Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Poland wrestles with the legacy of a secret CIA torture site

The crisis in Ukraine may help convince Poles to close their eyes to alleged US wrongdoing.

Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - March 18, 2014

STARE KIEJKUTY, Poland — From a hilltop overlooking a military base in this picturesque village 100 miles due north of Warsaw, a charming country house is just visible across a shimmering blue lake.

Surrounded by a dual row of high chain-link fencing topped with razor wire, it's the only sign of life at the base, which serves as a training center for the Polish intelligence agency somewhere within.

This is where America's Central Intelligence Agency allegedly tortured suspected terrorists during its hunt for Osama bin Laden between 2002 and 2005. According to information leaked by CIA officers to the Washington Post, the CIA purportedly paid Poland's intelligence service $15 million for the use of the villa — or another one like it hidden in the woods behind the fence — as a secret “black site.”

Despite allegations of torture and disappearances that recall the worst crimes of Poland's recently troubled history, human rights workers say the government is stonewalling investigations.

That’s not unpopular with some in Stare Kiejkuty. Locals say terrorism must be fought by any means necessary — especially after Washington’s decision to send a dozen F-16 fighters and 300 soldiers to Poland's border with Russia this week because of the crisis in neighboring Ukraine.

At Stare Kiejkuty's only shop, a tiny general store opposite the military base, the proprietor is more disgusted with reporters than foreign spies. A dowdy, middle-aged woman with rusty gray hair and a prominent mole on her cheek, she says villagers are fed up with being portrayed as ignorant bumpkins.

“I don't believe anything was going on here,” she says, declining to give her name. “But if so, there are such bases all over the world. Something has to be done to stop the terrorists.”

Dawid, a teenager on a stroll with his girlfriend, agrees. “As long as the terrorists couldn't get off that base to hurt women and children in our town,” he says, “I don't care what happened to them there.” He, too, asked not to be identified by his full name.

Lawyers for two men granted victim status in Poland's internal investigation into the torture allegations say the CIA looked to this idyllic forested retreat when a similar black site inThailand proved to be infested with snakes. They allege the US secretly flew terror suspects to a closed nearby airport and spirited them to the military base under the cover of darkness.


Saudi-born Abu Zubaydah, Saudi national Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and possibly many others were allegedly hooded and paraded naked in front of their interrogators and forced into painful “stress positions” that dislocated the shoulders of one detainee, according to a casefiled with the European Court of Human Rights.

Interrogators carried out mock executions and repeatedly waterboarded suspects to encourage them to confess to terrorism. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, is said to have been subjected to the torture 183 times, the Washington Post reported.

Back then, no one in Stare Kiejkuty could hear them scream. Now, allegedly under pressure from its American co-conspirators, Poland is working to keep the case shrouded in silence, says Amrit Singh, the lawyer representing al-Nashiri, who has been held without trial in Guantanamo Bay since 2003.

“Prosecutors have been changed three different times, [once after] there were reports that charges had been brought,” said Singh, who took the case to the European court in an attempt to break Polish stonewalling. “All indications really are that there is political influence in [Poland's] investigation.”

The implications range far wider than whether or not Polish intelligence broke the law.

Human rights workers and political analysts here say the case marks a seminal moment for a country caught between the influences of the European Union, the US and Russia, and is still struggling to develop democratic institutions.

“For the majority of Polish politicians and Polish society, the devotion to our relationship with America is constant,” says political analyst Jacek Zakowski. “But the question is what kind of America. Is it the America of Guantanamo? Or is it the America of freedom of religion?”

Keen to secure American and NATO protection back in 2005, Poland was quick to accept former US President George W. Bush's “you're with us or against us” formulation that scorned France and Germany for their criticism of his invasion of Iraq.

But some questioned the Polish support for the war, especially after President Barack Obama altered Bush’s plans to build missile defense installations here.

Despite government delays and interference, the investigation into Stare Kiejkuty trundles on, even as other countries accused of hosting black sites, such as Lithuania and Romania, have killed off any such efforts, says Julia Hall, Amnesty International's expert on counterterrorism and human rights.

But now events in Ukraine may ensure that American support for Polish security will outweigh concerns about the legality or morality of US actions.

More from GlobalPost: This is how these 12 countries will punish you for insulting their heads of state

What's at stake is not only the fate of the alleged victims but also the future of the rule of law, Hall says.

A torture verdict may allow Zubaydah and al-Nashiri to avoid the death penalty, she says, which would send a clear message to the US that it can’t simply “play the heavy” and expect Poland to do its bidding, then help cover up its crimes.

