Newly appointed German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is already facing his first diplomatic challenge: The dispute over Ukraine's strategic direction, in which different German interests clash.
A new foreign minister is typically bombarded with invitations from countries around the world. This is also the case with Steinmeier, who recently resumed at the helm of the German Foreign Ministry. But at least one of these invitations has special significance - that from opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko out of Kyiv.
Klitschko, who is mostly known in Germany as a heavy-weight boxer, is hoping for further political support from Germany. "It would be a great sign if Mr. Steinmeier would come to Kyiv on one of his first trips, so he could speak at the Maidan," Klitschko wrote in a guest commentary published in Germany's mass-circulation Bild newspaper. Steinmeier "would be the right mediator in this difficult situation."
It came as somewhat of a surprise when Steinmeier took a position on the Ukraine conflict already in his acceptance speech: "It's shocking how Russian politics used the situation of financial distress in the Ukraine to hinder the EU association agreement." From the European side, Steinmeier said it also must be asked if "it's overwhelming this country to have to decide between Europe and Russia."
Tense triangle: EU-Ukraine-Russia
Two German foreign policy interests stand opposed in Ukraine. On the one hand, the German government is interested in tying Ukraine more strongly to the EU. This could allow Germany to better utilize its good relations to the second largest country in territorial Europe.
Germany was among the first countries to recognize Ukrainian independence at the end of 1991, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Since Germany opened an embassy in Ukraine in 1992, the two nations have sealed a succession of treaties covering topics from environmental protection to security policy.
On the other hand, good relations with Russia form an important mainstay of German foreign policy. These could be strained if Germany takes a pro-opposition stance, since Russia is interested in bringing its neighbor into an eastern customs union and later a Eurasian union.
Ukraine itself is split: Western Ukrainians largely consider themselves European. But in the eastern part of the country, the majority leans toward Russia. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych comes from eastern Ukraine and has focused on good relations with Russia. Meanwhile, broad sections of the opposition have argued for greater convergence with the EU.
Ukraine is being squeezed in this tense situation, thinks Ewald Böhlke of the Berlin-based think tank, the German Council on Foreign Relations. But he thinks that Yanukovych has also been taking advantage of antagonism between Russia and Europe.
Yanukovych recently postponed an EU association agreement, and negotiated massive financial support and discounts on gas from Russia. Ukraine, which stands on the brink of bankruptcy, had previously sought nearly 20 billion euros in aid from the EU.
Böhlke described this as the classic "bazaar economy": "I'll take the best from both sides - that's the hope."
Calm diplomacy and public support
Böhlke said German foreign policy's task should be to mitigate antagonism between Russia and the EU through diplomacy.
Philipp Missfelder, a foreign policy politician with Germany's Christian Democratic Party, shares this view. "We can't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of an either-or discussion here," Missfelder said. "We must work with and not against Russia to create a common economic space," he continued. But he added that Russia also has to understand that if Ukraine were to move closer to the EU, that doesn't represent a threat to its interests.
Recently, Moscow reacted sorely to the previous German foreign minister's visit to Kyiv. During his last days in office, Steinmeier's predecessor Guido Westerwelle shed the restraint typical to diplomacy by appearing among the masses on the Maidan, Kyiv's central square, protesting in favor of European association and against the current Ukrainian regime.
In a flurry of camera flashes, Westerwelle shook hands with people there, including Klitschko. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticized actions as meddling in Ukrainian domestic affairs.
According to German magazine "Der Spiegel," Klitschko is also being supported by the chancellor's office. The Merkel administration apparently wants to build up Klitschko's candidacy against Yanukovych. In addition to this, the conservative populist party EVP and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, tied to Germany's Christian Democrats, have trained Ukrainian opposition parliamentarians and their staff.
Stefan Liebich of Germany's Left party said it was "quite clear that Klitschko and his party are being supported." He thinks it's not a problem if German political foundations get involved in political debates. But he thinks this should not have consequences on Germany's foreign policy negotiations. "Neutrality is required in that situation," Liebich said. He added that he hopes Steinmeier will have discussions with all involved, including Russia and the EU.
Steinmeier will be starting out in Poland, where he's to meet with President Bronislaw Komorowski and Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski regarding help for Ukraine. Steinmeier's Russian counterpart Lavrov will also be there - creating more opportunities for sounding each other out.