No one has made as much effort with Russia's President Putin as Chancellor Merkel. The war in Donbass makes it clear how small the influence of the U.S. on Europe has become.
In the Ukrainian war, even a real ceasefire would be a great triumph. Whether it will happen is uncertain, improbable even. Whatever the fate of the second Minsk agreement, it would not have come about without the German chancellor. This has to do with Angela Merkel as a person, but also with the fact that Vladimir Putin would not have come to the negotiating table without active mediation from Berlin and Paris. Not too long ago, a process like this without the U.S. would have been unthinkable. Today the Americans hardly play a role in this – and elsewhere in Europe – anymore.
Merkel's permanent telephone diplomacy and her tireless traveling are good examples of what political leadership in a crisis looks like. The chancellor and her foreign minister, Steinmeier, belie all those who claim the German government, together with Washington, wants to bring Putin to his knees.
Certainly, Minsk II is also a victory for Putin and the separatists fed by Russia, because the agreement de facto recognizes the separation of parts of Ukraine. But no top politician has made such an intense effort with Putin as the chancellor. Merkel and Steinmeier have in no way pursued appeasement, but clearly labeled Russia's responsibility for this war.
Because there is not much unity in the EU in foreign policy matters, EU institutions play a small role in crises. What remains is the obligation of a few, primarily Germany and France, to lead Europe and to lead for Europe. The British, as far as the EU is concerned, have adopted an "unsplendid isolation." For those who believe in Europe, this is regrettable.
Others, such as Italy and Spain, are so absorbed in their internal affairs that they are all but missing as EU foreign policy participants at the moment. In this respect, it is good that the weak French president seems to have gotten back on his feet somewhat. Too much German leadership would agitate not only the leather jacket politicians in Athens.
Washington's Influence Has Shrunk
The conflict over Ukraine also makes it clear how small Washington's role on the old continent has become. Since 1945 the U.S. has been a by no means selfless, always present regional power in Europe. The superpowers maintained a precarious stability of deterrence which stood in the shadow of nuclear missiles. For the Soviets and the Americans, Europe was – to use a phrase which has come back into fashion – a buffer zone, divided into Warsaw Pact states and NATO. There were neutral countries such as Switzerland, which had more of a folkloric character than a model for a different system back then.
No Master Plan To Encircle Russia
Europe seemed to be cemented in this bipolarity. However that also meant the continued existence of the type of cold war which did not exist in other parts of the world where the superpowers fought their hot proxy wars. After the collapse of Soviet socialism, whose most important reason was the quest for freedom of millions upon millions, almost all the former Soviet states changed sides. NATO did not expand into Poland and the Baltic states; these states, which revolted by their own efforts against "barbed wire" socialism, got themselves into NATO.
The accession to the Western alliance was the symbolic entry into a new age. There was no master plan to encircle Russia, but rather the conscious decision of central European states after decades of Soviet dominance to finally go their own ways – and this led them to the West.
The departure of the U.S. from Europe happened gradually. The Iraq War of 2003 was a big turning point, when many Germans and French felt closer to the then new Russia than Bush's America. While the pragmatists in Washington thought that Europe was no longer important for the U.S. after the end of the Cold War, ideologues saw Europe as a sclerotic subcontinent which they had supported for long enough.
The Transatlantic-Dominated Alliance Is Becoming Less Important
Those who still believe today that NATO is seen in Washington as an old instrument of power are wrong. The once transatlantic-dominated alliance is becoming less important in the multi-polar, disparate world of the 21st century. It has hardly developed further after the symbolically important accessions in the 1990s. In light of American "disengagement," and against the backdrop of crises such as the one in Ukraine, European states should contemplate a defense network within the EU. A "European Treaty Organization" or "EUTO" would take account of the fact that there is no longer a bi-polar world order, even if Moscow and Washington, for different reasons, are contemplating the old days.
Unfortunately, since 2003 the number of ideologues has increased not just in Washington, but in Moscow as well. On the Potomac river, global politics looks ever more rowdy, while macho nationalism dominates in Moscow, which has almost suffocated the chances of a liberally developing Russia. The conception that Putin's people have of statehood is not based on partnership or oriented toward balance. Their world view is confrontational and militant. This mental mobilization also includes actual military operations. The separatists in Ukraine couldn't wage war without supplies, political support and "volunteers" from Moscow. Their war is Putin's war.
The situation is not encouraging. The U.S. seems to be almost indifferent to European squabbles; if not, the thinking is primarily in terms of punishment and counter violence against Moscow. Russia, for its part, is chasing irretrievable things (great power status and the glory of the czars) and is deliberately stoking war and violence. That is not even 20th, that is 19th century.