Angela Merkel travelled to Russia again on Tuesday for the first time since 2015. She didn’t really want to go under the current circumstances, with the Ukraine crisis far from resolved.
An episode almost exactly two years ago might still have been fresh in her mind, when she laid a wreath at the Kremlin wall to demonstrate Germany's historical responsibility for the World World II. Her plan was to stay clear of a gigantic military parade the day before to avoid any symbolic connection to Vladimir Putin's demonstration of power. So the Russian president surprised her at the wreath-laying ceremony with a mini parade, in full view of the television cameras.
Ms. Merkel's subsequent step back from Russia was no less symbolic. But the symbolism has now given way to pragmatism – and that's good. Even those who didn't know or didn't want to know now surely realized that without Russia a large number of problems can't be solved, whether it is Ukraine or Syria.
As Otto von Bismarck once said: "Politics is the art of the possible." While Ms. Merkel may follow this credo in her domestic policy more closely than any of her predecessors, she must admit herself that the Russian sanctions have not had the desired effect.
Symbolism has now given way to pragmatism – and that's good.
While German-Russian trade has plummeted by half – partly due to the sanctions – the anti-West rhetoric and the Kremlin calls for citizens to endure the hardship have only grown louder. The German government's Russian expert, Gernot Erler, recently conceded the inefficiency of further threats: “Offering the carrot is likely to be more effective than using the stick.”
That doesn't mean Ms. Merkel has to kowtow to Mr. Putin. It's too late for a real friendship between the two to ever happen, anyway. The days of camaraderie between former chancellor Helmut Kohl and ex-Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who visited the sauna together, and the friendship of their successors Gerhard Schröder and Mr. Putin are a thing of the past – and not just because of gender and style. The personal and political differences are too fundamental. But there is a possibility for a dispassionate atmosphere that would allow both sides to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
Europe is interested in a peaceful solution for Ukraine and Syria. It also wants to normalize the relationship with Russia – not least for economic reasons. For that to happen, Ms. Merkel had to offer Mr. Putin something, explaining why implementation of the Minsk Agreement (to alleviate the ongoing war in Ukraine) played an important role in the discussions. But encouraging Russia to fulfill the agreement or individual points of it by gradually reducing sanctions is too simple a plan.
Mr. Putin, who contrary to official assurances of being only an observer in eastern Ukraine, is of course involved in the events in Crimea and the Donbass region, and he can't simply turn his back on pro-Russian separatists for domestic political reasons. The Russian leadership has invested too much in the conflict and has manipulated public opinion in Russia too assiduously to just do a volte-face.
A compromise is required to make genuine progress in this matter. Ms. Merkel needs to make a credible promise to Mr. Putin that she will put pressure on Ukraine to honor its obligations arising from the Minsk Agreement that Kiev has also criminally neglected. Europe has the necessary influence in Ukraine, especially since the United States has taken a step back from the Ukraine conflict after Donald Trump took office.
Germany has less influence in Syria, due possibly to the differences between Moscow and Berlin. The government also holds Bashar al-Assad responsible for numerous human rights violations and atrocities, not least of all the poison gas attack in Idlib a month ago. But replacing the Syrian president, whose position is now consolidated thanks to massive Russian air support, is not the top priority for Berlin. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said a peaceful solution with Assad is unimaginable in the“mid-term” and it was “unrealistic” to assume his presidency would “end tomorrow.”
Russia has always emphasized it is not fixated on Mr. Assad, providing the modalities of a political transition are settled. So Ms. Merkel has to clarify how genuine this assurance is and what influence Russia wants to exert - apart from its military bases in Syria – after a possible transfer of power in Damascus.
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