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By John Helmer, Moscow

When an elephant means to put his foot down on something with the objective of crushing it, a German speaker uses the same word as in English – trample (trampeln). When the intention and the outcome are emphatic, an English-speaker can say trample underfoot.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel (lead image) expressed the idea in a speech on November 17 that she objects to the legality of Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine, she used a different expression — mit Füßen getreten wird. Literally, that means “with feet is kicked”. To the customary German ear, it means “kicked aside”, “ignored”.

To the New York Times and The Economist, the expression was a signal from Merkel of an angry change in German strategy. But comparing the English interpretation with the German original, this was incompetent translating and unprofessional reporting.

Under fire from her political allies, German public opinion, and business constituents in Berlin and Frankfurt, German sources insist Merkel doesn’t want to escalate the war of words against Russia, and has not joined the Obama Administration to mobilize NATO arms on the Russian frontier and topple President Vladimir Putin. Merkel said as much in the question-and-answer session which followed her speech. But in those remarks Merkel’s elephant foot was decidely tippy-toed – and not a word of that has made it into the Anglo-American press.

The war of words over what Merkel thinks, says, or intends to say about Putin is escalating in the Anglo-American media in an effort to stop the Chancellor from leading Germany into new terms of settlement with Russia – and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister, from leading Merkel, and the country, in that direction.

Merkel gave her speech on the Monday morning, November 17, following the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. She spoke at a think-tank in Sydney endowed by Frank Lowy, the control shareholder of the Westfield Group, whose shopping-mall assets are in the US and the UK. Here’s the Lowy Institute’s official English-language version. According to this, Merkel said, referring to Putin: “Outdated thinking in terms of spheres of influence which tramples international law underfoot must not be allowed to prevail.”

Here is the German Chancellery’s version, in which Merkel says: “Altes Denken in Einflusssphären, womit internationales Recht mit Füßen getreten wird.”

The New York Times wasn’t at Merkel’s speech in Sydney. Instead, its Berlin reporter, Alison Smale, wrote from London under the headline, “Merkel Issues Rebuke to Russia, Setting Caution Aside.” According to Smale, “the real surprise was the tone taken by Ms. Merkel in her speech… Ms. Merkel abandoned her traditionally cautious tone on Monday, castigating Russia for its actions in Ukraine, for intimidating sovereign states in Eastern Europe and for threatening to spread conflict more broadly across Europe.”

The Economist, advocate of military escalation and regime change, reported that “Merkel toughens up. Frustrated with Putin, Germany and its chancellor may be tiring of Ostpolitik. Angela Merkel is a disciplined and cautious public speaker. So when she makes statements that seem fired by passion and resolve, it is good to take note. And if those statements prompt her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to urge a softer tone, something big probably happened.”

Note the lack of conviction in the adverb, “probably”.

In the impromptu question-and-answer session following Merkel’s speech, she rejected military escalation. As for the sanctions war against Russia, Merkel said she was more or less in favour, though not for the purpose of regime change in Moscow; not “as an end in itself”; and not indefinitely. Read Merkel’s German here.

As for how long the present confrontation should continue and on what terms it should conclude, Merkel asked the question, then fudged her answer. She hinted that the sanctions are causing unpopular costs in Germany, where they are viewed as an Anglo-American cause, not a German interest. So Merkel cautioned that “the biggest danger is that we can be divided in Europe, or also in the world”. She urged “carefulness” about whether Ukraine should become a NATO member, and left to Ukrainian public opinion to decide what economic relationship Ukraine should have with the European Union (EU) and Russia. In short, Merkel wasn’t “probably” saying something she hadn’t said before. This was certain.

“This [Ukraine] conflict is not to be solved militarily. This would lead to a military engagement with Russia which would with certainty not be a local one. On the other side, one cannot say: Because we cannot solve [this] militarily, we cannot solve it at all… What do we have now for means? We have the question of our economic strength, and now we are asked to accept also disadvantages for ourselves by the sanctions. However, I believe, economic power is already a strength of the western states, and, therefore, we should use them at this point – but not as an end in itself. Now there is the question: How long must one wait?.. I have there quite a sure feeling that the basic direction is right and that the biggest danger is that we can be divided – in Europe or also in the world.”

