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The Kremlin has released a summary of a telephone conversation between Russian President Putin and German Chancellor Merkel, which took place yesterday Saturday 7th February 2017.
Note that the summary does not say who initiated the call. The content of the summary however suggests strongly that it was Putin.
The summary, which is unusually detailed, reads as follows
The discussion focused on the situation in southeastern Ukraine, which recently deteriorated due to Ukraine’s provocative actions. The parties expressed serious concern over the escalating armed conflict, which has caused human fatalities and significant destruction of the civil infrastructure and residential areas in several Donbass towns.
Vladimir Putin drew Angela Merkel’s attention to the data of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission as well as statements by official Kiev representatives, which indicate attempts by the Ukrainian security forces to change the situation at the contact line in their favour by military means. It is becoming obvious that Kiev officials are trying to sabotage the execution of the Minsk Agreements and use the Normandy format to conceal their destructive acts.
President Putin and Chancellor Merkel spoke for restoring the ceasefire immediately and supported the efforts of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in this context.
The parties agreed to intensify diplomatic efforts to assist with the peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian crisis. In particular, this includes contacts between foreign ministers and the leaders’ aides within the Normandy format in the earliest possible timeframe, and subsequent discussions of the situation at the top level.
(bold italics added)
The first point to make about this call is that it was a one to one between Putin and Merkel. French President Francois Hollande, who regularly participates in discussions between Putin and Merkel on the subject of Ukraine, was not a party.
That is a strong reason for thinking it was the Russians who initiated the call. It seems that the Russians were determined to make their point to the one person who they consider matters – German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and were in mood to waste time on diplomatic niceties by bringing in Hollande, who will soon be gone anyway.
The other point to make about the call is the exceptionally harsh tone of the Kremlin’s summary. Not only does it refer to “Ukraine’s provocative actions” but the middle paragraph shows Putin read Merkel a lecture on what the OSCE Monitoring Mission is reporting, and what Ukrainian officials are saying, in order to reinforce his point that it is Ukraine that is behind the latest flare up in violence near Avdeevka.
Note also that the Kremlin summary refers to “official Kiev representatives” as opposed to “representatives of the Ukrainian government”. The Russians have never stopped questioning the legitimacy of the Maidan regime, and the formula they repeatedly fall back on – especially when they are angry – which refers to “Kiev” as opposed to “Ukraine”, is intended to highlight the fact.
However the single most powerful sentence in the whole summary is the one which reads as follows
It is becoming obvious that Kiev officials are trying to sabotage the execution of the Minsk Agreements and use the Normandy format to conceal their destructive acts.
(bold italics added)
This is a personal frontal attack on Merkel herself.
More than any other single individual Merkel is the key player in the diplomatic process known as the Normandy format. By saying that the Ukrainian regime is using the Normandy format to conceal its ‘destructive acts’ in eastern Ukraine, Putin is accusing Merkel of colluding in the Ukrainian regime’s actions.
The Kremlin’s summary does not say how Merkel responded. Almost certainly there was a furious row. It is fair to say that Merkel is not accustomed to being spoken to in this forthright fashion, and that she is more in the habit of reading out lectures to others than of being on the receiving end of them. Undoubtedly she would have been shocked and furious, but also – given the extent of Putin’s anger and the doubts we know she has about the support she is getting from Donald Trump – deeply alarmed.
The last paragraph of the Kremlin summary suggests that Putin warned Merkel to take steps to bring the fighting in eastern Ukraine to a stop – with the implication that action would be taken if she failed to do so – and that she agreed. The Kremlin summary does not say whether Putin gave her a deadline but the words “earliest possible timeframe” suggest he did.
Merkel has no interest in an escalation in the situation in eastern Ukraine, which if it results in another Ukrainian defeat can only expose the bankruptcy of her Ukrainian policy. She would not be the wily politician she is if she has not by now put aside her anger at being handed what looks frankly like an ultimatum. Her spokesman has said that she urged Putin during the telephone call to use his influence to “restrain” the militia, a comment which does not contradict the possibility that she was on the receiving end of a threat from Putin, but which on the contrary tends to confirm it. Importantly however Merkel’s spokesman is quoted as repeating the very last sentence of the Kremlin’s summary, using practically the same words
The German Chancellor and the Russian President agreed that new efforts must be made to secure a ceasefire and asked foreign ministers and their advisers to remain in close contact
This also suggests that Merkel agreed to do what Putin demanded. Almost certainly the telephone lines between Berlin and Kiev are now buzzing with calls to Kiev to pull back. The big question is whether anyone in Kiev is paying attention.