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A Russian-German thaw? Merkel heads for Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin President (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel address the audience as they visit the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, June 21, 2013. Vladimir Putin dismissed a report on Friday that he had cancelled a visit to a St Petersburg museum with Chancellor Angela Merkel where she was due to refer to German art seized by the Soviets in the wake of World War Two. Putin told a news conference there was a scheduling uncertainty earlier on Friday but the issue was resolved and he would visit the exhibition "The Bronze Age of Europe: Europe Without Borders" at the Hermitage museum with Merkel. REUTERS/Anatoly Maltsev/Pool (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY) - RTX10WIR

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing a possibly difficult election in Germany later this year, is travelling to Moscow on 2nd May 2017.

Merkel has been a regular visitor to Moscow, and speaks with Russian President Putin on the telephone more often than any other EU leader.  However their relationship hit rock bottom when the Ukrainian crisis exploded in 2014, and has been fraught ever since.

Suffice to say that the last occasion when Merkel visited Moscow was in the fraught run-up to the Minsk Agreement in February 2015.  When German SPD leader and Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Bavarian Minister-President and CSU leader Horst Seehofer, visited Moscow in October 2015 and February 2016, she made little attempt to hide her disapproval.

This time the mood is completely different.  Not only is Merkel herself going to Moscow, but her journey there has been well prepared in advance by the same duo of Gabriel and Seehofer who earned her displeasure by going to Moscow in October 2015 and February 2016.

Both Gabriel (now Germany’s Foreign Minister) and Seehofer have just visited Moscow over the course of the last week, and this time both have made it clear that they have done so with Merkel’s full backing.

Gabriel was there first, meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on 9th March 2017.

During this meeting Gabriel not only confirmed Merkel’s intention to travel to Moscow, but informed Putin that Germany’s new President and previous Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is also intending to go to Moscow soon.  The Kremlin’s summary of his comments to Putin shows they were both extremely relaxed and remarkably warm

It is wonderful that you found the time for this exchange and dialogue. I already had a substantial discussion on various subjects with Sergei Lavrov today.

I also think, and you are quite right, that despite the various difficulties before us, we do have the task of ensuring peace and stability in Europe. This is not easy, but it is something that is worth the effort.

It is with pleasure that I will pass on your best wishes to the Federal Chancellor, and I too hope that the opportunity will come up for her visit. I think that the Federal President [President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier] also plans to visit. We therefore have every reason to be confident in our bilateral relations’ stability.

A few days after Gabriel’s visit Horst Seehofer also turned up, leading a strong delegation from Bavaria, which first met with Lavrov and various Russian business leaders.

Seehofer eventually met with Putin in the Kremlin on 16th March 2017.  To grasp the change in the atmosphere between this visit and his previous visit of a year ago, it is sufficient to compare what Seehofer said to Putin on this occasion with what he said a year ago.

Here is what Seehofer said a year ago

We have come here from the free state of Bavaria, which traditionally has very intensive ties with Russia, and we want to maintain these ties.

Bavaria is part of the federal government. We are part of the government coalition, and we think it our duty, the duty of our hearts and souls, to put a bit more trust back into our relations. We think this is essential in today’s situation, looking at what is happening in the world.

I am very pleased that you said today that we are not coming here as plotters. Never in the run-up to any of my previous visits to other countries, have I heard as much untruthful and inaccurate information as I have this time.

Compare that with the words Seehofer said to Putin during their latest meeting

I am very pleased to see that trade relations between Bavaria and Russia are developing so well. Let me thank you too for the fact that during our last meeting, you allowed us to hold talks and work at the federal level, which we are doing. Of course, we are continuing our cooperation with our partner city, Moscow.

Allow me to convey particularly warm greetings from our Federal Chancellor [Angela Merkel]. She reminded me several times that I was not to forget to do this, and said that she would visit you in early May.

We therefore have an excellent opportunity to continue the good relations that have become a tradition between Bavaria and Russia. Some of my predecessors even piloted the plane themselves on the way here and landed safely. My direct predecessor, Edmund Stoiber, as we counted today, visited Moscow around ten times.

(bold italics added)

In February 2016 Seehofer went to Moscow under a cloud, complaining to Putin that he was being called a plotter.  In March 2017 he came bearing warm greetings for Putin from Merkel herself.

Seehofer’s comments confirm that the initiative for Merkel’s forthcoming trip to Moscow came from her.  Moreover Merkel’s repeated requests to Seehofer to make sure that he remembered to pass on her “particularly warm greetings” to Putin is a clear sign that she wants to carry out at least some repairs both to Germany’s relationship with Russia and her own broken relationship with Putin.

What explains this reversal?

