Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin made all the right noises about cooperation at their summit on Friday. That was the easy part. After all, these two leaders have dealt with each other for well over a decade. And yet the issues that divide them have rarely been more substantial and unresolved.
Ms. Merkel’s trip to Russia was her first in a year, and it comes as tensions are high. As she arrived in subtropical Sochi, German media emphasized the chilly, business-like temperature these days between the two leaders. While the German chancellor probably remains the best friend that Mr. Putin has in western Europe, and the countries have historic ties, the gulf between them on critical global issues, from Syria to Ukraine, continues to widen.
The relationship has been made even more challenging by the demands of outside powers, notably Ukraine and the United States, which have suddenly made the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline a higher-grade political issue. An energy diplomat from Washington on Thursday made clear that the US would do everything in its power try to prevent the construction of the German-Russian gas pipeline, fearing it will leave Eastern European states vulnerable to Moscow and western powers too dependent on Russia for energy. Ukraine fears losing its lucrative status as a transit country.
In their press conference on Friday afternoon, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin committed to addressing the situation in eastern Ukraine, including potentially sending UN peacekeepers. As the conflict continues, they spoke of reviving the Normandy format, where meetings are held between senior representatives of Ukraine and Russia, France and Germany to find a resolution.
The two leaders also affirmed a commitment to making the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline work, but behind closed doors Ms. Merkel is driving a harder bargain, noting Ukraine’s concerns that the pipeline would prove damaging to its economy as it would deliver gas directly to Germany. Mr. Putin underlined that he was willing to continue to pipe gas through Ukraine and negotiate with Kiev on the conditions for continuing to use the country as a transit route. Mr. Putin underlined that he wouldn’t let anyone stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and he spoke sarcastically of Donald Trump’s opposition. The US president was primarily as a businessman, determined to sell his more-expensive LNG to Europeans instead of allowing them cheaper Russian gas.
Of Syria, Mr. Putin, fresh from a meeting with Bashar Al-Assad the previous day, said humanitarian support for the country should be depoliticized if Europe wanted refugees to return to their war-torn homeland. But Russia and the West remain worlds apart on policy in the country. Ms. Merkel called on Mr. Putin to persuade Mr. Assad to change regulations that require Syrians who have fled the country to register for their property or lose their homes.
Tensions between Berlin and Moscow are exacerbated further by issues that have weakened or divided Europe, such as the recurring cyber attacks from Russia, or the recent poisoning in England of a former spy in March. Mr. Putin wished Sergei Skripal good health as the former spy was released from hospital after allegedly being poisoned by Novichok gas. The Russian leader played down the incident, adding that the nerve agent could not have been a weapon of war, or it would have killed Mr. Skripal in minutes. Moscow has repeatedly denied it was behind the attack, despite British accusations that the chemical came from Russia.
Nonetheless, there are some shared interests holding this fragile relationship together. Chief among them is a common stance on keeping the Iran nuclear deal alive in the face of Mr. Trump’s opposition. Ms. Merkel, German commentators hope, is dangling energy cooperation in exchange for progress on Ukraine. For his part, Mr. Putin has an interest in keeping at least some German business in Russia. To that end, he pledged to water down controversial legislation that would punish (even criminally) German companies that are abiding by the EU’s economic sanctions against the country. Time will tell whether their stated commitment to good relations will translate into action on any of these fraught issues.
Thomas Sigmund leads Handelsblatt’s politics coverage from Berlin. Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org