Unlike the lawyers for the two suspects who brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights, Hall believes Poland's internal case may shed more light into what took place at Stare Kiejkuty.

Although Amnesty blasted the Polish government for obstruction last June, she believes Poland's prosecutor remains independent despite continued US pressure to let the matter die. The recent addition of a third alleged victim to the case provided grounds for more optimism.

For getting to the truth behind what took place in the CIA’s black sites, she says, “Poland is the last man standing.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/poland/140312/poland-wrestles-the-legacy-secret-cia-torture-site

Monday, March 17, 2014

Take that, Putin: US and EU enact sanctions against Russia

Western countries target officials with travel bans and asset freezes over Crimea and warn of tougher measures to come.
By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - March 17, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — The European Union and United States have enacted visa bans and asset freezes against a number of Russian and Ukrainian officials after Crimea applied to join Russia on Monday.

Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula on Sunday held a referendum in which local officials say almost 97 percent of voters supported seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.

The US and EU say the referendum as well as Russia’s military invasion of Crimea are illegal.

US President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against 11 Russians and Ukrainians said to have played key roles in the referendum, including two leading aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That came shortly after EU foreign ministers enacted similar measures against 21 Russians and Ukrainians whose names are expected to become public on Tuesday. The list may be expanded later in the week at a meeting of European Union leaders on Thursday and Friday, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek told reporters.

The sanctions don’t target Putin or his closest allies in the Kremlin.

However, EU leaders are expected to define the terms of wider economic sanctions at a summit on Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

They may be directed against people close to Putin, Reuters reported.

Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Europe think-tank says European leaders have “no choice” but to target people in the Russian president’s inner circle.


“No one's quite clear who gave the orders [to send troops to Crimea],” she said in a telephone interview. “But since Putin is the president of Russia and responsible for the armed forces, the EU has no choice but to go very, very close to the top. They may target the assets of the oligarchs as well.”

EU leaders are weighing whether those measures will be tough enough to provide Putin with an incentive to negotiate, but not so draconian to result in a “further escalation that could lead to the division of Europe,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The stakes are particularly high for Germany, Europe’s political and economic leader.

Russia supplies 40 percent of the country’s natural gas and accounts for some $80 billion in foreign trade. Putin's spurning of diplomatic overtures has forced Chancellor Angela Merkel to effectively reverse decades of German foreign policy focused on engaging rather than isolating Moscow.

Dempsey suggests Putin's outright refusal to negotiate backing down over Crimea has tied Merkel's hands.

“There must be a sense of betrayal, but also disbelief” in Berlin, she says. “They were Russia's most important trading partner and used to be Russia's most important ally within the EU.”

The American list of targeted officials includes Vladislav Surkov, seen as the Kremlin’s former longtime ideologue, and Sergei Glazyev, an economist who advises Putin on Ukraine. It also includes acting Crimean leader Sergei Aksyonov, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin and Valentina Matviyenko, who heads Russia’s upper house of the parliament.

Obama told Putin on Sunday that the Crimean referendum “violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention.” Speaking by telephone, he told the Russian leader that the vote “would never be recognized by the United States and the international community.”

However, both Obama and European leaders say a diplomatic path for resolving the crisis remains open.

Dempsey says enacting meaningful sanctions against Russia will be no easy task. “If they do put [real economic] sanctions on Russia, this is a huge step for Europe,” she says. “A huge step emotionally, historically, strategically, politically, economically. It's just huge.”

Fears are growing that Moscow wants to also annex parts of Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, where Russia has been accused of fomenting separatism and pro-Russian demonstrators have stormed government buildings and killed and injured Ukrainians during clashes with pro-Ukrainian protesters. Moscow has also massed troops on its border with Ukraine.

More from GlobalPost: Why the crisis in Ukraine may be just beginning

Pro-Russian forces have been in control of Crimea since late February, shortly after Ukraine's pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following months of street protests prompted by his rejection of a planned deal with the EU in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

US Vice President Joseph Biden is expected to travel to Eastern Europe on Monday to meet the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which feel most nervous about Russian assertiveness.

Obama is set to travel to Europe next week on a previously planned trip.

Regardless of the Kremlin’s decisions in the coming days and weeks, Dempsey believes there’s little Western leaders will be able to do to influence events inside Ukraine.