If something big had happened, the German state radio missed it, omitting Merkel’s footfall entirely. According to Deutsche Welle, “Angela Merkel made a number of specific references to the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin in her speech at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney on Monday, referring specifically to the conflict in Ukraine. She warned that the consequences could spread beyond Ukraine. ‘The Ukraine crisis is most likely not just a regional problem,’ she told the Australian think-tank. ‘In this case, we see it affects us all.’ Referring specifically to Russia’s move to annex Crimea in March, Merkel said it had ‘called the whole of the European peaceful order into question, and it has continued by Russia exporting its influence to destabilize eastern Ukraine.’ Merkel, who grew up in former East Germany, said she did not want the former conditions of the Cold War to be reinstated, when Moscow had to be consulted on just about everything. ‘The biggest danger is that we allow ourselves to be separate, to be divided, that a wedge will be driven between us.’”

The radio and other German reports interpreted Merkel’s speech as an answer to Putin’s interview on German television channel ARD the evening before.

Interview Putin

According to the Kremlin version (Russian and English), Putin challenged the legality of German action in repudiating the February 21 agreement which the EU states had signed with the Ukrainian Government and domestic opposition leaders in Kiev. Putin: “on February 21, not only the German Minister of Foreign Affairs but also his counterparts from Poland and France arrived in Kiev to act as guarantors of the agreement achieved between the then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition. The agreement stipulated that the only path the process would take was the peaceful one. As guarantors, they signed that agreement between the official authorities and the opposition. And the former assumed that it would be observed. It is true that I spoke by telephone with the President of the United States that same day, and this was the context for our conversation. However, the following day, despite all the guarantees provided by our partners from the West, a coup happened and both the Presidential Administration and the Government headquarters were occupied.”

“I would like to say the following in this regard: either the Foreign Ministers of Germany, Poland and France should not have signed the agreement between the authorities and the opposition as its guarantors, or, since they did sign it after all, they should have insisted on its implementation instead of dissociating themselves from this agreement. What is more, they prefer now not to mention it at all, as though the agreement never existed. In my view, this is absolutely wrong and counterproductive.”

As for the legality of Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, Putin reiterated the well-known defence that it was no more, no less than Germany had endorsed when NATO went to war in 1999 to compel Serbia to accept secession for Kosovo. The legal arguments of whether Article 4 of the NATO Treaty warranted that war or Article 5 prohibited it continue to this day. NATO’s unilateral decision to go to war wasn’t tested in the United Nations.

strikes_TIME

Putin again: “we have a clear recent precedent – Kosovo… Its main point was that when making a decision concerning their self-determination, the people living in a certain territory need not ask the opinion of the central authorities of the state where they presently live. They do not need the approval by the central authorities, by the government, to take the necessary measures for self-determination. That is the central point. And what was done in Crimea was not in any way different from what had been done in Kosovo… Russia did not commit any violations of international law. Yes, I make no secret of it, it is a fact and we never concealed that our Armed Forces, let us be clear, blocked Ukrainian armed forces stationed in Crimea, not to force anybody to vote, which is impossible, but to avoid bloodshed, to give the people an opportunity to express their own opinion about how they want to shape their future and the future of their children. Kosovo, which you mentioned, declared its independence by parliamentary decision alone. In Crimea, people did not just make a parliamentary decision, they held a referendum, and its results were simply stunning.”

Replying the next day, Merkel conceded there have been disagreements on these precedents within NATO. She then got tangled in the past — Moscow cannot impose its will, she said, but NATO can. “It is not only about the Ukraine, but it is about Moldavia, it is about Georgia. If this goes on in such a way, one can ask: Must one ask Serbia, must one ask the West Balkan states? This is not, in any case, compatible with our values.”

Must one ask Serbia if the Kosovars may set up their own state? There is nothing new in Merkel’s restatement of this argument, nor in Putin’s. What is new, as the German media have reported, is that there is growing German disagreement with the side Merkel is taking with the Russia war party in Washington and London. German sources acknowledge privately what the media say publicly – there are growing disagreements in the German government coalition and Bundestag, where Merkel is being challenged within her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), by the Social Democrats (SPD), and by others. On war with Russia, Steinmeier is a leader of opposition — and he is gaining strength at Merkel’s expense.

Der_Spigel_All_Nulpunkt
Source: http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/

Steinmeier

On its cover and in its headlines, Der Spiegel is dramatizing Merkel’s brinkmanship, not because the Anglo-American reporting is accurate in its translations from the German, but because the German assessment is that Merkel won’t hazard the domestic political risk of putting her foot down.

The reason for this can be found in the polling of German voters which Merkel has been doing in secret, and the German press in public. Since the conflict in Ukraine started in February, Steinmeier (right) has overtaken Merkel in German voter approval.

In English, a language German voters usually don’t follow when casting their votes, the Merkel partisans have reacted by amplifying her antagonism towards Putin, and casting Steinmeier as the Kremlin’s stooge.

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