Despite reluctance at home, Merkel shifts toward tougher stance on Russia


German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear at a news conference in Moscow's Kremlin on Nov. 16, 2012. Through the years as well as in the current crisis, the two leaders have kept in close, if occasionally strained, contact. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

— As the West considers what to do about Russia, Chancellor Angela Merkel is running up against a force she has repeatedly bowed to in the past: German public opinion.

Berlin has a closer relationship with Moscow than any other major European power, giving Merkel a decisive voice in any effort to further punish Russian President Vladi­mir Putin for annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But amid fears that Putin won’t stop there, Merkel is facing a complex balancing act.

In recent weeks, she has appeared to stiffen her resolve to back a strong response, despite the risk of repercussions at home. Russian natural gas lights German furnaces, while a steady stream of German-made cars and heavy equipment flows east, prompting calls for caution from domestic industry. Yet even more vexing for a leader known to pay close attention to opinion polls, she is facing a German public that appears dead set against tougher steps.

A majority of Germans, according to two recent opinion polls, are opposed to significant new sanctions. In addition, one poll suggests that a majority of Germans sympathize with Putin’s desire to protect Russian national interests in Crimea.

At the same time, profound skepticism of the United States after spying revelations by Edward Snowden last year has added to the pressure here. For a vocal minority, the breach of trust exposed by U.S. eavesdropping on the German leader has cast doubt on any initiative advocated by Washington.

“A positive image of Russia has grown in Germany, which is a mixture of culturalism and admiration of Putin as the strong man standing up against the U.S.,” said Stefan Meister, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Early on in the crisis, Merkel emerged as something of a go-between, a powerful leader who had the ear of Moscow and Washington. But she has appeared to harden her stance over the past two weeks, shedding her reputation as a plodding leader earned during the European debt crisis. If she toughed her position, observers say it is because she has felt betrayed by Putin’s earlier assurances that he would not annex Crimea.

Through the years as well as during the current crisis, the two leaders have kept in close, if occasionally strained, contact. Raised in communist East Germany, Merkel speaks fluent Russian, and Putin, a former KGB agent in the east, speaks fluent German. But Merkel’s increasingly tough statements suggest a willingness to risk German-Russian economic ties as well as a backlash at home.

“We are ready at any time to introduce phase three measures if there is a worsening of the situation,” she told Parliament last week.

But her resolve may be tested by public opinion. In a mid-March poll for the German public TV network ZDF, only 26 percent of those asked supported economic sanctions beyond the limited visa bans and asset freezes already imposed. A poll published last Saturday by the German news magazine Der Spiegel, meanwhile, indicated that 55 percent of respondents showed either a lot of or some “understanding” for Crimea being part of a Russian zone of influence.

Those numbers suggest the more nuanced view of Russia in Germany, where the misdeeds of Moscow are still colored by World War II-era guilt and a deep-seated sense of pacifism. On the political right, voices are warning that tough measures might not work even as they damage the German economy. On the left, meanwhile, there are voices that share Moscow’s contempt for the new Ukrainian government, which contains far-right elements, anathema in modern Germany.

Suggesting the strength of the tide against stiffer sanctions, Joe Kaeser, head of the German technology giant Siemens, flew to Moscow this week to meet with Putin. After his visit, he told German public television that Siemens wants to maintain its long-standing business ties with Russia.

Two former German leaders have furthered calls for caution. Former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, 95, said in an interview published Thursday in the German weekly Die Zeit that he thinks Putin’s course of action in Crimea is “understandable.” He sharply criticized the West, describing the sanctions imposed so far as “nonsense” and arguing that any further measures would fail.

The situation in Ukraine is “dangerous because the West gets so wound up about it,” he said.

Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor from the center-left Social Democrats who has warm ties with Putin, also waded into the debate. Schröder, now a top official at Nord Stream, a German-Russian company that operates a gas pipeline between the two countries, acknowledged this month that Putin had broken international law. But he also sought to explain Putin’s actions as “encirclement angst.”

At the same time, the government’s support for a robust response has drawn fire. Last week, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen seemed to suggest that NATO should beef up its eastern borders with a greater military presence. But she quickly backtracked after a flood of criticism, including from within Merkel’s coalition government. Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel decried her comments as falsely leaving the impression “that we’re toying with military options, even the idea of it.”

But public opinion is a fickle beast, even in Germany, and the polls here suggest pragmatism and pacifism more than any serious pro-Russian sentiment. Another poll, for instance, suggested that trust in Putin as a partner for Germany is at all-time low. And observers say it might be that a further push west by the Russians could stoke public anger in favor of tougher sanctions.

Even before the crisis, Merkel had cultivated a more assertive stance with Moscow than some of her predecessors. She has openly clashed with Putin over human rights violations, particularly the jailing of members of the Russian performance-art group Pussy Riot. And many German strategists say they believe the German leader will hold on, even if she is in an uncomfortable position now.

“Germany has always committed itself to a strategic partnership with Russia,” said Sabine Fischer, with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “But German politicians today are expressing markedly more critical views. This is a clear development which can also be seen in the more critical stance of the chancellor.”

Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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