Ukraine—Out of the Spotlight, Out of the West’s Interest? German and U.S. Viewpoints on the Resolution of the Ukrainian-Russian Conflict and Its Security Implications

Antje Nötzold

Chemnitz University of Technology

Dr. Antje Nötzold is a Research Associate and Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Chemnitz University of Technology. Additionally, she receives a scholarship for her habilitations thesis from the Konrad-Adenauer- Foundation. She is a member of the Working Group of Young Foreign Policy Experts of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and has participated in the Expert Advisory Group “European and South Mediterranean Actors – Partners in Conflict
Prevention and Resolution,” the Manfred Wörner Seminar, organized by the Federal Ministry of Defense and the German Marshall Fund, as well as the International Visitor Leadership Program of the U.S. State Department.

Dr. Nötzold holds a PhD in Political Science from the Chemnitz University of Technology and a Magister degree with a double major in political science and business administration. In her dissertation, “The energy policy of the EU and the People’s Republic of China. Implications for European Supply Security,” published in 2011, she analyzed the characteristics of common EU and Chinese energy policies and their respective priorities. The dissertation also identified the interdependencies of both consumers through policies and markets with regard to securing supplies.

For all of 2014 and well into 2015, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the hostile events in Crimea and the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk dominated German and (at least central and eastern) European foreign and security policy, shaped the U.S. view on Europe, and evoked abundant pithy statements. Although Germany was long notorious for being too indulgent toward Russia and labeled a “Russlandversteher,” in November 2014 the tone changed remarkably after the G20 summit in Australia, with Chancellor Angela Merkel clearly stating: “Russia is violating the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine. […] Russia is now seeking to exert influence in order to destabilize eastern Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk. […] Outdated thinking in terms of spheres of influence which tramples international law underfoot must not be allowed to prevail.”[1] German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier characterized the consequences as “the post-1989 European order is openly called into question”[2]; and assessed these developments as a test for “the trans-Atlantic bond.”[3] Although it was not the major aspect of his address at the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September 2015, U.S. president Barack Obama expressed corresponding concern: “we cannot stand by when sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated. If that happens without consequences in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today” and reaffirmed: “I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.”[4]

State of Play

The predominant assessment of a holding ceasefire since the beginning of September—despite ongoing double-digit numbers of explosions daily and several exchanges of small-arms and machine-gun fire registered by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine[5]—was received with relief by the West, which is becoming increasingly preoccupied with the dramatic numbers of refugees pouring into Europe, especially to Germany and Austria.  The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, new developments in Syria, and the military interventions of Turkey and Russia are also drawing attention away from Ukraine, and the still unsolved conflicts within Ukraine and with Russia have been overshadowed in the media, in public discourse, and in policy and politics. In public discussions and media coverage, Ukraine has been displaced by the daily business of dealing with hundreds of thousands of refugees in Germany and the presidential primary race in the United States. Aside from the investigation of the downing of flight MH17, the news value of the simmering conflict with fewer violent occurrences is extremely low for Western news agencies as long as the overall ceasefire is holding and there are no new provocations by the separatists like the announcement of local elections in Donbas.

Furthermore, Russia and its propaganda machinery of government-steered media moved the spotlight away from Ukraine and on to its military operations in Syria. As a result, the widespread view is that Russia has achieved its minimum objective: creating a frozen conflict that undermines Ukraine’s territorial integrity, thwarting the potential for the country to join NATO and/or the EU, and creating an environment of instability that could be turned up and down at Russia’s convenience. No matter if Russia pursues policies aimed at reestablishing its sphere of influence and political control over it’s so-called near abroad, or if Moscow leaves it at controlling Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia’s action in Europe is not just the weather of today, it already is a climate change. Its consequences will engage the U.S. and Europe’s foreign and security policy not only in the months, but in the years to come, and will change the international world order—“but only if the United States and Europe assent to it.”[6] Further Western engagement in Ukraine, as well as the lessons already learned for NATO and for a comprehensive and coherent security policy, will be crucial.

