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Complications with Kiev

Just watching staid Angela Merkel and stout Sigmar Gabriel trying to straddle the crevice - figuratively speaking - was quite a sight, no easy matter for the chancellor or the vice-chancellor, who is also head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Victor Grossmam,Uli Kohls

Berlin Bulletin No. 70


One recent news item made Germans happy. Not just Protestants or atheists but most Roman Catholics as well were glad when Pope Francis finally told the now ex-bishop of Limburg, whose embezzlement was far smellier than the famous cheese from the area, to give up his diocese, and with it the $43 million palace he built for himself, art masterpieces, 15,000 euro bathtub and all!

Another item made virtually everyone, as elsewhere, sad - the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian plane MH 370 with all its crew and passengers.

But a less mysterious third item - still splashing over front pages and screens, large and small, met with very divided opinions in Germany. It was the Ukrainian crisis!

Just watching staid Angela Merkel and stout Sigmar Gabriel trying to straddle the crevice - figuratively speaking - was quite a sight, no easy matter for the chancellor or the vice-chancellor, who is also head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Both government parties (and the Bavarian sister party, CSU) always wanted regime change in the Ukraine and had been working to achieve it for years, setting many hopes on two opposition leaders. One was blond-braided petroleum oligarch Yulia Timoshenko, whose suffering in a prison hospital with a long, painful back ailment evoked tearful media calls for her freedom and for treatment in Berlin’s famous Charité hospital, one of the best in Europe.

The other was hulking (6’6”) heavyweight champion Vitali Klitchko, who switched from pro boxing to a Ukrainian political career, saying modestly, “I feel the people there need me”. But he kept strong ties to his adopted second homeland, Germany, where he was supported and almost certainly financed by the Adenauer Stiftung, a think tank and finance source based on Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU). In a Kiev mayoralty campaign he also hired New York’s ex-GOP Mayor Giuliani as advisor, and lost, but his commanding figure and loud voice seemed to dominate demonstrations and riots on Maidan Square in Kiev, and his backers saw him as president - after regime change.

With a powerful punch and durable chin he was never knocked down as a boxer. But politically a vital error brought Vitali down. He chose the wrong manager. In that oh so embarrassing telephone call (was it the Russians who tapped and publicized it? Who knows?)by US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, she discussed in finest detail with the US Ambassador in Kiev just how regime change was to be managed. Their man Arseny Yatsenyuk was to be president, not boxer Klitchko or far-right anti-Semite Tyahnybok. “I don't think 'Klitsch' should go into the government... I don't think it's a good idea. I think 'Yats' is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience. He ... needs 'Klitsch' and Tyahnybok on the outside... talking to them four times a week." Then she uttered those nasty words “F--k the EU!” - indicating Washington’s true attitude towards its “eternal friends and partners for freedom and democracy” in the European Union.

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A promising attempt by German, French and Polish foreign ministers to reach a compromise with Putin, which seemed to be saving the day, and the Ukraine, was quickly met by a new burst of violent blood-letting on Maidan Square, mostly by masked men with fiery projectiles and sharp-shooting guns, which stymied the compromise and forced the corrupt but democratically elected president to flee for his life.  And so, believe it or not, things worked out just exactly the way Nuland had determined, with “Yats” on top and the others outside.

Merkel, the EU’s leading figure, called Nuland’s obscenity “absolutely unacceptable". But, like Washington’s nasty snubs regarding NSA tapping of her private cell phone (and all telephones in Germany), she and most media swallowed their pride and quickly dropped the matter. After all, the Federal Republic of Germany, though a leading force in Europe, neither wished nor dared to sneak out of its almost seventy-year-old ties to the NATO leader across the Atlantic.

Nuland is not a nobody! Once Dick Cheney’s foreign policy adviser and married to leading neo-con Robert Kagan, whose think-tank "Project for the New American Century" pushed military regime change in Iraq and a strategy for global control, she is a key policy-maker. Dismayed German leaders might have recalled the words of a famous countryman, King Frederick II (known as the Great): “Do not forget your big guns, which are the arguments most to be respected …”

Such words were  now dangerously relevant, no longer in a figurative sense: the US Navy reported that the USS Truxtun, a guided missile destroyer and part of an aircraft carrier strike group that left the US in mid-February, was to conduct “training exercises“ with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies in the Black Sea. The Pentagon also said its fighter jets would join NATO patrols on missions in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia near the northern Russian borders.

Perhaps ludicrously, that other hopeful in German plans, Yulia Timoshenko, had also been bitten by the weapons bug. After her release from a prison hospital, she was whisked away at last to Berlin’s Charité hospital where, after therapy swift enough to put even Lourdes to shame, she was back shouting loudly in Kiev, as if her back had never bothered her. But here again a phone call was tapped and made public, topping even Nuland in obscenity and ferocity.

If only she had ruled the roost, she lamented:  "I’m sorry that I am unable to be there in charge of these processes; they wouldn't have had a f--ing chance of getting Crimea off me… would have found a way to finish off those bastards…I hope I can use all my connections and get the whole world to rise up so that not even scorched earth will be left of Russia." As to Ukraine's eight million ethnic Russians, Timoshenko said they should be "nuked". And how she would take care of Putin!

