Angela Merkel crushed it with Ukrainian (and Russian) media when she welcomed the presidential honour guard battalion in Ukrainian. Her “I greet you warriors!” became an instant sensation in the Ukrainian media space as it was seen as a sign of respect for the Ukrainian armed forces. Another symbolic gesture by the German chancellor was to visit the memorial of the “Heavenly Hundred” that commemorates those that died in the Euromaidan protests in 2014 and pay her respects to the heroes of the Revolution of Dignity. However, her visit was not only about symbols but also about making very concrete statements.
Merkel’s visit to Ukraine coincided with the Russian announcement of new sanctions against Ukraine and the Ukrainian political establishment as well as Merkel’s own statement that she doesn’t plan to run for the chancellorship again. Her first visit in the last four years almost seemed like an ad-hoc one: although planned long in advance, it was confirmed only on Monday.
It is worth taking more than just the international context of the visit into account. Ukraine will soon enter a presidential race so Merkel came in one of the last moments when her visit wouldn’t be treated as a direct support for the incumbent president. Nevertheless, it was a sign of support of a certain kind. Unquestionably the most influential leader in Europe was particularly diplomatic and cautious during the press briefing, speaking of Ukrainian successes, international efforts to bring peace to Donbas, and Germany’s technical and financial support for Ukraine. She didn’t openly criticise Poroshenko or other political leaders for some internal failures and focused instead on the growing cooperation between Ukraine and Germany. In terms of image, that visit was particularly successful for Poroshenko. Ukraine’s incumbent president, who is in third place in the latest elections poll after Yulia Tymoshenko and comic artist Volodymyr Zelenskiy, undeniably enjoyed the praising words of the German leader, however cautiously they were expressed.
Germany is one of Ukraine’s most important trade and development partners, but its biggest significance for Ukraine is its role in the peace-building process. Germany, and Merkel in particular, are known as the main architects of the Minsk agreement.
In Ukraine, the Minsk agreement falls into the category of “almost surrender” and in general Ukrainians are very critical of the deal. This sentiment is known in Berlin too. Merkel has emphasised that it is very important that Ukraine continues fulfilling its provisions and that she enthusiastically welcomed the recent prolongation of the law on the special status of certain regions in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Undoubtedly, the steps that Ukraine is making to follow the provisions of the Minsk agreement are an important element of keeping the entire European architecture of sanctions against Russia in place. If Ukraine can’t show at least some progress from its side on meeting Minsk’s conditions, all Ukrainian criticism of Russia’s torpedoing the peace-process would be very weak. However, this is the reminder that Ukrainian politicians should constantly get from abroad and Merkel delivered it this time too.
Merkel stressed that although the Minsk format has not brought a lasting ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine there are no alternatives to the existing document and all sides should respect it. Nevertheless, she reaffirmed that Germany supports the idea of deploying a UN peacekeeping mission to Donbas and will continue to look for a diplomatic way to establish it.
Merkel made it very clear that no matter how much criticism the Minsk agreement might get, this is the strongest reason to continue sanctions against Russia. Progress in the Minsk process is the only grounds on which Germany could consider softening the existing sanctions, said Merkel when answering questions from Ukrainian journalists.
Peace and security weren’t the only topics in Merkel’s press statement. She reminded her audience of German financial support and announced an additional €85mn of support that will be given to Ukraine. Social infrastructure in Eastern Ukraine, support for internally displaced persons, development of Ukrainian science, and continuing the progress in decentralisation remain priority spheres for Germany.
To maintain the amicable atmosphere of the presser, neither Poroshenko nor Merkel touched upon issues of energy security and Nord Stream 2. Nord Stream 2 remains a bitter pill in relations between Ukraine and Germany and there are no signs that this will change any time soon. Nevertheless, this issue was raised during the meeting with heads of parliamentary factions. Merkel’s answer was far from surprising: Nord Stream 2 is a commercial project that is highly interesting for German business although some guaranteed transit amounts should go through Ukraine.
Merkel’s visit seemed very friendly and pleasant. No big shocks, no surprises. At least, the public part of it. Aside from a lack of change in the position towards Nord Stream 2, Merkel said all the things that Ukrainians wanted to hear. Cooperation between Germany and Ukraine is on a good path and will continue growing; German’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty, self- determination and territorial integrity are unquestionable and sanctions against Russia won’t be lifted as long as there is no lasting peace in Eastern Ukraine.
Even if wasn’t intended, Merkel gave an important positive image present to Poroshenko who badly needs recognition of his achievements right at the start of next year’s presidential race.