Ukraine—What’s Next?

When it comes to how to handle Ukraine and how to solve the conflicts within Ukraine and with Russia, Crimea is the elephant in the room. Although a lasting settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict will not be accomplished without including this issue, so far no compromise or conceivable negotiated solution is in sight. Therefore, German and U.S. policy admittedly note that the annexation of Crimea was a breach of international law, but concentrate on the conflict in eastern Ukraine and supporting the reform efforts of the Ukrainian government.

In the beginning of 2015, in particular when the fighting increased despite a prescribed ceasefire in the Minsk II agreement, the U.S. Congress, as well as American think tanks, advocated in rare bipartisan unity to provide direct military assistance (including lethal defensive arms) to the Ukrainian army fighting the separatists in Donbas.[7] Merkel and Obama were united in rejecting this option, however, and Obama resisted calls from both Houses to provide Ukraine with lethal aid. Politics in both countries were in line with public opinion. While Americans are divided on this issue, with polls vacillating between a slim majority for and a narrow dismissal of support,[8] support for sending weaponry is extremely low in Germany, with 19 percent in favor and 77 percent opposed in June.[9] With the largely holding ceasefire since the beginning of September, support for lethal aid at this time is in decline in the United States as well. However, Congress’ recently-passed defense policy bill includes $300 million to help Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists, with up to $50 million for lethal military aid.[10]

Another distinct disagreement between German and U.S. public is the question of NATO membership for Ukraine, with 62 percent of the Americans in favor versus only 36 percent of Germans.[11] Nevertheless, both countries support financial assistance, even though support in the United States ranks among the lowest in the eight NATO member countries asked[12]; encourage debt restructuring; and advocate for the next payout of the bailout money from the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. Senate is further engaged in discussions on new legislation on fiscal aid to fight corruption and improve the energy supply situation (among other issues).

From the German and U.S. perspective, the holding ceasefire gives the Ukrainian government an essential pause to take a breath and to pursue its domestic reform agenda. However, impatience with the reform progress as well as with the resolution of the separatist issue in Donbas is gaining ground in Ukraine. Many are doubtful whether the current administration is truly committed to breaking up the traditional oligarch networks and leverages. Moreover, the discussions about constitutional reforms and a modified status for the eastern provinces are taking place against the background of growing nationalism inflamed by the sacrifices in Donbas. Hence, only one-third of Ukrainians support a greater regional autonomy for Luhans’k and Donets’k.[13]

Implications for NATO as well as the German and U.S. Role and Identity in Security Policy

With Russian direct military involvement violating the post-Cold War security order in Europe, as well as violating several agreements guaranteeing territorial integrity, NATO and its key task of national defense is back on the agenda all over Europe. NATO has to prepare to secure its borders for maintaining deterrence and security assurances, especially for its member countries in eastern Europe. Although both the public and policymakers in Germany and the United States were opposed a direct military involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, a Russian attack on a NATO member would likely change the picture: U.S. politicians and the public would support the use of military force to defend a NATO ally. Alarmingly, the German public differs: most oppose the deployment of its own military, whereas two-thirds assume that the United States would defend an ally with military force.[14]

Following the incidents in Ukraine, Germany politicians over the past two years have started to publicly advocate in favor of the country overcoming its hesitation and fulfilling its position as a strong European country—including in the security dimension—and have affirmed to its allies that “Germany does not shy away from making full use of its foreign policy tools.”[15] Nevertheless, the discussions in Germany about taking over a bigger share of responsibility for European security and international order are still at the very beginning (especially among the public); the recognition that this sometimes requires also military means is particularly low. And indeed, even in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the concrete danger of attacks in Hannover, only 41 percent of Germans would support direct participation by the Bundeswehr in combat missions against the Islamic State (IS).[16]

Thus, the crisis in Ukraine and the military display by Russia did not deeply change the German public’s threat perception and attitude toward Russia. Conversely, a majority in the United States perceives Russia as a major military threat to its neighboring countries[17] and U.S. policy observes with concern the force imbalance on NATO’s eastern border, the snap exercises including the deployment of 100,000 troops close to Russia’s western border, and in particular the enhanced Russian military capabilities with the launch of long-range cruise missiles over the Caspian Sea targeting Syria.

