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Merkel, Clueless From the Start, Is Now Getting Desperate

  • Merkel is a seriously over-rated bumbler.  Long the dupe of Washington, she has run into an implacable stone wall in Putin's position on Ukraine - where he holds a very strong hand
  • Caught between the two, she is starting to crack, both politically and emotionally
  • Her domestic opponents smell blood
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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

A recent Reuters dispatch confirms our take on what really happened at the G20 summit. 

The short answer is that it was a shriller rerun of the ASEM summit in Milan.

Here is what we wrote:

The same line up of European leaders joined this time by the Australians and the Canadians (Obama and Putin barely met) tried once again to bully Putin into doing what they wanted in the Ukraine, believing on this occasion that the fall in oil prices and in the rouble would make him more amenable.

            To their collective bafflement and anger, Putin refused to move an inch.

The European leaders have come away without a clue what to do. They desperately need an end to the Ukrainian crisis, which is hurting their own economies and which as Milos Zeman's and Orban's comments show, is creating increasing dissension within the EU itself.

There is little appetite either for more sanctions or for giving the Ukraine the tens of billions it needs to turn itself round whilst there is deep reluctance to seek a restructuring of the Ukraine's debts since doing so would inevitably require the agreement of the Ukraine's biggest creditor, which is Russia, which would undoubtedly in that case link its agreement to movement on political matters.

The hope always seems to be that Putin will somehow be bullied into solving the problem for the Europeans in the way the Europeans want and there is incredulity and exasperation when that fails to happen. Meanwhile the situation in the Ukraine itself both economically and politically continues to spiral downwards.

The Reuters article confirms every part of what we said. 

It clearly originates in briefings by German officials almost certainly acting on instructions from Merkel herself. 

We learn:

1.  Merkel came away from a private one-to-one meeting with Putin baffled and furious to find him utterly immoveable on Ukraine and refusing to be pressured into doing what she wanted;

2.  Merkel has no clue what to do.  As the Reuters despatch puts it “Merkel has hit a diplomatic dead-end”.  Instead she is reduced to talking of a “holding operation” rationalised as “the long haul”, which is really a way of saying she is going to do nothing.  There is in reality no time for the sort of “long haul” she is talking about as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates and as opposition to Merkel’s policy mounts; 

3.  Further sanctions are off the table because of mounting opposition in Europe.  It will be “a Herculean task” to get even the existing sanctions extended when they come up for renewal;

4.  Merkel is now facing mounting opposition to her policy within Germany itself. 

We have repeatedly said this here on RI.  The Reuters dispatch confirms the extent of the pressure Merkel is now coming under. 

In her present angry mood she is blaming it all on “Putin’s charm offensive” and on “Russian propaganda”.  

This is total rubbish.  Are we seriously to believe that a former leader of the SPD like Matthias Platzek or the hard headed German businessmen meeting Russian Economics Minister Ulyukaev in Stuttgart are dupes of the Kremlin?

As to what actually passed in the private one-to-one meeting Merkel had with Putin, the Reuters dispatch gives us a clue:  Merkel asked Putin “to spell out exactly what he wanted in Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites”.

This question shows why Merkel’s diplomacy and the whole European approach to the Ukrainian crisis has gone so catastrophically wrong.

Merkel and the Europeans have completely misunderstood this crisis.  They wrongly think it is a crisis between Ukraine and Russia.  They have convinced themselves that Ukraine is the “victim” of “Russian aggression”.  They think if they can bribe or threaten Russia to “end” this aggression then the crisis will be “solved” and Ukraine will be “saved”.   

When Merkel asked Putin “to spell out what he wanted in Ukraine” she was looking to him to own up in private to his “aggression” so that she could cut a deal with him to end it.  

Putin could not give Merkel the answer she wanted.  The reason for that is very simple.  There is no Russian aggression against Ukraine.  Putin cannot end an aggression that is not taking place and cannot cut a deal to stop what isn’t happening.  What Merkel and the Europeans have been trying to do can never work because the whole assumption on which it is based is wrong. 

