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Ukrainians see Merkel as soft on Russia

Criticism of Germany is growing in Ukraine. Berlin's efforts to end the conflict in the country's east with Russian help have stirred anger - and Chancellor Angela Merkel has become the target.

There is little sign of trouble in front of the German embassy on Khmelnitsky Street in the heart of Kyiv. Cars thunder along the cobblestones, while pedestrians sweat in the midsummer heat. But when Ambassador Christof Weil looks in the Ukrainian press or on the Internet, he has bad news to report to Berlin: The sentiment towards Germany in Ukraine is threatening to turn sour.

A fateful meeting

For the first time there has been a storm of indignation against Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since Monday (14.07.2014), her Facebook page (above) has been flooded with comments from users in Ukraine and elsewhere such as "Thank you, Mrs. Ribbentrop." The allusion is to to Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, signatory of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact. A secret protocol foresaw the division of Poland and other countries between Germany and the Soviet Union. Finland, Estonia and Latvia were to fall into the Soviet sphere of interest, while Lithuania into the German.

The cause of all the anger was a meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin before the final match of the World Cup in Brazil. In particular, the call for Kyiv to hold talks with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region triggered a thunderous outcry.

Merkel and Putin in Brazil 13.07.2014 (Photo: Mikhail Metzel/dpa )

Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin talked about Ukraine in Rio de Janeiro

On the web, dozens of photomontages with Merkel and Putin in Nazi uniforms have now surfaced. Others show the two politicians embracing. "How are your boys in the Donbas," Merkel asks. "It's difficult,"Putin replies. The message of the comic: The armed combatants in eastern Ukraine are supported by Russia.

The mood on Kyiv's streets now seems to be very critical of Germany. "Tell Ms. Merkel, she should finally stop cuddling with Putin," said Andriy, a freelance architect in his mid-50s, adding: "Germany should impose tough economic sanctions against Russia."

Thirty-year-old supermarket clerk Oleksandr is also convinced that Kyiv must use force against the separatists. "No negotiations," he said, clenching his fists. Opinions like these have become more common, since hundreds have been killed in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, including during a ceasefire that the separatists refused to observe.

Berlin's Ukraine policy in the crosshairs

Volodymyr Horbatsch of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv can understand the outrage on the web. Merkel's stance was "traitorous," he said. The chancellor was trying to pacify the "aggressor" Russia, while the "victim," Ukraine, needs "help and protection," he wrote in his blog for the online newspaper "Ukrainska Pravda."

Whether this outpouring of vitriol against Merkel is the action of a small group, or really reflects the beliefs of thousands of Ukrainians, is difficult to assess. Many in Kyiv suspect Russia could be behind the flood of comments, so as to drive a wedge between Kyiv and Berlin.

However, there had already been critical voices from Kyiv earlier about Berlin. In Ukraine, Germany is considered a close partner of Russia, especially because of the gas business. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been branded a "Putin sympathizer" because of his job as chairman of the shareholder's committee of Nord Stream AG, a Baltic Sea gas pipeline company that is majority-owned by Russia's state-controlled gas giant, Gazprom. But Kyiv columnists accuse Merkel of blocking rapid NATO membership for Ukraine in deference to Russia at the alliance's summit in Bucharest in 2008.

'Leave Merkel in peace'

Serhiy Leshchenko

Serhiy Leshchenko says the attacks on Merkel are counterproductive

But there are voices calling for moderation. Serhiy Leshchenko, deputy editor of "Ukrainska Pravda" wrote in his blog, "Leave Merkel in peace." He finds the verbal attacks on Merkel "childish and dangerous." Because of its history, Germany would always attempt to promote peace, he wrote. And Ukraine was dependent on billions in Western aid, including from Germany.

Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparitive politics at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, called the campaign against Merkel "insulting." It has nothing in common with objective criticism, he said, and little can be done with it.

"The call for Ukraine to sit down with terrorists at the negotiating table is wrong," Haran told DW. Even so, he sees positive changes in Germany's Ukrainian policy in recent years. "The Russian annexation of Crimea opened Merkel's eyes."

Haran called for understanding, when Ukrainians criticize Germany and other countries: "We are worried that the West is responding too slowly."

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