Russia’s international influence has led to stronger cooperation between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But what can both leaders achieve? EURACTIV’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel does a Q&A.
In 2007, Putin allowed Koni, his black labrador, to sneak around Chancellor Merkel during a meeting with her in Sochi. And the president was fully aware of the chancellor’s fear of dogs.
But it seems like we have now entered very different times.
When the two world leaders met on Saturday (11 January), there was no sign of such targeted provocation. And when was the last time we heard the Russian president say something like this: “I would like to thank the Chancellor from the bottom of my heart for the productive cooperation today”?
Why do we suddenly see a political ‘rapprochement’ between Merkel and Putin?
It was the friendliest meeting since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Recent controversial issues, such as the possible Russian involvement in the murder of a Georgian man in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten and the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the German capital, did not play a role in Putin and Merkel’s press conference on Saturday.
Merkel stressed that such a visit had the advantage of “people talking to each other and not just about each other”.
It was also made clear that Putin influences Iran – and without him, it will be impossible to solve the crises in Syria and Libya.
While the Chancellor can exert influence with economic power, Putin can do so with military force.
What is the most concrete result of the meeting?
The contentious Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline is on its way, albeit somewhat later than initially planned.
Because of US sanctions, the Swiss company Allseas, involved in laying the pipeline, has withdrawn from the project. But Russia claims its ships are ready to complete construction of the pipeline, of which 160 km worth of pipeline is still missing between Russia and Germany.
After the three-and-a-half-hour conversation in the Kremlin, Putin stressed that he would complete the project “on his own”.
Putin said he hoped that “by the end of the current year or in the first quarter of next, the work will be completed and the pipeline can then be put into operation”.
In other words, the natural gas should be flowing by 2021 at the latest. And what is very important for Merkel is that an agreement now exists for parallel gas transit to run through Ukraine for the next five years – which means that the transit country will continue to profit from the revenues.
But Merkel underlines that there is no unilateral dependence. “I believe that the new European legislation also legitimises this project and that we should, therefore, bring it to a conclusion”, she said.
Contrary to the original assumption, the amendment to the Gas Directive at the beginning of 2019 was designed in such a way that the Nord Stream 2 project would not be jeopardised by it.
However, Poland, in particular, has warned that with a possible delivery stop, the EU is making itself vulnerable to blackmail. Besides, MEPs have also raised their concerns. “We must not cuddle with Moscow at the expense of the security interests of our Eastern European and Baltic neighbours,” warns Green MEP Sergey Lagodinsky.
Putin noted that the German government is not bowing to US pressure, especially with US President Donald Trump also pursuing his own economic goals in the fight against the project and battling for larger sales markets for its liquid gas.
Putin appreciated the German government’s “responsible attitude” concerning Nord Stream 2.
What is Merkel’s greatest success?
The Chancellor and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who travelled to Moscow together, are getting closer to holding a Libya conference in Berlin soon.
For the first time, Putin promised to support an international conference for a peaceful solution. Libya is considered a key country in preventing increased migration flows via the Mediterranean.
But if political chaos continues, the only ones who will ultimately benefit are criminal traffickers. Like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Putin is on the side of General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army, against the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Meanwhile, the equally influential Turkish government supports the GNA of Faiez el-Serraj in Tripoli. It was, therefore, an essential first step for Putin to have forced a ceasefire with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Some things still need to be prepared, but it would be a good step in the right direction,” Putin said of the conference.
Merkel, however, recalled the chaos that arose in Syria when too many actors tried to exert external influence. She also recalled how much Russia had interfered.
Merkel’s opponent in the CDU, Friedrich Merz, has warned against showing too much indulgence to Moscow and against recognising Russia as a force capable of bringing order to the Middle East. With a view on Syria, for example, Merz emphasised that “Russia is not a force for order, but a party involved in a war”.
And what about the Iran crisis?
Merkel wants to use “all diplomatic means” to keep the nuclear agreement alive. But to ensure this, Putin is also needed.
Besides Germany, France and the UK were among the other EU states that negotiated the agreement with Tehran back in 2015. Both British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron had recently warned the leadership in Tehran not to withdraw from the agreement altogether.
However, with domestic politics keeping Johnson busy and Brexit at the forefront of his agenda, diplomacy is not his top priority. And with the pension reform debacle, Macron appears to be overwhelmed with his issues back home.
Is German foreign policy really this toothless?
No. For instance, for Merkel, the fact that the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists worked out at the turn of the year to further implement the agreements of the Minsk Agreement represents a success. This reinforces the basis for German-Russian cooperation.
It is not yet up for debate, but the meeting in the Kremlin could perhaps also become a turning point on the issue of sanctions for the annexation of Crimea. It is not without reason that Putin emphasised Germany’s economic role.
“Germany is one of Russia’s most important foreign trade partners and ranks second only to China in terms of trade,” the Russian leader stressed.
In July, Germany will take over the presidency of the EU Council and in the final phase of her chancellorship, Merkel could once again provide important impulses.
She is noticeably affording more attention to the issues, and Foreign Minister Maas, who has been criticised by many in both the CDU/CSU union and the SPD, is hardly in a position to set any significant accents.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]