Germany’s Angela Merkel was the first to concede after a Ukraine peace plan was reached in Minsk that “big hurdles” remain to silence the guns, but many are already hailing her as Europe’s peacemaker-in-chief.
During 10 long months of fighting, Merkel and her foreign minister have doggedly kept up the dialogue with Moscow, the first time that post-war Germany has taken the lead in trying to resolve a military conflict. The chancellor has acted shoulder-to-shoulder with French President Francois Hollande and will perhaps share the blame if it all goes horribly wrong.
Cautious as ever, Merkel at the end of the marathon talks in Minsk played down expectations that the latest deal would hold, calling it just a “glimmer of hope” and soberly stressing “I have no illusions.” She then jetted off to a Brussels summit later in the day, where all eyes will again be on Merkel as debt-hit Greece seeks to renegotiate the loans program she has championed through the eurozone crisis years.
It is a sign of her status that even Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis—despite Athens’ anger at Merkel’s austerity diktat—this week complimented the trained physicist as “by far and away the most astute politician in Europe.”
Through the Ukraine conflict, Merkel, a Russian speaker who grew up in communist East Germany, has spoken more than 40 times to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a German speaker and former KGB officer in the German Democratic Republic. Last week Merkel, often derided as painfully cautious, flew with Hollande to the Kremlin in a last-ditch effort to prevent greater bloodshed, if not a full-blown East-West confrontation.
All the while she has insisted “there is no military solution,” resisting pressure building in Washington on U.S. President Barack Obama to send arms to Kiev’s embattled troops, a move Merkel feared would only escalate the war.
In the 17-hour crunch summit in Minsk, following a grueling week of shuttle diplomacy, Merkel, 60, harnessed what she has called her “camel-like” ability to store up sleep like water and negotiate through the night. If the ceasefire takes effect, holds and ends the crisis, the pastor’s daughter often described as “the world’s most powerful woman” will likely be praised as having achieved her finest hour as she nears 10 years at the helm of Europe’s top economy.
German mass-circulation daily Bild has hailed Merkel as “the world chancellor,” marveling at a week of frantic shuttle diplomacy that took her to Kiev, Moscow, Munich, Washington, Ottawa and Minsk. “In the conflict with Russia, the U.S. has taken a backseat and let the EU take the lead, with Angela Merkel at the helm,” commented German news weekly Die Zeit. Vienna daily Die Presse said that “nothing goes without Merkel on the European stage, she dominates Europe.”
“Germany has shed the restraint it had imposed on itself since the Second World War—in part because France has checked itself out … If not Merkel, who else would have got Russian President Vladimir Putin at least to the negotiating table?”
At home, cautious praise came even from her bitterest political enemies. “That is a first success of diplomacy that could turn out to be meaningful,” conceded Gregor Gysi, leader of the far-left Linke party. “She deserves respect for this.” Senior Social Democrat Rolf Muetzenich told the Welt daily that “I must confess I have big respect for Angela Merkel’s achievements,” saying her frantic diplomatic schedule must have pushed her to her physical limits.
However, not all have joined the Merkel fan club.
News weekly Der Spiegel in a commentary this week conceded that three-time election winner Merkel is “impressive,” with a sharp grasp of details, but went on to say that so far she has achieved few substantial outcomes. “Quite clearly, the chancellor has since the beginning completely underestimated Putin’s cunning and determination,” it judged. “She should have been either harder or softer—her middle path has hardly impressed Putin. Angela Merkel, much-admired, is nothing more than a politician who misjudges developments, makes bad choices and has limited influence.”
Successful or not, the Merkel years have brought to the fore the role of Berlin in Europe and the world. George Friedman, chairman of U.S. think-tank Stratfor Global Intelligence, wrote that for decades “Germany’s goal has been to avoid taking a leading political or military role in Europe. It is interesting to consider how far Germany has come in a rather short time.”