NATO’s Readiness Action Plan and the “spearhead” force were important short-term arrangements that acted as assurances by the alliance toward its members located at the eastern flank. Nevertheless, a long-term shift in the defense strategy of the alliance is necessary to strengthen the capabilities and structures that are essential to conduct missions abroad as well as to guarantee territorial security of its members. Although the United States will stay committed to assuring the security of NATO members and to counterbalancing Russia’s military superiority in Europe, U.S. leaders anticipate a significantly more distinct contribution of European NATO members. In line with this, the Ukrainian conflict and the related dealings with Russia are also perceived as a European problem. Stepping up European commitment to NATO is a priority beyond the Ukraine conflict: U.S. policymakers are actively promoting the idea of creating permanent NATO bases in Poland, the Baltics, and at the southeastern flank in Rumania or Bulgaria at the July 2016 Warsaw summit. Germany in particular is seen as an appropriate contributor to such new NATO elements, as from the U.S. view its leading role in the negotiation process with Russia is appreciated but should be coupled with a more pronounced military commitment to “demonstrate shared resolve across the Alliance.”[18]

Conclusion and Outlook

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric calling for a common approach to fighting terrorism, particularly the Islamic State, together with Russia’s military involvement in Syria changed the global picture and necessitates the incorporation of Moscow back into the international community. Nevertheless, Germany and the United States remain in agreement that there will be no trade-off of the pivotal interests of territorial integrity and non-interference in Ukraine for Russia’s contribution in Syria, in particular as Russia is not targeting IS, but rather the opposition groups that endanger the rest of Bashar Assad’s regime—including those actively supported by U.S. training and military equipment.

In eastern Ukraine, both the United States and Germany are sticking to their entrenched habit of referring to the Minsk agreements and waiting to see whether Russia will live up to its commitments this time. However, even if Minsk II is fully implemented—and the odds are long, not only with regard to the separatists, but also to the controversies within Ukrainian society over the right approach to deal with the conflict and its perpetrators—the issue of Crimea, the Russian perception of Ukraine as part of its distinctive sphere of influence and its leverage in eastern Ukraine, as well as the rivalry between the European and the Russian projects for integration will endure.

Therefore, Europe and the United States should take into account a long-term perspective on the resolution of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, and should come to an understanding with each other and with Ukraine about the red lines of possible outcomes. After a glimmer of constitutive diplomacy with the Minsk agreements—especially the German persistence to reach Minsk II—both have reverted to the convenient mode of “strategic patience.”  If the transatlantic partners, content with the current ceasefire, shift their political focus primarily toward reforms within Ukraine—as they truly are necessary and overdue—and wait uncomplainingly for Russia’s next step in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, the state of affairs would be frozen at best. Russia could take the helm and exercise its option to fire up the conflict in eastern Ukraine and possibly other former Soviet states where and whenever appropriate.

Both the United States and Europe—and particularly Germany as the lead international negotiator between Russia and Ukraine—need to deal with Moscow in such a way that they are seen with strength. While for now the United States will remain in the backseat of the efforts to settle the conflict in Donbas at least until the new president takes office in 2017, the consensus in Washington is that the new administration, whether Democratic or Republican, will take a stronger stance against Russia in response to its approach in Ukraine and the related information warfare against the West. Whether the new president will also take more of a leadership role for him or herself or keep pushing the Europeans to do their part with regard to the conflict in Ukraine—not only in conflict management, but also with regard to military deterrence—would depend on the person elected.

