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Berlin and Moscow at odds over Ukraine?

Ukraine may become a bone of contention between Berlin and Moscow. Russia criticized a visit to Kyiv by German Foreign Minister Westerwelle, and now Chancellor Merkel plans to support opposition leader Vitali Klitschko.

About nine years ago, in late November 2004, Germany's then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were out on the streets of the capital, protesting against a rigged presidential election in what became known as the Orange Revolution. "Let us help ensure the situation doesn't get out of hand," Schröder told Putin. "We need a democratic, peaceful Ukraine."

At the time, Russia sided with Viktor Yanukovych. Putin congratulated him on his victory. The protests continued peacefully; fresh elections were held, and Russia didn't interfere. Yanukovych only became president six years later, after the polls in 2010.

Russia sparked the crisis

Chancellor Angela Merkel hasn't yet reached for the phone to discuss the current political crisis in Ukraine with Putin - but she has every reason to do so. The situation in Ukraine is as tense as it was in 2004. For weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating on the streets of Kyiv in favor of integrating Ukraine into the European Union.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an orange suit, talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Will the German chancellor use her influence with President Putin?

Russian pressure on Ukraine was one of the factors that sparked the crisis, according to the government in Kyiv. Moscow threatened trade restrictions if Ukraine signed an Association Agreement with the EU. The Ukrainian leadership backed off, and put the accord on hold – a move that became the catalyst for the mass protests.

Difficult role for Germany

Many Ukrainians would like Berlin to mediate. They believe that if Germany were involved in talks between President Yanukovych and the opposition, it would ensure that there is no bloodshed. Secondly, they hope that Germany could ensure that Moscow refrains from putting pressure on Kyiv if it goes ahead and forges ties with the EU.

Jens Paulus, a European expert with Germany 's Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Berlin, is skeptical. "The mediator role we are always being asked to play is a very difficult one," Paulus told DW. "Germany cannot and should not play that role."

However, Paulus conceded that Germany may know Russia "a bit better" than other EU states. He believes that Berlin might therefore be able to contribute to a better understanding of Russia's regional interests during talks about Ukraine and the EU.

Sabine Fischer, head of the research division for Eastern Europe at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), is also skeptical. Germany and its European partners should push for an end to the violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators, she told DW: "Basically, that amounts to a mediator role."

Moscow criticizes Westerwelle

Guido Westerwelle and one of the Klitschko brothers in Kyiv

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited the protesters on Independence Square

Last week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle flew to Kyiv for a two-day meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Westerwelle visited the protesters on Independence Square - known as the Maidan - and met with opposition leaders and government officials.

His visit triggered outrage in Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Westerwelle of meddling in domestic Ukrainian affairs.

Berlin rejected the accusation, and even seems prepared to go a step further. According to media reports, Chancellor Merkel plans to meet with Ukrainian opposition leader and heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko on the sidelines of an upcoming EU summit in Brussels next week, signaling her support. Russia will be far from pleased.

Strain on ties?

Some media, including the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, warn that Ukraine might become a "burden for the German-Russian relationship."

But Russia experts disagree. Westerwelle's term as Foreign Minister is nearing its end, and his visit to Kyiv should not be overrated, according to Wladislaw Below, the head of the Center for German Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. "Merkel said Germany and Russia should not speak of their future cooperation in black-and-white terms," said Below - a reference to the Chancellor's desire to move away from a debate on Ukraine that narrows the approach to "either-or": integration either with Russia, or with Europe.

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