“The future of Ukraine lies with the huge swell of civil society and the pro-democracy movements,” she says. “There's a momentum in Ukraine now that has to be seized, and the civil society is seizing it. They don't want this revolution to get out of their hands.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140317/us-eu-sanctions-russia-ukraine-crimea-referendum

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Merkel’s tough stance toward Russia threatens trade war

Reversing a longtime policy of caution toward Russia, Germany enters new territory with unknown consequences.
Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - March 13, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — Chancellor Angela Merkel has issued an ultimatum to Russia over what she called its annexation of Crimea: Back down or face strong measures from the European Union.

Accusing Moscow of acting by the “law of the jungle” in an address to parliament on Thursday, Merkel said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions are a clear breach of international law and threatened full-fledged economic sanctions.

“If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine, but also we, the neighboring states, would understand this as a threat to us,” she said in her strongest-ever words toward Russia. “It would not only change the European Union's relationship with Russia, but… would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”

Although Merkel continued to call for a diplomatic resolution to the Crimea crisis and emphasized that the standoff can’t be solved militarily, her tough talk is the clearest evidence so far of what appears to be a reversal in German policy away from arguing for engaging rather than challenging Russia that pre-dates the end of the Cold War.

The new stance from the EU’s political and economic leader comes despite deep concerns about Germany’s heavy dependence on Russian natural gas as well as dogged resistance from business leaders, and indicates the chancellor may make good on promises made at the beginning of her first term in 2005 to end her country’s reluctance to take a leadership role in foreign affairs.

Calling Putin’s actions “annexation” clearly evokes Adolph Hitler's 1938 “Anschluss” of Austria, says Nina Schick of Open Europe, an EU-focused think tank.

“The stance in Berlin has definitely hardened over the past few days,” she says.

Merkel reiterated a threat she made at a meeting with Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Wednesday that Putin has until Monday to enter into substantial negotiations in order to avert European Union visa bans and asset freezes for Russians deemed responsible for the country’s actions in Crimea. She also made first mention of a potential “third round” of sanctions.

Few believe Putin will back down over a Crimean referendum planned for Sunday about joining Russia. US and European officials argue that the poll’s suddenness and presence of Russian troops on the Black Sea peninsula make the exercise a farce.


Moscow has threatened to respond in kind to EU sanctions.

Claudia Kemfert, an energy policy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research, says Merkel doesn't plan on being first to blink, despite being “very dependent on Russia's energy imports.”

The German leader may be gambling that Russia will balk at retaliating by cutting off gas supplies to Germany because it needs the EU’s money as badly as the European bloc needs the fuel.

However, the depth of Merkel's change of heart and just how far other EU members are willing to venture remains to be seen.

The EU has so far suspended talks with Russia on a wide-ranging economic pact and granting Russian citizens visa-free travel within the EU. Shick believes a tougher, second round of targeted measures promised for next week will stop short of “meaningful” economic sanctions, and be highly unlikely that to freeze Putin's personal assets.

“It's still largely symbolic,” she says. “If they wanted to hit Russia hard, they would take broader economic sanctions.”

In her speech on Thursday, Merkel also made first mention of a potential “third round” of sanctions.

However, business lobbies that have heavily influenced German policy toward Russia in the past have tried to steer Merkel away from any meaningful sanctions.

On Wednesday, the trade group BGA warned that economic sanctions against Russia would hurt German businesses more than companies from other European countries. It pointed to the 6,200 German firms with investments in Russia and Germany's $100 billion in bilateral trade with Moscow.

Public opinion polls suggest sanctions would also be unpopular among the population, which fears a rise in what are already Europe's highest electricity charges. A survey conducted last week by the polling firm infratest dimap found that Germans oppose economic sanctions by a ratio of 57 percent to 38 percent.

In the lead-up to Merkel’s speech on Thursday, politicians and spin-doctors in Germany and the US have endeavored to chip away at such opposition. Advocates of fracking — the extraction of gas by fracturing rock — suggest shale gas supplies around the world can make up for a potential loss of Russian supplies.

American officials have promised to speed up exports of liquified natural gas from America. And Merkel's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, among others, has downplayed the impact sanctions against Russia would have on the German economy, pointing out that they would be far more devastating to Russia — and therefore likely to work.

“We believe the fallout for the economy and for financial policy is — and will remain — manageable, for both Germany and Europe as a whole," he said on Wednesday.

Manageable perhaps, but certainly not pleasant, energy experts say.

Germany currently relies on Russia for around 40 percent of its gas.

However, US production of its own gas through fracking had created a glut in international markets that may enable Germany to replace that supply with imports from Norway, the Netherlands, Algeria or Qatar, Kemfert says.