Firstly it should be said that Merkel’s policy positions have little to do with ideology and everything to do with her wish to secure her position in Germany and to remain Chancellor.  Thus where before 2014 she followed the policy of engaging with Russia, which Germany had followed since the Ostpolitik era of the 1970s, and which has much support in Germany especially within its business community, in 2014, when it suited her politically, she reversed course and took a hard line against Russia of a sort that would have been countenanced by no previous German leader since Adenauer.

If Merkel is now softening that line, it is because she thinks her position as Chancellor would benefit from her doing so, not because she has any strong convictions about the matter.

As to why Merkel might think that, at its simplest, with crises (eg. Brexit, Le Pen, the refugee crisis, relations with Turkey, Poland, Grexit etc) rapidly building up all around her, Merkel – rather like Erdogan in June 2016 – probably has come to realise that with a difficult election coming she needs to start solving problems more quickly than she is causing them.  With her other problems both intractable and largely beyond her control it is understandable why she might be looking to improve relations with Russia where at least some progress is possible.

Having said this, there are three pressing issues that must be causing Merkel concern, and which may explain why she is looking to mend at least some fences with Moscow now.

The first is the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine.  Some time ago one of Merkel’s aides let slip that Merkel regards the crisis in Ukraine as by far the biggest crisis she faces, and that it is the one that keeps her awake at night.

With the situation in Ukraine going rapidly from bad to worse, it is understandable if Merkel wants to talk about it with Putin to see how the crisis might be contained.  The fact that she was on the receiving end of a furious lecture from Putin a short while ago during the military crisis in Avdeevka will have spelled out to her how important it is as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates that she keeps her lines of communication to Putin open.

Significantly criticism of Putin and Russia over Ukraine from Merkel and other Western leaders has been surprisingly muted over recent weeks, even as Russia recognises the validity of the documents issued by the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, and even as the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics have nationalised Ukrainian businesses located on their territories in retaliation for the Ukrainian transport blockade.

Another fact that is probably causing Merkel to reconsider her hardline policy towards Russia is the coming of Donald Trump.

It is becoming increasingly clear that Donald Trump is not going to be driven from the White House because of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal, and Merkel must calculate that once he has put this essentially fake scandal behind him he will be able to press ahead with his stalled plan for detente with Russia.

Certainly Merkel will have noticed – even if most Western commentators have not – that since Trump arrived in the White House the US and Russian militaries have been quietly talking to each other, and have even been quietly cooperating with each other in Syria.

If the drive for detente between the US and Russia is renewed, perhaps in the summer, then Merkel does not want to be left high and dry, clinging on to an anti-Russian policy the US is no longer intent on.

To understand the importance of relations with the US to Merkel’s actions, it is only necessary to recall what happened to Seehofer after he returned to Germany following his trip to Moscow in February 2016.  Shortly after his return the US delivered him a brutal public snub when the US delegation to the Munich security conference led by the neocon hardliner Victoria Nuland, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, boycotted a public dinner Seehofer hosted on behalf of the Bavarian government.

Merkel will want to avoid any such snub, and as the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of Europe’ she will not want to be left out in the cold if the US and Russia start edging closer to each other.  Her trip to Moscow is therefore in a sense her taking out insurance in case (as remains likely) US-Russian relations start to improve in the summer.

Lastly Merkel must be concerned that the issue of sanctions – to which her reputation and her authority are now tied – has now become an issue in the French elections, and will probably before long be an issue in the Italian elections whenever they happen.  If she is to continue to hold the line on sanctions, as is essential for her prestige, she has to give at least the appearance of negotiating with Moscow so as to hold out the hope to her increasingly restive European partners and to the German business community that they will one day be lifted.

Merkel therefore has multiple good reasons to reach out to Putin and go to Moscow now.  Whatever else she is, she is above all an extremely skilled politician, and the fact she is going to Moscow is a clear sign that she senses a turn in the wind.

The Russians for their part will be willing to receive her.  From their point of view a rapprochement with Germany, the single most important country in Europe and a major trading parter, is worth the price of her visit.

The Russians will receive Merkel with all their customary courtesy.   They will listen to (and record) attentively what she says.  They may even conclude some agreements with her.

They will not however trust her.  The experience of what happened in 2014, when the Russians thought they had an understanding with Merkel over how to handle the Ukrainian crisis only for Merkel to back a Ukrainian army offensive in the Donbass and then slap sanctions on Russia when it began to go wrong, is not one the Russians are going to forget.  Nor is Putin likely to forget the terrible things Merkel has said about him.

Behind the smiles and the smooth words there will be continued mistrust and the Russians will be very much on their guard.

By now the Russians have learnt that if it is wise to hold your enemies close and your friends even closer, in the case of Merkel it is wisest to hold her closest of all.

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