Up to now, the biggest ace the West held in dealing with Russia over the Ukraine conflict was its united front, with the European Union and United States penalizing Moscow with sanctions.
Political unity is also something German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the minority party in the government's right-left coalition, have sought to deliver in Berlin. Now, however, their unity could be fraying.
On Sunday, Ms. Merkel gave a speech in Sydney at a G20 meeting that was notable for its uncharacteristically harsh tone, depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a danger to world peace. Then, on Tuesday, Mr. Steinmeier flew to Kiev and Moscow for diplomatic talks to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 4,000 lives since March.
The Merkel-Steinmeier tag-team strategy could be a typical good cop, bad cop routine, or analysts said, an indication of a crack in the German government's hard line against Russia.
While in Kiev, Mr. Steinmeier warned against “a return to military confrontation” and asked the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk to ensure that the national army used restraint against separatist rebels in the east.
There is no reason for optimism in the current situation. If I was pleased with the situation, I wouldn't be here. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German Foreign Minister
Yet as tensions between Russia and the West intensify, the warring parties in Ukraine appear to be ramping up their military preparations.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO general secretary, warned Tuesday that there was a significant massing of troops in eastern Ukraine and across the border in Russia.
“This is a serious military buildup and we call on Russia to pull back its forces and contribute to a peaceful agreement," Mr. Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
Moscow immediately dismissed these claims as overblown, employing a strategy of calculated denial that it has used so successfully to forestall western resolve as it has siezed the Crimea and moved Russian troops into eastern Ukraine.
On Tuesday evening, Mr. Steinmeier met Mr. Putin for an impromptu talk in the Kremlin.
According to the German delegation, the 75-minute meeting was “serious and open.” The talks had focused on “ways out of the Ukraine crisis, which could open up new prospects for co-operation,” a source in the delegation told Handelsblatt.
Mr. Steinmeier had last visited the Kremlin in February, shortly before Russia annexed Crimea, which provoked Western sanctions.
Last weekend, Ms. Merkel had held lengthy closed-door talks with Mr. Putin while at the G20 summit in Australia. Her speech the following day used harsh language in referring to Russia, indicating her talks with the Russian president had not gone well.
At a joint press conference with Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday, Mr. Steinmeier said he was not hopeful about the conflict being resolved any time soon.
"There is no reason for optimism in the current situation," Mr. Steinmeier said after the talks. "If I was pleased with the situation, I wouldn't be here."
The German foreign minister stressed the need for Moscow, Kiev and pro-Russian rebels to stick to ceasefire agreements signed in September.
The conflict between Kiev and the rebels, who in early November held elections in Luhansk and Donetsk, the territories they currently control, has pushed Russia and the West further apart than at any time since the Cold War.
Mr. Putin used defiantly Cold-War-like rhetoric this week, accusing the United States of trying to subjugate Russia.
"They do not want to humiliate us, they want to subdue us, solve their problems at our expense," he said at a political meeting in Moscow on Tuesday.
"No one in history ever managed to achieve this with Russia, and no one ever will," he said, a comment that was greeted with applause.
Moscow has reportedly become irritated by the different tones emerging from the West. Ms. Merkel’s harsh language reflects the attitude in Washington, as well as Poland and the Baltic States, which, in light of their Soviet pasts, are particularly fearful of having an aggressive neighbor to the east.
Mr. Steinmeier has sought a more conciliatory tone, using an approach that is more in line with Austria, Italy and the Southeastern European states – countries that have strong economic ties with Russia.
European Union foreign ministers on Monday chose to impose sanctions on Ukrainian separatists, but were divided on imposing more sanctions on Russia. The country is the main energy supplier for many countries, particularly in Southeastern Europe, and those countries have voiced fear of Russian reprisals.
We have not taken Russia seriously in their fear of encirclement. Matthias Platzeck, German-Russian forum
Unlike Germany, Washington’s approach to Russia has been full-throated and unencumbered by economic concerns, given the relative unimportance of the Russian market to U.S. companies.
For the White House, geopolitical and security issues are the main focus.
Western sanctions against Russia are having a negative impact on European businesses with strong links to the country, but are not being felt in the United States.
“The U.S. agenda toward Russia has been mainly guided by security-related questions whereas in the E.U. and in Germany it is much more complex and diverse,” Susan Stewart of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin said. “Security issues are important but there are also these economic ties, so there are many more factors to consider.”
There are many voices in Germany, particularly in Mr. Steinmeier's Social Democratic Party, who do not support an unyielding harsh line on Russia.
On Sunday, the German economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who is vice chancellor and leader of Ms. Merkel's coalition partner, the Social Democrats, criticized NATO “sabre-rattling” along Russian borders.
The chairman of a bilateral business group called the German-Russian Forum, Matthias Platzeck, criticized how Mr. Putin had been isolated by Western leaders at the G20 summit in Australia.
“We have not taken Russia seriously in their fear of encirclement,” Mr. Platzeck, a former SPD party leader, said on Tuesday.
The former premier of the eastern German state of Brandenburg went so far as to suggest that the West simply accept the Crimea annexation, which took place after pro-European protests in Kiev forced the overthrow of the Ukraine's Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“The annexation of Crimea has to be retroactively made legal under international law so that it is acceptable to everyone,” Mr. Platzeck said on Tuesday.
His appeal to placate Mr. Putin was rejected by Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Norbert Röttgen, a member of Ms. Merkel’s CDU party and chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, said: “We have to stand our ground together when it comes to Putin.”
Mathias Brüggmann heads the foreign desk at Handelsblatt. Thomas Sigmund is the managing editor of Handelsblatt's political and economic section. Siobhán Dowling is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition covering business and politics from Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]