The smiles were tense and so was the meeting, but at least it was taking place. Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin met on Russian soil today for the first time in two years, at the Russian president's summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “Of course we have to use the visit to speak about our bilateral relations and the most problematic issues: Ukraine and Syria,” said Mr. Putin.
In the run-up to the meeting, Ms. Merkel’s journey was the subject of a wave of speculation, with many observers interpreting it as a gesture of goodwill on Berlin’s part. Russian-German relations continue to be tense, with strong disagreements over the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. The two leaders have held frequent telephone conversations about the Minsk Protocol, the agreement signed in 2015 which is meant to be the centerpiece of the now-stalled Ukrainian peace process. But Ms. Merkel’s demands for more engagement from Moscow consistently fell on deaf ears. The German government hopes a personal meeting might have more impact.
The German government is not alone in seeking to warm up relations: Ms. Merkel is the latest in a series of European politicians making the journey to Russia. Ten days ago, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, made a visit to Moscow, also after a long hiatus. Her meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was overshadowed by the death in Ukraine of an observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE. Sharp differences of opinion on Ukraine could not be disguised.
For both Berlin and Moscow, the highest priority is the end of active fighting in eastern Ukraine and the separation of the warring parties.
In Sochi, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin came no closer to a breakthrough on these tricky issues. The Minsk Protocol – the 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine – was invoked almost obsessively, perhaps for want of any other ideas. However, Mr. Putin did confirm that peace talks would continue under the auspices of the Normandy Group, which comprises Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.
For both Berlin and Moscow, the highest priority is the end of active fighting in eastern Ukraine and the separation of the warring parties. At the end of their talks, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin emphasized that a stable ceasefire was the prerequisite of any other progress. However, no new proposals were made as to how to bring this about. There are already existing detailed agreements on withdrawing weapons from the front lines, but these have yet to be implemented.
Dialogue between Russia and Germany must be kept in place, said Ms. Merkel, describing Russia as a “constructive partner,” a remark which could be construed as a positive diplomatic gesture, of which there were few otherwise. She made reference to Russia’s participation in preparations for the G20 summit in Hamburg and in the fight against terrorism.
Ms. Merkel did not regard possible Russian intervention in this year’s German election as an issue of concern, she said. However, she did mention the problem of “fake news” originating in Russia, making specific reference to the “Lisa” case: last year, Russian television claimed that a Russian-German girl had been kidnapped and raped by Arab migrants. The story was unfounded, but gave rise to widespread anger among the Russian community in Germany, and even diplomatic inquiries.
In the press conference following the meeting, the German chancellor said she had raised concerns with Mr. Putin on restrictions on freedom of assembly in Russia, on the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, and on “negative reports on how homosexuals are dealt with, particularly in Chechnya.”
German business leaders have made no secret of their opposition to continued sanctions on Russia.
In the run-up to the meeting, German business groups said they hoped it could trigger a new start in Russian-German relations. “We hope the visit will mark a step toward the reestablishment of bilateral, European and global talks with Russia, canceled due to the conflict in Ukraine,” said Klaus Schäfer, deputy leader of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations. Mr. Schäfer, who is the chief executive of the utility Uniper, said a breakthrough was needed in stalemated Russian-European relations.
Wolfgang Büchele, head of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations and chief executive of machine builders M+W, said he hoped “this visit will mark the beginning of a more intensive dialogue.” German business leaders have made no secret of their opposition to continued sanctions on Russia. In 2015, a survey carried out for the German Bilateral Chamber of Commerce in Russia suggested almost 50 percent of executives feared that Russia might permanently turn away from Europe and toward China. However, since then, German-Russian trade has sharply increased: in the first two months of 2017, total trade volume between the countries increased to €10 billion, around $10.9 billion, a rise of 37 percent over the previous year.
Both Mr. Putin and Ms. Merkel praised the economic aspects of their countries’ bilateral relations. “Our cooperation is for real,” said Mr. Putin, saying that hundreds of thousands of jobs in both countries depended on it. The two leaders were at pains to prevent further erosion of relation between Berlin and Moscow. But few specific measures were mentioned. Mr. Putin may have had his mind on other things, and other countries: tonight, he is scheduled to speak with the American president, Donald Trump.
André Ballin reports for Handelsblatt on Russia and the former Soviet Union. To reach the author: [email protected].