Persistent but calm, Merkel's leadership on Ukraine reflects rising German diplomatic ambition

Chancellor Angela Merkel's emergence as a leader in efforts to resolve Ukraine's crisis — showcased by a visit to Kiev this weekend — underlines Germany's increasing ambition to transform itself from economic power to diplomatic heavyweight.

Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have put Berlin at the forefront of so-far frustrating diplomatic efforts, as many European nations focus on domestic troubles and the U.S. is engaged in crises elsewhere.

Nearly nine years in power and an unchallenged leader at home, Merkel has thrown Germany's weight behind European economic sanctions against Russia, while also keeping up months of frequent telephone diplomacy with President Vladimir Putin.

Merkel "is aware that no other institution can take on this mediation role," said Olaf Boehnke, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a multinational think-tank. "The Americans don't fit as mediators and ... no one else in the EU has this authority that Merkel enjoys."

Merkel's visit to Kiev on Saturday, her first since the Ukraine crisis erupted late last year, reflects Berlin's desire to show support for President Petro Poroshenko's government in the face of what the West says is Russian efforts to foment rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

It follows a trip Monday to Latvia, a former Soviet republic that like many new eastern NATO and European Union members increasingly worries about the perceived threat from Russia.

There, Merkel stressed that NATO's collective defense clause "must be brought to life" if the situation requires, but also made clear that there will be "no permanent stationing of combat troops" on the alliance's eastern edge — something that would infuriate Moscow.

That reflects Germany's balancing act of seeking to preserve Western unity while also keeping open lines of communication with Moscow, which Berlin stresses must be part of a political solution to the conflict.

Germany's status as a nation formerly divided between east and west and its tradition of seeking political detente and economic ties with Russia put it in a good position to mediate. And Germany isn't overly dependent on a nation that was only its No. 11 trading partner last year.

"Sanctions alone are not a foreign policy," Steinmeier told ZDF television on Tuesday, noting that the point of the measures is "to get an unwilling partner to negotiate."

On Sunday, Steinmeier hosted his Russian, Ukrainian and French counterparts at a five-hour meeting in Berlin that produced little outward sign of progress. The foreign minister, however, insisted that he sees "a change in the position of both partners" and both appear to be searching for ways toward a cease-fire.

The German approach has been one of quiet persistence, drawing in fellow European power France as a sign of European unity, at a time when EU institutions in Brussels are distracted by the transition to new leadership. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande got Putin and Poroshenko together in France in June.

"Part of a professional approach to foreign policy is that you don't let setbacks divert you from from a path that you consider right," Steinmeier said, dismissing as "nonsense" an interviewer's suggestion that Germany has been soft on Russia.

Merkel has coordinated efforts closely with Steinmeier, a one-time rival for the chancellery and a sober, well-regarded diplomat who returned in December for a second stint as foreign minister.

The Ukraine crisis erupted in earnest just as top officials including Steinmeier earlier this year spoke out in favor of Germany — which played a second-tier diplomatic role for decades after World War II — taking on more international responsibility beyond its traditional financial leadership.

That's also reflected in the government's new-found willingness to arm Kurdish fighters in Iraq, a step that Berlin is still examining but contrasts with its previous reluctance to send weapons into conflicts.

Merkel herself has stayed out of the debate on a greater role but her actions in the Ukraine crisis reflect it, Boehnke said. "That reflects her fundamental approach to politics — she is someone who wants to solve problems, who doesn't spend time talking about them."

Merkel has an added advantage in dealing with Putin. The chancellor, who grew up in communist East Germany, speaks Russian, while Putin — who once served with the KGB in East Germany — speaks German.

That doesn't mean they're on the same wavelength. Merkel's relationship with Putin was always much cooler than that of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, and Merkel has over the years spoken out publicly about concerns over civil rights in Russia.

Putin knows that "when she says something, when she does something ... she means it seriously," Boehnke said. "She doesn't play around, she doesn't deal in speech bubbles ... and so I think Putin takes her very seriously."