Commentary: Respect for Merkel"s balancing act

Angela Merkel. (Photo: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle)

The last-minute mission that took Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande - first to Kyiv and then to Moscow - over the last few days shows how dramatic the situation in Ukraine has become. The Russia-supported separatists have not only grained ground recently, but apparently also prevailed militarily.

Success isn't guaranteed, but the new initiative by Merkel and Hollande in the Ukraine conflict is the right way to go. Criticism is legitimate, but John McCain struck the wrong note, says DW's Michael Knigge.

The fact that supposedly unorganized separatists can force the army of a large country like Ukraine to its knees speaks a clear language: Russia supports the separatists with all the means at its disposal. By now, this is hardly contested anymore.

Due to this military imbalance, the Ukrainian army is at risk of losing further areas. If this continues, Ukraine's integrity will be threatened. To prevent this, more and more voices, especially in the US, are calling for weapons deliveries to Ukraine. Supporters say this is the only way to put Russia's President Vladimir Putin in his place and prevent a division of Ukraine.

US President Barack Obama hasn't taken an explicit stand on the issue so far. But it's clear that Washington isn't excluding any options anymore, even if they still emphasize that the conflict can only be solved diplomatically.

Achieving a solution by negotiating

This is what Merkel believes, too. She shares the US' assessment that Ukraine is in a hopelessly inferior position in the conflict with the Russia-supported separatists. She proved this in the question round after her speech at the Munich Security Conference.

At the same time, she does not believe that the imbalance can be solved by delivering weapons to Ukraine. Merkel said that sending weapons into the crisis zone wouldn't improve the situation, but escalate it. She is convinced: the conflict can only be solved by negotiating.

Unfortunately, she's mostly alone with this perspective, at least outside western Europe. Russia's President Putin has clearly shown what he thinks of negotiation attempts, with his actions coming from a position of military strength: absolutely nothing. Neither tough sanctions, nor a dramatic downfall of the ruble have managed to make Putin come around.

US politicians noticed this as well. In fact, that's what has lead to the change of strategy. Putin doesn't want to negotiate, so the only way to force him to give in is by arming Ukraine - this is what many people in Washington believe.

Here, too, Merkel shares the first part of the US analysis. She's open about the fact that Putin has so far ignored all negotiation results. And she also admits that there's no guarantee that her and Hollande's attempt at a diplomatic solution will have any sensible results or that Putin will stick to it.

McCain's accusation

How tense things are also became clear when Republican US Senator John McCain voiced his opinion loud and clear. He accused the German government of either being clueless or careless about the fact that humans were slaughtered in Ukraine. Criticizing Merkel's mission - and doing it clearly - is not just legitimate, but logical. But McCain's accusation goes far beyond acceptable criticism. The senator just discredited himself on the world stage, even if he could gather points domestically.

The West is in a quandary with the Ukraine conflict. If nothing happens, the separatists will continue to advance and the country will suffer. If the West delivers weapons, an escalation of the military violence looms. Who knows where it would end.

Merkel's mission is the desperate attempt to escape from this dilemma. The goal is to find a diplomatic solution to stop the seemingly inevitable fall into an open war. Merkel's last-minute maneuver deserves respect. After all, the clock is ticking. A time of "total warfare," as French President Hollande recently called it, could arrive soon.

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