A Cold German Spring for Merkel and Putin

Posted: Apr 25, 2014 12:01 AM
A Cold German Spring for Merkel and Putin

BERLIN -- Berlin enjoyed an unusually warm winter (just the opposite of ours), but the blast of frigid air ushering in spring seems especially suited to accompany the changing attitudes many Germans express in their view of a restive world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's calculating behavior, first in the Crimea and now in Ukraine, sends chills down the spine of the body politic. Once gaga over Barack Obama, their warmth has turned to frost. They, like many Americans, are particularly bitter over his collecting electronic data of ordinary Germans and eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.

They once laughed at the contrived macho images of Mr. Putin's bare chest, his strong arms performing the butterfly stroke, his posing next to the pike he caught that was almost as tall as he was. But they never forgot that he once practiced the grim trade of a KGB agent in Dresden, before the Berlin Wall fell, where he worked closely with the Stasi, the universally hated East German secret police.

When he climbed to power in Russia, becoming president twice, he became a leader to be reckoned with, but never trusted. One of his KGB colleagues in Dresden describes him as "someone who thinks one thing and says something else." The Russia he was elected to lead in 2000 was not regarded here as a superpower, but everyone fears his ambitious power now.

The Germans looked glowingly at Obama when he was a candidate for president in 2008, swooning by the hundreds of thousands when they greeted the junior senator from Illinois at the Brandenburg Gate as if he were a rhinestone rock star, all dazzle and glitter. He was the embodiment of hope and change, peace and love, the totally "cool" stranger. He was the antithesis of George W. Bush, whom they loathed.

The presumed president-to-be spoke as if he really believed in "allies who will listen to each other; who will learn from each other; who will, above all, trust each other." A predictably shattered romance lay ahead.

Both the Russian and the American are seen now as threatening the German wish for peace and prosperity for Europe. Putin's macho buffoonery is perceived now as having hidden a cunning strategist, planning a dangerous game of usurping power with dexterity and finesse. He's unpopular and considered armed and dangerous.

The Allensbach Institute, a German public opinion polling organization, finds that seven of 10 Germans now regard Russia as a world power, up from four in 10 six years ago.

Some of Obama's lost shine and luster has been transferred to Edward Snowden, who is a hero to many Germans for exposing the American snooping on friend and foe. The Germans find it ironic that Americans now debate Obama's "manhood," as New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests, questioning whether he's tough enough to stand up to "somebody like Putin."

Josef Joffe, the editor of Die Zeit, an intellectual German weekly, tells The New Yorker's David Remnick that the American president "wants to turn the United States into a very large medium power, into an XXL France or Germany."

Mr. Putin may be testing that. The wily Russian, perhaps dreaming of restoring Russia to the terror of Western nightmares, fails to play by the 21st-century rules that the West thinks everyone wants to honor. But from here, he's seen not as anachronism but as a man who simply plays by rules of his own.

Norbert Rottgen, chairman of the Bundestag's foreign-affairs committee, argues that Putin's unwillingness to play by the rules of international relations requires the West to show it's tough enough to stand up for convictions of its own. History has taught the Germans to be sensitive to "excessive nationalism" and "territorial megalomania," but the time may be at hand for Germany to become the crucial player. Implementing sanctions against Moscow could be the place to start.

Merkel, who grew up in East Germany when it was a Soviet satrapy, has the scientist's eye for observation and analysis. She understands the phrase, "It's the economy, dummkopf!" With 6,000 German companies doing business with Russia and more than 350,000 German workers who thrive through Russian trade with Germany, she recognizes German economic vulnerability and the importance of oil and gas imports, but she knows the damage the Europeans could inflict on Russia with serious sanctions limiting exports, which include high-tech products, trains, automobiles, chemicals and medicines.

Disillusioned that her telephone diplomacy with Putin failed, she's poised to go for more, to push her reputation as a tough Merkelvellian with the gloss of Mutti, a mother. She's fluent in Russian, but it's not at all clear that she and Vlad speak the same language.