The crisis is an internal Ukrainian conflict provoked by the coup in February the Europeans themselves helped bring about.  It can only be solved if the two sides to the conflict talk to each other.  Russia did not create and does not control the rebels in eastern Ukraine.  It does have some influence over them.  However Russia cannot do a deal that sacrifices them or allows them to be defeated because doing so is politically impossible for Russia. 

This is what Putin has been saying in public since March and it is what he also undoubtedly told Merkel in private in Brisbane.  It is also what Putin and Lavrov said to German Foreign Minister Steinmeier in Moscow when they pointedly reminded him, to his obvious chagrin, of the 21st February 2014, which he himself brokered and which committed the two parties in the Ukrainian conflict to talks with each other which have never happened.

Merkel and the Europeans refuse to face these facts.  When the Russians point them out their reaction (as in this case) is to accuse the Russians of lying and to become furious.  

Since Merkel and the Europeans refuse to face facts the situation in Ukraine is bound to get worse.  As it gets worse, for all the brave talk about “the long haul”, Merkel’s problems will also get worse as it becomes increasingly obvious to people in Germany and elsewhere in Europe that her policy has failed.  The fact that her meeting with Putin went on for four hours shows how urgent her need to settle the crisis actually is because of the pressure she is already under.

Merkel has brought this on herself by taking on the Russians in Ukraine where, as we at RI have repeatedly said, the Russians hold all the cards.  Accustomed to getting her way with other EU leaders, in dealing with the Russians she looks out of her depth. The first rule in politics is when in a hole; stop digging.  If Merkel cannot stop digging, Germany may soon have a new Chancellor.

Here's the full article from Reuters: ( We would add that it is simply dripping with anti-Russian bias. The whole thing has the air of an excited labrador retriever, - you see Putin is so awful, and Frau Merkel such a good person.  Seriously embarrassing tripe - but that's par for the course for Reuters.  Just read between the lines, the way people did in the USSR, and you can see the facts in the background - Merkel is in trouble.) 

Reuters (Berlin) - After nine months of non-stop German diplomacy to defuse the crisis in Ukraine, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in mid-November that a change of tack was needed.

Ahead of a summit of G20 leaders in Australia, Merkel resolved to confront Vladimir Putin alone, without the usual pack of interpreters and aides.

Instead of challenging him on what she saw as a string of broken promises, she would ask the Russian president to spell out exactly what he wanted in Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites the Kremlin had started bombarding with propaganda.

On Nov. 15 at 10 p.m., a world away from the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, the two met on the eighth floor of the Brisbane Hilton. The meeting did not go as hoped.

For nearly four hours, Merkel -- joined around midnight by new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker -- tried to get the former KGB agent, a fluent German speaker, to let down his guard and clearly state his intentions.

But all the chancellor got from Putin, officials briefed on the conversation told Reuters, were the same denials and dodges she had been hearing for months.

"He radiated coldness," one official said of the encounter. "Putin has dug himself in and he can't get out."

The meeting in Brisbane, and a separate one in Milan one month before -- where Putin made promises about Russian behavior in eastern Ukraine that German officials say were broken within days -- pushed frustration levels in Berlin to new heights. Merkel had hit a diplomatic dead-end with Putin.

Since February, when the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, fled Kiev amid violent protests on the Maidan square, Germany has taken the lead in trying to convince Putin to engage with the West.

Merkel has spoken to him by phone three dozen times. Her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), traditionally a Russia-friendly party, has invested hundreds of hours trying to secure a negotiated solution to the conflict.

Now, German officials say, they have run out of ideas about how they might sway the Russian leader. The channels of communication with Putin will remain open, but Berlin is girding for a long standoff, akin to a second Cold War.

"I think we need to prepare ourselves for a prolonged conflict in which Russia will use all the means at its disposal," Norbert Roettgen, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the German Bundestag and a member of Merkel's conservative party, told Reuters.

"We are essentially in a waiting game," said another German official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. "All we can do is keep an eye on the violence in eastern Ukraine and be prepared to react to it."