More from GlobalPost: In Kyiv, fear of war mixes with frustration over lack of action

The stakes are far higher for other countries in Central and Eastern Europe that depend on Russia for up to 100 percent of their gas supplies and have recently asked Washington to make it easier for them to import American gas.

Analysts say it’s wrong to believe that supply can be replaced without a significant increase in prices, or that US gas producers can wave a magic wand to make the problem go away.

“It would take a decade for gas supplies from the US to have any impact on the European situation,” says Andrew McKillop, former in-house policy analyst at the European Commission's energy directorate.

A decision by Moscow to cut off gas to Europe may prompt panic in the energy sector and power rationing in some countries, he adds.

Even Germany lacks the infrastructure needed to replace piped Russian gas with liquified natural gas from the US — which means that despite Merkel’s new resolve to confront Putin, the consequences of an EU trade war with Russia can’t be predicted.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/140313/merkel-russia-ukraine-eu-sanctions-trade-war

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Ukraine crisis confirms Poland's rising role in Europe

Europe's eastern troubles are giving Warsaw a seat at the big table.
By Jason Overdorf
(GlobalPost - March 6, 2014)

WARSAW, Poland — After hours of tense overnight negotiations last month in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv between then-President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition leaders demanding his ouster, one of the European officials mediating the talks briefly stole the spotlight.

“If you don't support this [deal] you'll have martial law, the army. You will all be dead,” he told the opposition about an agreement to hold elections in December. Caught on camera by Britain's ITV News, the tough talk was heard around the world.

That exhortation didn’t come from a foreign minister from the traditional European powers Germany or France, who were taking part, but their Polish counterpart Radoslaw Sikorski.

Yanukovych soon fled to Russia before Moscow prompted a new crisis by invading the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea, and the implications of the deal are still being debated.

But one matter is certain: Sikorski’s role was important not only for Ukraine, but his own country, which is emerging as an increasingly powerful player in European affairs.

“This could not only strengthen the image of Poland as actively involved in the EU's eastern policy but also contribute to Poland taking a more active role in foreign policy in general,” says Ryszarda Formuszewicz of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

When European Union leaders met on Thursday to discuss imposing sanctions against Russia, Poland — which neighbors Ukraine — was among the mostly Eastern European countries pushing for harder measures, as well as warnings to prevent Russia from making similar moves in Georgia and Moldova.

The EU decided to suspend talks with Russia on visa and investment liberalization and called for Russia to withdraw its troops from Crimea and open negotiations with Kyiv. The leaders said they would impose more sanctions unless negotiations produced results in the next few days.

That was stronger than many expected. Polish President Donald Tusk called the measures “significant.”

Experts say Poland’s increasing political role reflects its rapidly growing economic ties with Germany — Europe’s largest political and economic power — as well as Tusk's relatively deft handling of the global financial crisis, when his country avoided recession.

With some 80 billion euros in bilateral trade last year, Poland eclipsed Russia to become Germany's tenth largest trading partner. Their political partnership has deepened in tandem.

Some believe German Chancellor’s Angela Merkel's calls for dialogue during the ongoing Ukraine crisis together with Tusk's Cold War-style request for assurances of protection from the United States and an emergency NATO meeting this week can be seen as a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic.

The Polish Defense Ministry said Thursday that Washington will send 12 F-16 fighter jets and 300 military personnel to Poland next week for a training exercise that was expanded in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

Whatever decisions are made in the coming days over Crimea, Cornelius Ochmann, director of the Warsaw-based Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, the Polish influence will remain key for pushing for tougher measures.

“Today,” he says, “we are really important partners for creating the new eastern European policy.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/poland/140306/ukraine-crisis-poland-rising-role-europe

Monday, March 03, 2014

Central Europe braces for escalation in Ukraine

Leaders criticize Russia, seek to reassure population as markets plunge.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - March 3, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — Political leaders across Central Europe slammed Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Monday and sought to reassure their own people amid mounting fears that the crisis may escalate into war.

“Europe undoubtedly faces its sharpest crisis since the Berlin Wall came down,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a special meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

“The danger of a new division of Europe is real,” he added. “The situation in Ukraine intensifies daily.”

Steinmeier's comments followed a strained weekend telephone conversation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Merkel told Putin in no uncertain terms that the invasion violates international law and called the military intervention “unacceptable,” according to a spokesman for the chancellor's office.