She later apologized - for the expletives. But her remarks were so hateful and obviously hysterical, that even old friends in the German government were forced to disown - and perhaps abandon her.

Washington’s vitriol was a bit less crude and not quite so hysterical - if one overlooks Hillary Clinton’s comparison of Putin with Hitler. But despite Germany’s loss of influence and that EU- insult, Merkel, Vice-Chancellor Gabriel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier climbed onto Obama’s anti-Putin train, and joined in calling for sanctions and other vague measures. But it displayed a little hesitancy, even moderation. The German media were not so moderate; anti-Russian headline belligerency in rags like BILD made some wonder at their seeming forgetfulness about the death of at least 25 million Soviet soldiers and civilians after the German invasion 75 years ago, facts which Putin could hardly forget when he saw NATO forces, allegedly barred from expansion eastward in 1990, advancing menacingly, closer and closer to the heart of Russia.

Some saw in Merkel’s more measured tones a recollection of early visits to the Soviet Union and knowledge of Russian. Others noted that opinion polls show over half of German citizens viewing Putin’s moves in Crimea as understandable or justified and while they may well worry about military maneuvers or statements like Senator McCain’s that “eventually Russians will come for Mr. Putin in the same way and for the same reasons that Ukrainians came for Viktor Yanukovich”, they simply laugh when John Kerry, curiously forgetting Iraq, says: “"You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pre-text.”

But a more convincing explanation for Merkel’s rather moderate tone is that six thousand German companies export $60 billion worth of goods to Russia in a year and receive plenty of valuable oil and gas in exchange. But all the same, while calling for negotiations on the crisis and even urging the new Kiev rulers to undertake “reforms in regard to human rights,” German leaders are making to keep some toes in Ukrainian politics; despite mounting evidence of extreme right-wing elements in the ruling clique and increasing tales of vicious anti-Semitism and discrimination against Russians, they maintain their support, most recently offering to train police forces there!

But while the media fulminated against Putin two voices from the past suddenly contradicted all of them. Right-wing Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt, chancellor from 1979 to 1982 and now 95, is still sagely quoted by the media on almost every topic. But no more, for he defied a major No-No and defended Vladimir Putin’s Crimea policy! “I find it completely understandable,” he said and added his doubts that it violated international law. And the planned punitive sanctions were “stupid nonsense“.

Then another former right-wing Social Democratic popped up, Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005. He upset people even more by admitting that he had himself violated international law as chancellor when Germany joined in the Kosovo war against Serbia. Kosovo, he said, was a blue-print for what was now happening. And he compared the referendum of Crimean Russians and their breakaway from the Ukraine with Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia.

But such words smashed precious chinaware - and many political taboos, especially for the party of the Greens, once seen as leftish. It was their boss and foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who had justified the bombing of Serbia as a great humanitarian mission, like freeing Auschwitz. Now his one-time partner, Schroeder, had demolished that position. And it was the current leading Greens who were outdoing all the others in angry words and loud threats against Putin and Russia, almost as wildly as Yulia Timoshenko.

Two leading Greens in the European Parliament proposed a weird resolution that Schröder should “make no more public statements on subjects concerning Russia.” This gag rule got nowhere. Then another prominent Green sent out, on Twitter and Facebook, a photo montage showing Sahra Wagenknecht of the Left Party backed up by tough-looking Russian soldiers with Kalashnikovs and the words “News Item: Left Party now for foreign troop deployment”. This also went too far for fair-minded Greens, while top party leaders justified it as an intended provocation aimed at calling attention to pro-Russian sentiments by some Left Party leaders - “as in former years”.

The intent was clear: to win away Left  votes in the coming European Parliament election while encouraging a split in the Left Party between “reformers” and “radicals”, thus demolishing the party, always a rival in winning voters and currently neck and neck in opinion polls (at ten percent each).

There were indeed differences in the Left Party, with some defending Putin’s Crimean policy as a reaction to the menace of having Russia surrounded and cut out of vital Black Sea seaports. Others, like caucus head and best-known party figure Gregor Gysi, criticized Putin for violating international law but went on to hit harder still at the NATO and EU forces which had so obviously built up the Ukrainian threat to Russian safety - and now supported a force in Kiev including extreme right-wingers and fascists like Oleh Tyahnybok who gave Hitler salutes, denounced the “criminal activities” of “organized Jewry” and praised Ukrainian nationalist hero Stepan Bandera, who had “fought against the Russians, Germans, Jews and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.”  (For the terms “Russians” and “Jews” he used extremely derogatory slur words). In order to avoid a split in the Left party a compromise was reached and Gysi reprimanded Putin but warned vigorously about the dangers from the neo-Nazis, who even had ties to Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD party. For this the Left was denounced and again ostracized by all the others, especially the Greens. They all insisted on ignoring  or playing down the dangers in Kiev as secondary or controllable: "The opposition party in the newly elected parliament does not yet show obvious extreme right-wing tendencies in its parliamentary work,” it was asserted.

There were a few others, aside from the Left Party who, like Schröder and Schmidt, had some courage. Günter Verheugen, 69, once a right-wing SPD leader and European Commissioner, warned clearly (but largely ignored): “The problem is not really in Moscow or here with us. The problem is in Kiev, where we now have the first government in the 21st century in which fascists are seated."