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Putin and Merkel: Europe’s titans meet in Moscow

Angela Merkel met Vladimir Putin for the first time in Moscow in 2 years, her last visit there being a brief visit she made in 2015 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Victory In Europe.

Apart from that one meeting, which it was impossible politically for Merkel to avoid, Merkel’s visit to Moscow today is her first visit there since her negotiation with Putin in February 2015, which took place in the run-up to the signing of the Minsk Agreement.

Merkel has avoided to Moscow since then, and has signalled her disapproval of visits there by other German politicians.

Merkel’s visit to Moscow is supposed to be taking place in the run-up to the G20 summit in July in Germany,which Merkel will be hosting.

This is an excuse than than a reason for the visit.  Even if it is true that Merkel is busy contacting G20 leaders in preparation for the summit, that did not require her to go to Moscow to meet Putin there.

Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel are by a very considerable distance the two most powerful leaders in Europe.  Each of them leads what are by a very considerable distance the two most powerful countries in Europe.  Putin and Merkel are now also the two most long lasting leaders of any of the major European states.  Putin has been de facto leading Russia since Boris Yeltsin appointed him Prime Minister in August 1999.  Merkel has been Germany’s Chancellor since 2005.

Putin and Merkel have met frequently with each other, and have got to know each other very well.  Each speaks the other’s language, making it possible for them to speak directly to each other without interpreters.  Both are exceptionally skilled politicians, with a profound grasp of the politics of their respective countries.  Both are good managers and formidable negotiators with an eye for detail.  Over the years that they have known each other, they have gained a wary respect for each other.

That respect is however coloured by mutual dislike.  In his usual way Putin never speaks of it.  Merkel however has spoken of it often, and Putin is of course aware of some of the deeply unpleasant things she has said about him.

Though the two dislike each other – a fact very obvious in the tense body language of their meetings – circumstances oblige them to work together, though neither finds it a pleasant experience.  Merkel admitted as much during her joint conference with Putin today, when she confirmed she was meeting Putin out of necessity and not from choice

I am always of the view that even if there are serious differences of opinion in some areas, talks must continue. You must carry on, because otherwise you fall into silence and there is less and less understanding

The same Reuters report which reports these words, also refers to their tense body language during the news conference

Their body language suggested tensions: their facial expressions as they spoke to reporters were stern, and the two leaders barely looked at each other.

That Putin and Merkel nonetheless often succeed in achieving common ground on subjects like Nord Stream 2 with each other despite their mutual dislike is a sign of their professionalism, which is of course a reason why they have been leaders of their respective countries for so long.

Underpinning their mutual dislike are profound differences.

Though Putin and Merkel are often referred to as conservatives, in reality that does neither of them justice.

Though he in many of his professed attitudes Putin is a conservative, he is also the leader of a dynamic and purposeful government which in the years he has been in power has transformed Russia, changing it more completely than any other country during the same period apart from China.

Merkel is more truly conservative in the sense that she sees herself as essentially Germany’s caretaker, preserving the German political and economic system unchanged from the way she found it.  Where Putin’s policies are marked by dynamism and change, her policies can be best described as immobilism bordering on stagnation.

However Merkel has also increasingly become the gatekeeper of Europe’s neoliberal order, which in its effects is anything but conservative.

The most important fact about today’s meeting is its venue.

It is barely conceivable that Putin or Merkel – who are in regular communication with each other – were expecting to hear anything from the other which they had not heard before.  Bloomberg has written a colourful account of their joint press conference and of the different positions they took on the Ukrainian crisis.  However these were simply restatements of long established positions, which neither Putin nor Merkel would have expected the other to change.

On the sanctions issue highlighted by Bloomberg, Russian Finance Minister Siluanov had already said before Merkel’s visit in an interview with the German business newspaper Handelsblatt that Russia expects the sanctions to stay.

For what it’s worth, on certain contentious points which have arisen recently between Ukraine and Russia, Merkel if anything appeared to side with Russia.  Thus she rejected Ukrainian suggestions that the Minsk Agreement be scrapped or rewritten, or that the OSCE monitors in eastern Ukraine be replaced by UN peacekeepers.  I doubt anyone sees anything of significant in this.

The key point about Merkel going to Moscow to meet with Putin there is that it shows that she now accepts that Putin is there to stay, and will be there for a long time.

It was not to signal any change of policy that Merkel went to Moscow.  It was to acknowledge the reality that Putin’s hold on power is secure.

Amidst the ocean of words the Western media has written about how Putin supposedly meddles in Western politics, and how he supposedly engineered Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 and is trying to engineer Angela Merkel’s defeat this year, it is completely overlooked that in reality it was the West which in 2014 tried to overthrow him.

That was why the West imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014: in the expectation that the hurt the West thought they would cause through the sanctions would provoke a backlash against Putin in Russia, which would lead to his overthrow.

Merkel was fully on board with this agenda.  Back in the winter of 2014 the BND – Germany’s intelligence agency – told her that if sanctions were imposed on Russia Putin would have no choice but to comply with the West’s demands or face being overthrown in an oligarch-led coup.

Three years later no-one any longer believes that.

Since refusing to talk to Russia – as Merkel says – is not an option, that means talking to Putin.  If he insists that means meeting him in Moscow, then Merkel is enough of a realist to know that she has no choice but to go.

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