Apart from stern words, however, Germany has pledged little in the way of action, having proposed only the formation of a contact group and sending a "fact finding mission" of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Sunday that the United States and its European partners must stop the Ukrainian crisis from expanding into a wider regional conflict.

If anything, Tusk — whose country shares a border with Ukraine — showed stronger resolve than his German allies.

"History shows — although I don't want to use too many historical comparisons — that those who appease all the time in order to preserve peace usually only buy a little bit of time," Tusk told reporters in a thinly veiled reference to the Allied capitulation to Adolph Hitler's annexing of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938.

Meanwhile, internet users speculated that troop movements underway in Poland were intended to beef up defenses on the border with Ukraine, although an army spokesman said the shift has “absolutely no connection with the events in Ukraine.”

Reactions were more muted elsewhere in Central Europe.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka on Monday looked to control the damage after his defense minister over the weekend effectively threatened that the Russian invasion could prompt the Czech Republic to select a bid from US-based Westinghouse over a consortium led by Russia's Atomstroyexport for the planned $10 billion expansion of a Czech nuclear power plant.

"It is impossible to imagine that we will burn all bridges and because of this crisis will cancel all trade relations with Russia," Sobotka said.

Hungarian President Viktor Orban, fighting an election and banking heavily on Russian financial support, opted out of the fray altogether.

“Hungary is not part of the conflict,” he said on state-owned media.

He also sought to reassure Hungarians that they are safe from any spillover of violence and emphasized that his government is working to ensure that remains the case.

Investors weren’t convinced. Germany's DAX closed down 3.44 percent, while key stocks on the Warsaw Stock Exchange dropped more than 5 percent.

Ukrainian companies listed on the Polish bourse plummeted a whopping 16 percent.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140303/central-europe-ukraine-russia-germany-czech-republic-poland

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Berlin, the poor man's Vegas

Low rents and down-and-out residents touch off an epidemic of gambling.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - February 26, 2014

BERLIN, Germany — The sign on the window promises “fun and games.” But inside the slot-machine arcade, it looks more like compulsion and mundane clerical work.

Behind the colorfully painted plate-glass window, it's impossible to tell if it's 3 in the morning or the afternoon. Apart from the faint strains of light rock music and an overriding mechanical hum, it's as silent as an intensive-care unit.

The two shabby patrons are so intent on their screens that they may as well be wired them.

Presiding over the fun is 28-year-old Ayesha, a bleached-blonde German of Turkish origin who declined to give her last name to avoid trouble with her boss. It's like this day in and day out, she says.

“A lot of people in this neighborhood are unemployed. After the first of the month, when the unemployment checks come out, that's when we get a crowd.”

Described as “poor but sexy” by Mayor Klaus Wowerheit, the German capital is home to some 600 gambling arcades, 300 sports betting houses and around 2,500 cafe-casinos, according to police. Nearly 20,000 of Germany's more than 100,000 gambling addicts are in Berlin, according to Caritas International.

Tough regulations designed to protect gambling addicts from themselves — including a rule against opening a new gambling outlet within 500 meters of an existing one — have failed to make a dent so far.

Across the southern district of Neukoelln, which is home to many immigrants, betting shops, gambling arcades and cafe-casinos line blocks of major thoroughfares including (ironically) one named Karl-Marx Strasse.

“I never saw this many gambling shops until I moved to Berlin,” says Ayesha, whose arcade stands across the street from three sports betting shops and two more arcades.

During a recent crackdown, Berlin police found that a whopping 90 percent of the city's gambling shops violated tough regulations adopted in May 2011, says Wolfgang Petersen, head of the department's gambling wing.

“Berlin is Las Vegas for poor people,” Petersen said.

The authorities continually monitor Berlin's few full-service casinos. But there are too many slot machine arcades and sports betting shops for regulators to visit frequently, according to Germany's federal association of private casinos.

"Operators of arcades feel they are unobserved, so many of them violate the regulations,” Miriam Benert, a spokeswoman for the association, said in an email. “This only comes to light once the police conduct a surprise raid.”

Police say the arcades are guilty of more than just minor infractions.

In addition to around 2,000 violations of the new gambling rules — which prohibit smoking and the consumption of alcohol in gambling outlets, for example — the police have filed another 1,500 cases of robbery, assault, money laundering and drug-dealing connected with gambling outlets.

Gambling hall workers such as Mustapha, a 50-year-old employee at another Neukoelln arcade who also declined to give his full name, say the stricter regulations have had little impact.

A genial, gray-haired immigrant from Turkey, Mustapha sits at a podium behind a bank of CCTV monitors, buzzing in customers when they approach the arcade's locked doors.

