Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin have always appeared to understand one another, but at this weekend's G20 meeting, it was clear their relationship had cooled.
The two leaders go back a long way, having first met 14 years ago. They have now been in power for longer than many of their counterparts.
And they most likely get each other. While Ms. Merkel grew up in Soviet-dominated East Germany and excelled at Russian in school, Mr. Putin, who speaks fluent German, worked as a KGB agent in Dresden.
“Merkel has always been in a special positon with regards to other EU leaders vis-a-vis Russia, if only because of Putin’s affiliation with Germany in the past,” said Alena Ledeneva, professor of Russian politics and society, University College London.
Yet, as much as Ms. Merkel may have a unique insight into what makes the Russian leader tick, it seems her attempts to get him to change his policy on Ukraine have hit a wall.
While Berlin has often sought to moderate the West’s criticism of Russian actions, the German leader’s tone was still harsh this weekend after a lengthy meeting with Mr. Putin.
In Australia for the G20 summit, Ms. Merkel met with Mr. Putin for marathon closed door talks. On Saturday night the two leaders had one-on-one talks for two hours before being joined by European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, for another four hour-meeting in Mr. Putin’s hotel in Brisbane.
Ms. Merkel’s efforts to seek dialogue were in contrast with the attitude of many other Western leaders at the meeting of the world’s leading 20 economies.
While other leaders had little desire to have much to do with Mr. Putin, with the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, barely shaking hands with him before telling him to “get out of Ukraine,” Ms. Merkel sought him out.
However, the intense talks don’t seem to have had much impact on the Russian leader. And it seems that Ms. Merkel’s attempt to act as the West’s “good cop,” were for naught.
While Ms. Merkel has refused to comment on the content of the meeting, her language in a major foreign policy speech the next day was anything but conciliatory.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Ms. Merkel vowed that the Kremlin "will not prevail" on Ukraine. Russia's annexation of Crimea in March "called the whole of the European peaceful order into question, and it has continued by Russia exporting its influence to destabilize eastern Ukraine," she said.
The West accuses Moscow of stoking the crisis by supporting the separatists in a conflict that has seen more than 4,100 die in seven months of fighting.
Ms. Merkel warned that the conflict could spread. “It’s not just about Ukraine. It is about Moldova, it is about Georgia. If things continue this way, then one could ask, should we be worried about Serbia, about the West Balkan states.”
The fact that Ms. Merkel chose to use such language immediately after the lengthy talks with the Russian leader, indicate the level of frustration in Berlin with the Russian actions. And she alluded to her experience growing up in East Germany.
"Who would've thought that 25 years after the fall of the Wall, after the end of the Cold War, after the end of the division of Europe and the end of the world being divided in two, something like that can happen right at heart of Europe?” Ms. Merkel continued. "Old thinking, thinking in terms of theories of influence, where international law is violated, this must not be allowed to prevail. I'm convinced it will not prevail."
This tougher stance could go either way, said Ms. Ledeneva.
“It is important that Angela Merkel has been harsher on him than usual, maybe that would drive the point home,” Ms. Ledeneva told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Having said that it also makes him more angry and isolated, and potentially more dangerous.”
Russia’s actions, which have been provoked over dismay at the West’s incursion into its former spheres of influence, particularly by the European Union, have alarmed many in the region.
Earlier this month Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski signed into law a new defense policy that will see forces redeployed from the country's western regions to its border with Russia. The move was presented as a response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
“Smaller countries that were formerly a part of the Eastern bloc, they are uncomfortable, they have to find a bigger alliance for them to feel secure,” Ms. Ledeneva said. “It used to be Russia that was their big umbrella, now it is the European Union or NATO. Of course they feel insecure, to have Russia as a big neighbor is probably unpleasant especially when you see the developments in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Germany as the European Union’s largest country and economy, has attempted to take the lead in Europe’s dealings with Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine conflict. It has sought to use both sanctions, which are unpopular with German industry, and dialogue in this pursuit.
“This willingness for dialogue continues, and Germany sees that the only way to get to some kind of mutually agreed solution is to talk to each other and Germany is willing to participate in that and to lead in that, on the whole with others," Susan Stewart, Eastern Europe and Russia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
In fact Ms. Merkel’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is heading to Kiev and Moscow this week as part of this ongoing diplomatic offensive.
On Sunday, Germany’s economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who is also vice chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats, the junior partners in the right-left coalition, said that he did not believe that tougher sanctions alone against Russia would work.
There is a willingness in Germany to say that because of Russian actions and the need to respond it is acceptable to have a certain level of economic pain for Germany. Susan Stewart, German Institute for International and Security Affairs
He also criticized NATO “sabre-rattling” on the border to Russia and backed his government’s approach. “It’s right that Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier are focusing on dialogue – and not confrontation as others are.”
At a recent NATO summit, the alliance endorsed a new Readiness Action Plan, which will rotate thousands of troops through Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia "to respond to the changed security environment" created by Russia's intervention in Ukraine.
Mr. Gabriel said that sanctions are hurting Russia far more than Germany and said that the economic situation was deteriorating there. “They won’t be able to hold on like that for a long time.”
According to Ms. Stewart, Berlin has committed to sanctions, despite the affect they might have on German industry.
“There is a willingness in Germany to say that because of Russian actions and the need to respond it is acceptable to have a certain level of economic pain for Germany.”
Western sanctions imposed on Russia aimed at the energy and banking sectors, combined with a falling oil price and the sliding rouble, have combined to have a huge impact on Russian economy, which had already been faltering. Yet with broad public support for his policy in Ukraine, Mr. Putin shows little signs of backing down.
So far the sanctions have if anything strengthened Mr. Putin’s resolve. Yet with the West having pledged not to take any military action or to supply Ukraine with weapons, the only option is to beef up sanctions.
European Union foreign ministers are meeting on Monday to discuss how to approach the latest developments in the Ukraine conflict, which has seen ongoing violations of a ceasefire deal reached in Minsk in September. According to Mr. Steinmeier, the ministers may choose to impose sanctions on Ukrainian separatists.
European self-interest is very much part of the equation. Russia and Ukraine recently signed an energy deal. Ukraine is the major conduit country for Russian gas supplies to Europe. If the conflict in Ukraine were to escalate again, that could have a major effect on Europe’s energy supply.
While Ms. Merkel was railing against Mr. Putin, he was giving his version of things to a German audience. In a 30-minute interview on German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday, Mr. Putin defended the annexation of Crimea, and said that relations between Russia and Germany had never been better.
“Can one find a way out of this situation? Yes, I’m convinced there is a way,” Mr. Putin said after criticizing the Ukrainian authorities for using force instead of dialogue when dealing with the separatists.
“If you look at the atmosphere between Russia and Germany over the last 10 or 15 years, I don’t know if there’s ever been such a good period before. I don’t think so. I think it’s a very good foundation for developing not only bilateral relations but between Russia and the European Union and beyond that for global relationships. It’d be a shame to lose all that.”
Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition and covers business and politics from Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected].