Ukraine: A Merkel Option to Revive Diplomacy?

Given the lack in Europe of a serious commitment to diplomatic efforts to resolve the war in Ukraine, which would necessarily involve talking to President Putin, the option of an initiative to be taken by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been mentioned repeatedly in Germany. Two moves in the past week have relaunched the discussion: a lengthy special in the leading weekly Der Spiegel with a focus on Merkel’s heritage, and a commentary for the Swiss weekly Weltwoche by Erich Vad, Merkel’s national security advisor from 2006 to 2013.

The former Chancellor (from 2005-2021) had some 50 meetings with Vladimir Putin during her time in office. In the Spiegel story, Merkel tells interviewer Alexander Osang that the Russia-Ukraine war “did not come as a surprise. The Minsk agreement had eroded. In the summer of 2021, after Presidents Biden and Putin had met, I wanted to again establish with Emmanuel Macron in the EU Council a format of independent European talks with Putin. There was opposition to this from some, and I no longer had the strength to assert myself, because everyone knew: she’ll be gone in the fall.” Had she run again for Chancellor in the 2021 national election in September, “I would have kept on drilling there,” Mme Merkel adds.

She also stressed that at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008, she blocked the candidacies of Georgia and Ukraine, so as not to provoke Russia, an intent that also characterized her diplomatic efforts in 2014 to prevent the breakout of war over Crimea. When asked what she would do if she were to serve as mediator now, she leaves the question open, noting that she has received no such mandate from Kiev, nor from the present German government. But she has been on the phone with Emmanuel Macron repeatedly, she reveals.

Though not mentioning a Merkel option as such, Gen. Erich Vad (ret.) hints in the same pro-diplomacy direction in the Weltwoche commentary: “We are witnessing a military stalemate. A prolonged war of attrition is looming, on a front line almost 1000 kilometers long. The Ukrainians can make selective gains because they have the reconnaissance and targeting data from Western countries at their disposal. But only spotty, not sustainable. My assessment of the situation is shared by General Mark Milley, the U.S. Chief of Staff. He also believes that this war cannot be decided militarily. That’s why we have to see how we can get out of it in another way. With negotiations.”

Vad insists on a realistic orientation of such negotiations: “Russia will not and cannot capitulate in view of the vital strategic relevance of Crimea and the Donbass…. It is therefore illusory to want to liberate the Donbass and Crimea with a major Ukrainian offensive.” It would make more sense, in his view, to freeze the conflict with a demarcation line recognized under international law, and ceasefire regulations as quickly as possible. He expressed a certain optimism “because secret diplomacy is underway. The US National Security Adviser was recently in Kiev. There is also a hot line between Moscow and Washington, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are also connected. This shows that there is apparently no willingness to let the conflict degenerate into a third world war. Nobody wants that.”

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