BERLIN (AP) — Germany is seeking to play good cop to America's bad cop in Western efforts to mediate between the government and protesters in Ukraine in an early test of the German government's efforts at a more robust foreign policy role.
The Germans have refused to back Washington's calls for sanctions against Ukraine's government to pressure it into accepting opposition demands for reforms. At the same time, Germany has launched a flurry of diplomacy toward Kiev and Moscow — a key ally of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — while trying to promote selected Ukrainian opposition leaders as legitimate negotiating partners.
On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister held closed doors talks with top Ukrainian opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, speaking with the two for about an hour.
Merkel assured Yatsenyuk and Klitschko that Germany and the EU would do everything possible to try and assure a "positive outcome" to the crisis in Ukraine — support for which the two praised the chancellor at a short news conference after the meeting.
"We should not underestimate the role of Germany, especially not the role of the chancellor, one of the most influential political figures in the world," Klitschko said through an interpreter. "The backing of Germany and the EU plays a big role in Ukraine."
Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said the release of jailed protesters in Ukraine and the handover of occupied buildings in Kiev on Sunday were signs that the government and opposition can find common ground, despite months of increasingly bloody confrontation.
Berlin's diplomatic advance has put it at odds with some of its European Union partners, including Sweden and the Baltic nations, which have pressed for a harder line against the former Soviet republic, according to Stefan Meister, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
But it fits in with the German government's recent pledge for a more assertive role on the international stage. For Germany, Ukraine is a good test case — a large European country, relatively close to German borders undergoing a more difficult transition than other former Soviet states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which joined the EU years ago.
Germany believes it is in a better position than other Western countries to deal with Russia, which wields enormous influence in Ukraine. Germany also is working in concert with Ukraine's neighbor Poland, which is deeply concerned about developments in Ukraine but lacks Germany's political clout.
"German foreign policy is often quite reticent, but Berlin has taken a clear position on Ukraine," said Meister. Germany's greater engagement in Ukraine began with the efforts to secure release — or failing that medical treatment abroad — for imprisoned former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, he said.
Having misjudged Tymoshenko's ability to bring about much-needed reform in the former Soviet republic, as well as her support among ordinary Ukrainians, Berlin also is keen to find out more about the two opposition leaders, said Susan Stewart, a senior research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"It's important for the EU to get a clearer picture of these people because we may well have to deal with them as leaders in Ukraine in the future," said Stewart. Klitschko is already well-known in Germany, where he was based during most of his career as a heavyweight boxer.
While Ukraine is an important transit country for Russian gas supplies to the European Union, Germany's overriding interest — and that of the EU overall — is stability and reform in its eastern neighbor, while at the same time avoiding a diplomatic rift with Moscow.
In a speech to the Parliament last year, Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, noted that "the shadows of the Cold War still exist and it is our task — not least the task of Germany — to contribute to the Cold War being over for everyone, including our eastern partners."
One option that's been floated is for greater involvement of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Vienna-based treaty body of which all EU states, Russia, the United States and Ukraine are members. The organization was instrumental in facilitating the handover of Kiev's City Hall to authorities, in return for the release of 234 jailed protesters.
"We think this can be a model for resolving the big questions that remain, such as a constitutional reform and a sensible distribution of power than can bring about an end to the standoff in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schaefer.
The danger is that building up the OSCE could undermine the EU's fragile attempts at forging common foreign policy positions, said Stewart. But given the EU's apparent disarray over Ukraine, Germany may have no other option.
"A lot is being done in Brussels, but there's no clear roadmap," said Stewart. "What I see are individual steps, but no overarching plan."
Associated Press reporter David Rising contributed to this story.