German president Joachim Gauck has canceled a visit to the Ukraine that was scheduled for next month amid growing concern about the persecution of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko is serving a seven year prison sentence on corruption charges. She had gone on a hunger strike to protest her treatment but denied medical care.
The German ambassador to Ukraine added to the pressure on Friday when he warned that an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine will likely not be signed. The Czech foreign minister earlier warned the same thing. There is also talk of boycotting the European football championship which is to take place in Poland and Ukraine this summer.
Gauck, a former human rights activist from East Germany, was elected president in March and due to attend a summit of Central and Eastern European leaders in the Black Sea resort of Yalta in May.
Most former Soviet satellite states in the region have joined the European Union and the NATO alliance since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Ukraine is an exception. Tymoshenko was a proponent of European Union membership but incumbent president Viktor Yanukovich is considered pro-Russian. Ukraine’s eastern half is largely populated by people of Russian descent and Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet is headquartered in the Crimea.
Germany’s public condemnations of the Ukrainian government are notable because at least in Eastern Europe, Berlin is seen as strengthening ties with Russia, Yanukovich’s patron.
The construction of the Nord Stream gas pipeline symbolizes Central and Eastern European fears of Germany sacrificing pan-European interests to its own. If the Germans import gas from Russia directly, they can balance their relations with Moscow at the expense of other European Union member states, they worry.
The countries that are caught in the middle depend on Germany economically but derive their security through NATO from the United States. As Poland’s foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski put it in February, “When Germany gets too big for its boots, we always automatically add allies.”
In 1939, it was France and Great Britain. Today, it’s America. Except with the Obama Administration “pivoting” to Asia, there is concern about that commitment.
Former president George W. Bush heralded Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which swept Tymoshenko to power, as a sign of changing times. He favored expansion of NATO membership to include all of Eastern Europe’s former communist states, alarming the Kremlin which saw it as part of a concentrated effort to encircle Russia.
President Barack Obama tried to “reset” relations with Moscow and announced the withdrawal of at least one combat bridge from Europe in favor of a more activist presence in East Asia. Given the American emphasis on countering a rising China, successor administration are unlikely to reverse course, leaving the British and French to maintain a balance of power in Europe.
Countries like the Czech Republic and Poland may fear that they won’t succeed. After all, it wasn’t until the United States interfered that the tide of the Second World War turned in the allies’ favor.
Given their security environment, Central and Eastern European NATO allies will welcome Gauck’s tough talk on Ukraine but unless the Germans clearly distance themselves from Russia too, they still need an outside balancer like the United States because Germany’s interests clearly suggest an Ostpolitik of a different sort, one that bypasses Kiev entirely.