He doesn't serve alcohol or allow smoking, and there's a stack of pamphlets about gambling addiction next to his laptop. Other than that, it's business as usual.

“Sometimes they lose and sometimes they win,” he says. “But almost no one takes his winnings and goes home. It's a sickness, like drugs.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/germany/140225/berlin-casinos-gambling-poor-man%27s-vegas

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Germany's in a tough spot with this Ukrainian mess

Analysis: Supporting sanctions and leading negotiations in Kiev, Germany risks alienating Russia if it wants to make good on its pledge to take on a bigger role in world affairs.
By Jason Overdorf

GlobalPost - February 20, 2014


BERLIN, Germany — As violence and disorder in Ukraine continued Thursday, Germany's foreign minister met with representatives from both sides of the country’s current face-off, beginning what could be the first real test of Germany's pledge to take a more robust role in world affairs.

But accepting its natural responsibilities as the European Union's most powerful nation could come at a cost: the deterioration of improved ties with Moscow that have taken years to build.

For while the EU has entered the diplomatic morass on the side of Ukraine’s protesters, condemning police violence against them, Moscow has blamed radicals among the protesters themselves, and the EU for failing to condemn them. After all, the protests originally started with citizens demanding greater integration with the EU, which President Viktor Yanukovych rejected in November in favor of greater closeness with Russia.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier — a longtime advocate of a so-called “special relationship” between Germany and Russia who last month pushed for Germany to take a bigger role in international affairs — is now in the eye of the storm, says Judy Dempsey, a senior associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Europe branch.

“It's not easy for Steinmeier because the rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin is very harsh against the EU and against the protesters in Ukraine. So Steinmeier for the first time is forced to actually speak out against the violence in Ukraine without alienating Russia,” Dempsey said.

Early Thursday, Steinmeier met with opposition leaders along with his counterparts fromPoland and France. Later in the day, after erroneous reports suggested the EU negotiating team had left the country, the negotiators met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for four hours of closed-door talks.

The EU team exited the negotiations with Yanukovych with grim faces and declined to answer questions from reporters on the scene Thursday evening. But the trio of negotiators have reportedly proposed a roadmap for solving the crisis, and are staying overnight in Ukraine to continue the discussions, according to Der Spiegel.

Under their proposal, Ukraine would be put under control of a provisional government and embark on constitutional reforms until new parliamentary and presidential elections can be held.

It's too early to say what the outcome may be. But Nina Schick, of the EU-focused think tank Open Europe, suggests that Steinmeier's place at the head of the table and Germany's decision to back targeted sanctions against those responsible for the ongoing violence in Kviv already marks something of a watershed.

“It's hugely significant that Steinmeier is there with the Polish and French foreign ministers and that other countries that usually take the lead in EU foreign policy or try to create an aligned foreign policy, like the UK, have been far more hesitant,” Schick said.

On Thursday, the EU was preparing to impose sanctions against those responsible for the violence and impose an arms embargo on Ukraine, according to a draft ministerial statementobtained by Reuters.

Germany has traditionally opposed sanctions and is perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest thing to an advocate in Europe. But German politicians were in fact instrumental in this case in pushing an otherwise divided EU to take a stand.

“If Germany hadn't come out supporting the sanctions, I wonder whether or not the other countries of the EU would have agreed to pass them,” Schick said. “Countries like the UK,Spain and Italy were not keen.”

Germany's role could be as problematic for the protesters in Ukraine as it is for Yanukovych and Moscow, however. It is by no means certain that Steinmeier's presence will smooth the course toward a political solution, says Strategic Europe's Dempsey, who notes that the German foreign minister met with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov before traveling to Kviv.

Pushing for an end to violence, Steinmeier continues to view Ukraine through the prism of Russia, Dempsey said. Meanwhile, the protesters and the opposition in Ukraine are deeply suspicious of Moscow, following Putin's efforts to effectively buy them off with $15 billion in soft loans and cheap natural gas in December.

In essence, it's Russia's monetary (and military) might against the more nebulous power of Europe's democratic values, with Ukraine caught in the middle. And the ambiguity of Steinmeier's, and Germany's, relationship with Russia won't make things any easier.

“There are two diametrically opposed players on the west of Ukraine and on the east of Ukraine. The Ukrainians themselves have to decide who they want at the negotiating table,” Dempsey said.

Easier said than done: That’s what these protests were about to begin with, right?

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140220/germanys-tough-spot-ukrainian-mess