Merkel – Putin meeting: did two lone leaders find their pragmatism?

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Claire Campbell

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Merkel – Putin meeting: did two lone leaders find their pragmatism?
Vladimir Poutine and Angela Merkel, July 2017. Photo : Kremlin.ru - CC BY 4.0

Just like Emmanuel Macron a few months ago, Vladimir Putin of Russia was received by German chancellor Angela Merkel at Meseberg Palace, place of reception of distinguished guests to the German federal republic. This is the second time this year that they meet one-on-one, a pragmatic reconciliation for two leaders out of breath?

“After comfort comes effort”, may have thought Vladimir Putin upon arriving in Germany. The head of the Kremlin had attended the Austrian Foreign Minister’s wedding (affiliated to extreme right party FPÖ) before flying off to an important albeit sober work meeting with Angela Merkel. The issues they addressed then (solving armed conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the gas pipeline “North Stream 2”, the nuclear question in Iran as well as the Russia-Germany relationship) showed a genuine will for Europe’s most powerful leaders to rebuild their relationship so as to properly address all the abovementioned issues.

What could have prompted this reconciliation could also be the White House as well as its “a tad” unpredictable host. Donald Trump’s policy, more than favouring one autocrat or the other, is an imperialist and mercantilist policy, imposing Americans’ best interests to the world, regardless of the consequences. Angela Merkel already had to bear the cost – in particular with the trade surplus that the United States vilifies, or the small financial contribution of Germany to NATO – and so did Vladimir Putin with the American president’s view of Russia ranging from public admiration to announcing new sanctions for the Kremlin. This instability therefore prompted Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to value the importance of dialogue and good neighbourly relationships.

The tumultuous “Merkel-Putin” relationship

Another reason which motivated the two leaders to strengthen their relationship is their relative weakening in the public opinion in their respective countries. Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005 and, just like her mentor Helmut Kohl before her, she is starting to wear out after all these years in power. The “Merkel IV” cabinet formed after outlandish months-long negotiations. The Grand Coalition is as low as ever in the polls whilst CSU (Bavarian conservatives) are fiercely opposing Angela Merkel’s migration policy. Some venture as far as to speculate that elections may be necessary before 2021. “Mutti Merkel” may be on one term too many. Putin did not have to deal with oppositions inherent to parliamentary democracy. Since the year 2000, he has imposed his authority on the country, going as far as reigniting Russian irredentist tendencies, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia. However, he still has to face his own challenges: the Russian economy is down and highly dependent on gas resources as well as needing to import close to all other resources so as to cater to the population’s needs.

“Russia is a gas station posing for a State”, said a famous American Senator. The United States’ intentions to impose new trade sanctions have depreciated the ruble compared to the American dollar. As a result, import prices have gone up. Close to thirty years after the fall of the USSR, Russian citizens are five times poorer than Western Europeans and the Russian president has not gone out of his way to bridge this gap. Despite a successful World Cup, the Russian president is facing a surprising hit in polls because of a controversial retirement amendment. It may be a temporary slump; nevertheless, Putin is facing some challenges at the moment. The relationship between Russia and Germany is essential to both countries alike. Between 1991 and 2014, Berlin was Moscow’s privileged partner. Because of their historical, economic and cultural past, Russia and Germany have a deep-seated bond. Merkel is fluent in Russian and Putin speaks German perfectly. In a nutshell, they need each other, especially in dire times.

The spark of a convergence of opinions on highly sensitive topics?

Despite the lack of an official final statement at the end of the Meseberg meeting, we can hope for an easing of the tensions between Russia and Germany, and by extension, the European Union. Berlin and Moscow’s relationship was cold since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea. That event triggered a shockwave through the European continent and thankfully enabled Europeans to realise that they needed to make the issue of European defence a priority. The situation in Ukraine was one of the topics of the meeting. In spite of the media silence on the matter, the situation in Ukraine is still concerning: the Crimea, which used to be a touristic destination, is now know was the place where human rights are violated and where Russia is tightening its hold, for example with the building of a bridge between the peninsula and mainland Russia. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike, while imprisoned in Russia for his opposition to the annexation, is a testimony of how tense the situation still is. The Donbass war also needs attention; Eastern Ukraine has become a lawless zone where conflicts have harshly affected the populations. Long gone are the days where an ecstatic Renaud Lavillenie celebrated his pole-vaulting world record in the Donetsk stadium.

The war in Syria was another crucial issue that was brought up. Since 2011, the conflict had made hundreds of thousands of victims, creating millions of refugees and allowing Daesh to emerge. Merkel and Putin both need a solution to the Syrian issue: Merkel is cornered in Germany since her humanist policy has brought over a million refugees in 2015 alone. Putin is starting to wonder if Bashar al-Assad is a judicious ally to keep. The reconstruction of the country was brought up at Meseberg. Putin requested that the EU fully participate in it. The two leaders also shared their converging opinions of the nuclear issue in Iran and especially in their will to preserve the agreement negotiated in 2015 that Donald Trump wishes to throw away.

The dialogue between Berlin and Moscow is good news for the EU. Despite the outright hostility of the Kremlin for the EU, Russia remains an indispensable partner for European stability and security. It is therefore necessary to discuss reasonably as well as to collaborate with a common objective in sight. Germany is most certainly the only European country able to do that thanks to its solid bond with Russia. France does not have the necessary political credit and the “Macron effect” on the Russian president since May 2017 is not sufficient to balance that out.

Germany needs to act in accordance with its European commitments

On the issues of Ukraine, Syria and Iran, Germany acts as the spokesperson of the European Union. The gas pipeline “North Stream 2” issue reminds us however that Germany will first and foremost defend its own interests. Russian gas has always been used as an influence lever by Putin and it plays a not negligible role in Germany’s restraint towards Russia. Germany’s support of “North Stream” is perceived by some as a bending of the European energy policy as well as projects favouring the energy independence of the EU and the energy solidarity among its members (the Energy Union and the 2017/1938 directive on gas supply safety). The German Federal Republic was built thanks to the European Economic Community, and then the European Union. Merkel needs to keep that in mind as she discusses issues regarding the European Union as a whole with Putin. That way, the reconciliation initiated in Moscow could benefit the entire European continent.

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