With the ceasefire and the tentative progress being made, the German focus will remain on the implementation of the Minsk II agreement. However, international politics should not give in the temptation that Minsk II is now a self-fulfilling process; rather the contrary. In particular, a conscientious assessment of progress as well as exerting pressure for reforms in Ukraine and maintaining the sanctions against Russia will be decisive factors that impact whether both sides fulfill all their obligations in the agreed steps of Minsk II. Although Moscow is back on the stage of international politics with the fight against terrorism and IS, the economic sanctions represent a remaining thorn in Moscow’s side. Berlin’s position and leverage within the European Union will be crucial to pursue the European line and to uphold the sanction regime. A course of gradual withdrawal of sanctions corresponding with improvements in individual aspects of the agreement—as recently suggested by German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel as his “private opinion” during a visit in Moscow—would be highly dangerous and erode the whole mechanism. A reintroduction after new violations of commitments by Russia would be more difficult. Each time the decision about prolonging sanctions against Russia comes on the EU agenda, it will be more difficult to reach unanimity; still, Berlin is expected to manage a consensus on common European policy.

Furthermore, Berlin should take advantage of the opportunity of its OSCE presidency in 2016 to strengthen the organization and its functions in maintaining security in Europe. As Russia obstructs a UN peacekeeping force in Donbas, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is a pivotal non-affiliated evaluation of the situation on the ground.  With further process in implementing the Minsk II agreement, a support mission or border security assistance mission is likely to be put forward again.

If Berlin succeeds with both efforts, it would live up to the role Foreign Minister Steinmeier accredits to Germany in the transatlantic community: “to play an efficient role as Europe’s ‘chief facilitating officer,’ forging an ambitious and unified response to the challenges we are facing.”[19] Germany must encourage the European countries to jointly exert stronger leadership and play an important part in contributing to Europe staying America’s closest and most relevant partner.

Dr. Antje Nötzold is a research associate in the Department of International Relations, at Chemnitz University of Technology.


[1] Angela Merkel, “Rede von Bundeskanzlerin Merkel am Lowy Institut für Internationale Politik,“ 17 November 2014, <> (17.11.2015).

[2] Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “The Postwar System Is Under Challenge,” New York Times on the Web, 11 March 2015, <> (17.11.2015).

[3] Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “The Postwar System Is Under Challenge,” New York Times on the Web, 11 March 2015, <> (17.11.2015).

[4] Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations General Assembly,” 28 September 2015,<> (16.11.2015).

[5] OSCE, “Daily and spot reports from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine,” <> (16.11.2015).

[6] Jeffrey Rathke, “A NATO Strategy for the Eastern Flank,” in CSIS “Global Forecast 2016, p. 44,> (16.11.2015).

[7] Ivo Daalder, “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” February 2015, <
> (16.11.2015).

[8] While Pew Center indicated 46 percent support for lethal aid a survey of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed only 40 percent support for sending arms and military supply to Ukraine with both survey conducted in May, June 2015, see Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, p. 21, <> (16.11.2015) and Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, “America Divided: Political Partisanship and US Foreign Policy,“ p. 28, 15 September 2015, <> (17.11.2015).

[9] Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, p. 21, <> (16.11.2015).

[10] “Congress Passes Bill Giving Lethal Aid To Ukraine,” 10 November 2015, <> (17.11.2015).

[11] Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, p. 9, <> (16.11.2015).

[12] Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, <> (16.11.2015), 20.

[13] Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, <> (16.11.2015), 13.

[14] Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, <> (16.11.2015), 5, 9.

[15] Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “The Postwar System Is Under Challenge,” New York Times on the Web, 11 March 2015, <> (17.11.2015).

[16] „Kampf gegen den IS? Bitte ohne uns!,“, 22 November 2015, <> (20.11.2015).

[17] Pew Center, „NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,“ 10 June 2015, <> (16.11.2015), 17.

[18] Rathek, Jeffrey, “A NATO Strategy for the Eastern Flank,” in 2016 Global Forecast, ed. Craig Cohan and Melissa G. Dalton, <> (16.11.2015), p. 45,

[19] Frank-Walter Steinmeier, “The Postwar System Is Under Challenge,” New York Times on the Web, 11 March 2015, <> (17.11.2015).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.