Merkel's frustration was evident during a speech in Sydney, two days after her meeting with Putin. In unusually stark language, she accused Russia of trampling on international law with "old thinking" based on spheres of influence.

"After the horror of the two world wars and the end of the Cold War, this calls into question the peaceful order in Europe," she said.

A day after she spoke, Steinmeier traveled to Moscow to assess the damage.

He was ambushed by Putin, who at the start of their talks launched into a diatribe about events on the Maidan, accusing Europe of reneging on a deal that to keep Yanukovich in power a bit longer, according to the second German official. Steinmeier later acknowledged that no progress had been made on the visit.

German officials admit that for now, their strategy has been reduced to damage control on three main fronts.

The first front is Kiev, where Berlin is working to ensure emerging cracks between Ukraine's leaders -- President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk -- do not widen, as they did nearly a decade ago between the previous leadership duo, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

Yatseniuk, a 40-year-old technocrat, emerged strengthened from elections in October and his hard-line stance on Russia risks making the more diplomatic Poroshenko look weak, German officials worry.

A split between the two would complicate Kiev's ability to push through economic reforms and anti-corruption measures that are key for securing new aid from the West. This would play right into Putin's hands.

"Everything needs to be done to keep them on track," said the first German official. "We are working every day to prevent a repeat of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko."

The second battle is against what German officials describe as a "massive propaganda campaign" by the Kremlin to convince Russia sympathizers in Germany and elsewhere in Europe to break with the hard line backed by Merkel and Washington.

The most public example of this was an interview Putin gave to German public television station ARD.

Broadcast on the eve of Merkel's Sydney speech, Putin struck an unusually conciliatory tone, saying he was convinced there was a way out of the crisis. In a message tailored for his German audience, he expressed concerns about ethnic cleansing in eastern Ukraine by neo-Nazis wearing swastikas and SS symbols.

As part of this campaign, Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT -- formerly known as Russia Today -- launched a German language station this month to put across Moscow's view of the crisis.

German media have been complaining for months about their news sites being bombarded with pro-Russian comments. German security sources say they are part of an organized offensive steered from the Kremlin.

"Putin has tools to influence opinion within the EU," said Ulrich Speck of the Carnegie Europe thinktank. "He is doing his best to undermine the German narrative of the Ukraine crisis."

Already there are signs of cracks. Matthias Platzeck, a former leader of the SPD, broke ranks earlier this month and urged Germany to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea.

This week, Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukaev is being hosted by Russia-friendly businessmen in Stuttgart, the heart of German industry.

Outside of Germany, Russia is reaching out to former eastern bloc EU members like Hungary and Bulgaria, as well as Balkan states. Last month in Milan, Merkel was made to wait for Putin for hours because he lingered in the Serbian capital Belgrade to take part in a military parade.

Russia also appears to be extending a hand to right-wing opposition parties in Europe. France's National Front confirmed at the weekend that it had secured a 9 million euro loan from a Moscow-based bank.

The Russian charm offensive promises to make the third big challenge for German diplomacy -- keeping EU partners united on sanctions -- far more difficult.

The first set of EU sanctions is due to expire in March and will need to be renewed. German officials say Italy, Hungary and Slovakia will be the most difficult countries to keep on board.

"Putin will be trying to peel countries away in the run-up to March," said one. Another described the battle to keep the EU united on Russia as a "Herculean task".

Against the backdrop of this fragile EU consensus, ratcheting up economic sanctions further is seen as a "no go" in Berlin for now.

That would change, German officials say, if Russian-backed separatists carved out a corridor of control from eastern Ukraine to Crimea by taking the strategic city of Mariupol.

For Merkel however, the showdown seems to be evolving from a fast-moving tit-for-tat affair into a longer game in which the West slowly squeezes Russia's struggling economy in the hope that Putin eventually blinks.

"Because we have ruled out war, some people may think they can do whatever they like with us," she said late last month at an event in the east German church where she was baptized, opening up to an audience of locals who, like her, had been taught to love mother Russia in their youth.

"We won't allow this," she added.

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