RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
With Russia making moves on Ukraine's Crimea region, German leader Angela Merkel has been talking tough, and perhaps no Western leader understands Vladimir Putin's intentions better than Merkel.
The German chancellor has been on the phone with the Russian president more than half a dozen times since the crisis began. Yesterday, she warned that Russia would suffer massive political and economic damage if Russia follows through on annexing Crimea - if, as many expect, Crimeans vote for that this Sunday.
German editor Josef Joffe has been watching Chancellor Merkel and her European partners struggle to influence events in Ukraine. He joined us on the line from Hamburg.
JOSEF JOFFE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Remind our audience of Chancellor Merkel's background in the sense that why she has a special insight into Russia and Putin.
JOSEF JOFFE: Well, you know, Angela Merkel grew up in Eastern Germany, which was, you know, Soviet ruled, essentially. And during her days Mr. Putin was the KGB resident in Dresden. But I don't think, you know, that they've been buddy-buddy. I think the expression is that for somebody who has grown up and lived under the Soviet (unintelligible), so to speak, there is less understanding and less sympathy for Russia then in West Germany.
I mean, they suffered the consequences so there's an inherent and abiding suspicion of Russian power and Russian motives.
MONTAGNE: Well, as you suggested, if not buddy-buddy, what is their personal chemistry, if you will?
JOFFE: Angela Merkel doesn't have personal relationships with anybody, not with Obama and not with Putin. And Putin is a nasty little son of a (bleep) as the following anecdote will display. He had learned through his intelligence that Angela Merkel is afraid of dogs, and so at one of their first encounters, they gave have her a big toy dog, which she hardly wanted to touch. And at other (unintelligible) she brought him this huge dogs, that roamed the room and sniffing Angela, making her really uncomfortable. So much for their psychological relationship.
That is not the real issue here. Angela Merkel and Putin are now the two biggest players by default.
MONTAGNE: Well, she has struck a much tougher tone in the last few days. She seems serious about imposing sanctions on Russia if it annexes Crimea.
JOFFE: The instinctive reaction on the part of Germany is never confront the Russians, don't anger them. But then, as Putin crossed the line toward the referendum in the Crimea, which implies succession, the German line toughened up and by German or European standards, quite remarkably so.
MONTAGNE: You know, Warsaw's a big export market for German goods and how painful would sanctions be for Germany, because it does have these trade ties with Russia and would the German public go along?
JOFFE: Look, Russia is a trading partner in one respect basically, which is gas. I think one reason why the Europeans have become acting a bit more boldly than in the past is that due to a very mild winter, the EU's gas reserves are full and there's a long way to go. So the fear of being victimized by Russian gas cutoffs is declining, and that, also, I think, explains that certain boldness.
MONTAGNE: And for American listeners, could you just explain why this crisis is a big deal for Germany and Europe, I mean, given the...
JOFFE: Well, because this is the first time since 1945 when a great power has changed, or is about change, Europe's borders by force. So it's a very serious crisis. It's not going to erupt into war, by no means, but it is a very serious test of will, which will decide whether Europe lives by the rules it has written the last 70 years or whether we're going back into the kind of 19th and 18th century.
MONTAGNE: Josef Joffe is editor of the German newspaper, Die Zeit. Thank you very much for joining us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.