German Leader Emerges As Key Figure In Ukraine Talks

RIGA, Latvia -- With President Obama facing a host of other problems around the world and at home, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is emerging more and more as a pivotal leader on the Ukraine conflict.

Germany's Angela Merkel

But while the leadership role plays to her image and Germany’s sense of its importance in Europe, it has Ms. Merkel dancing delicately between opposing forces.

On Monday, she descended on Latvia for six hours to deliver a message:

She sympathizes with the Baltics’ fears in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine.

She agrees that NATO’s treaty about standing behind alliance members in need “is not only a hypothetical possibility, but a very real option that we will act upon when needed.”

“We must be prepared for this,” she said, “and these preparations must be stronger than we thought a few years ago.”

But while that reflected her disillusionment with President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, she made equally clear that Germany — and presumably other NATO powers — would not agree to a permanent presence of allied troops in countries bordering Russia at a NATO summit meeting in Wales next month, as the Baltic States have demanded.

That, she said, would flout the NATO-Russia accord of 1997.

Instead, she and Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma of Latvia suggested after talks on Monday, the allies will maintain a “persistent presence,” involving allied troops in air surveillance, near-constant maneuvers or training that keeps NATO forces on the ground much of the time in member states like Poland or the Baltics — a compromise, but not one likely to set off Mr. Putin’s wrath.

Ms. Merkel’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis deepened Tuesday, when it was announced in Berlin that she would travel to Kiev, the capital, on Saturday for talks with Ukrainian leaders.

Hours later came the announcement that Ukraine’s leader and Mr. Putin will meet next Tuesday in Belarus — only their second face-to-face meeting and one that the Germans, among others, have been pushing for weeks.

Ms. Merkel’s visit to Ukraine on Saturday will be her first since the crisis erupted last fall, and will pointedly take her there a day before Ukraine’s independence day on Sunday.

More delicately, it puts her in Ukraine on the 75th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the Nazis and Soviets, which paved the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland, the start of World War II and first the Nazi, and then the Soviet, occupation of the Baltics.

Memories of those occupations have stirred anew in the Baltics in recent months, particularly when watching the Russian annexation of Crimea or hearing the Kremlin invoke the need to protect Russian minorities abroad.

Baltic leaders, each with their own Russian minorities, have demanded an allied, particularly American, military presence.

While those demands are certain to be renewed at the Wales meeting, some Latvian leaders signaled acceptance of the “persistent presence” as a credible alternative. 

“The role of NATO first of all is deterrence,” Edgars Rinkevics, the Latvian foreign minister, said in an interview.

While he insisted that “the deterrence has to be credible,” he did not rule out that a persistent presence could have that effect.

The German chancellor’s visit, he added, “was rather important for many reasons,” and constituted “quite a step forward.” 

Ms. Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have each spent many hours trying to resolve the Ukraine crisis.

Ms. Merkel is last known to have discussed Ukraine with Mr. Obama as he headed into his vacation 10 days ago; since then, she has talked at least twice to Putin and more to President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine.

Ms. Merkel, who speaks Russian, has spoken to Putin, who speaks German, dozens of times since the Russian leader sent troops into Crimea in late February.

With Mr. Obama immersed in crises from Iraq to Ferguson, Mo., and other European leaders facing their own domestic problems — Britain is riveted by Scotland’s referendum on independence, France is mired in economic and political woes — she is ever more the guiding spirit at European summit meetings as well as handling Ukraine in between, diplomats say.

Mr. Steinmeier spent five hours with his Russian, Ukrainian and French counterparts at a villa on a Berlin lake on Sunday.

They appear to be aiming for at least a temporary cease-fire in eastern Ukraine.

But mindful that previous written declarations from recent meetings remained totally unrealized, Mr. Steinmeier refrained from even framing a document, anxious simply to keep the negotiating momentum going.

Ms. Merkel is sounding equally determined in the face of continued Kremlin flouting of international law.

“We can really act with certainty,” she emphasized Monday in terms of supporting NATO partners.

“There will be a much bigger, stronger presence here than in the past was the case.” 

Source: The New York Times