. Contemporary Germany plays the role of the “good cop” with Western policies towards Russia. Yet that is exactly what Berlin’s behavior is about – Germany is just playing its role.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, it is true, took the “good cop” role a bit too seriously. Yet his infamous labeling of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin as a “spotless democrat” is as much a joke in Germany as how Americans view George W. Bush’s remark on seeing Putin’s soul when looking into his eyes. Schroeder’s behavior after he left office – he took a job at a German­-Gazprom joint venture he set up himself as chancellor – largely discredited his Russia policies. While German business managers and entrepreneurs have considerable interests in Russia, German political and intellectual elites have become as disillusioned with Putin as the decision makers and opinion leaders of other Western countries.

Moreover, Merkel is different from Schroeder. Growing up Christian in East Germany, Merkel’s approach to Putin has been much cooler. Through her biography, Merkel knows about the methods of the Stasi, the infamous East German political police with whom Putin closely cooperated when he served for the KGB in Dresden in the late 1980s.

Contemporary Germany’s stand on Ukrainian MAP participation is less related to any particular pro-­Russian sentiment. Instead, it seems driven by another, more rational assessment of the implications that a Ukrainian MAP would have. As is all too well known, the majority of Ukraine’s population is still against NATO membership. The figures for February 2008 were 53 percent against and 21 percent in favor. Far too many reservations about NATO remain among ordinary Ukrainians to start serious “membership action.” Most probably, a NATO offer now would have the immediate effect of mobilizing Ukrainian anti-­NATO forces, and their use of widely held anti­-Western stereotypes, with unknown consequences. Ukraine’s current MAP participation would thus do more harm to Western­-Ukrainian relations than bringing Kyiv any closer to NATO. In view of the dim prospects of any serious talk about Ukraine’s entry into NATO in the foreseeable future, there is currently little reason to get into a fight with the Russians.

Such a fight, to be sure, would be fine and well if a majority of the country’s population were in favor of NATO membership. It might be justified in Georgia for instance, where this is apparently the case. But at this point in time: What are we going to fight for with Moscow, in regards to Ukraine? If the Ukrainians themselves do not (yet) want into NATO, what is all the fuss about? Moreover, the Russians would, and in fact already do, pretend that they are not only defending their own interests, but those of the majority of Ukrainians. Given recent Ukrainian polling data, this claim cannot be easily dismissed.

The main culprit in this story seems to be not Germany, but NATO itself. It has done too little, too late in terms of explaining to Ukrainians what NATO is about. Instead, Ukraine’s political and public discourse remains corrupted by Soviet legacies. It is shaped by Russian government­controlled mass media and the bizarre conspiratorial political sensationalism that dominates Russian and Ukrainian book markets today.

In this regard, one particular German actor, the influential Hamburg magazine DER SPIEGEL does play a rather dubious role: DER SPIEGEL lends its name and reputation to one of Moscow’s major publications in Ukraine ­ the infamous weekly Der Spiegel ­ - Profil. This colorful, high­circulation magazine is edited by Russian Mikhail Leontiev, a well­known, anti­-Western propagandist, former “persona non grata” in Ukraine and a 2001 founding member of Alexander Dugin’s neo­fascist Eurasia Movement.

One could argue that the primitiveness of Der Spiegel – Profil’s anti-­Ukrainianism has the unintended effect of bolstering pro-­NATO forces in Ukraine (reminiscent of the repercussions from transmissions, in Ukraine, of the dubious Kyiv news reports by Moscow's television “journalists”). And it appears DER SPIEGEL is assisting in this. Yet this is quite a strange way for German journalists to further improve relations between Ukraine and the West.

There remains a gap between the West’s and most Ukrainians’ understanding of NATO’s nature and aims. As a result, Western statements on NATO-­Ukrainian relations come across as pushy in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians ask themselves: What do NATO officials and Western leaders want from us? Unless NATO takes more action to explain its history and intentions to ordinary Ukrainians, then they will continue to prevent serious NATO-­Ukrainian rapprochement, not the alleged sabotage of Ukraine’s European aspirations by Germany.


First published (with some mistakes) in "Kyiv Post," April 17th, 2008,

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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)
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