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Pragmatism trumps theatrics at Merkel’s meeting with Putin

Shared interests transcended cheap theatrics when Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel hosted Russia’s president Vladimir Putin for a meeting in Meseberg, Germany on Saturday.

After years of deteriorating relations between Russia and Germany, the meeting marked a turning point as Merkel and Putin discussed operational cooperation in three key spheres. Dominating the talks were the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that will circumvent Poland and Ukraine in delivering natural gas from Russia to Germany.

Yet Putin displayed his penchant as provocateur, making a brief personal appearance at the wedding of Austria’s foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, before his meeting with Merkel. While Austria’s foreign ministry insisted that the wedding was a private affair, German newspaper Der Spiegel observed that Putin’s visit ‘was anything but private’.

‘You can consider both visits strategic investments,’ said Jan Techau, head of the Europe program at the German Marshall Fund. ‘One is a strategic investment of convenience that Putin does with the Austrians, and the other [with Merkel] is a strategic investment of necessity.’

As an aggressive but adroit diplomatic actor, Putin has never shied away from political fanfare. Brandishing flowers and accompanied by a Cossack choir to serenade the newlyweds, Putin danced playfully with Kneissl and delivered a lengthy toast in German. This contrasts sharply with Putin’s past choice of surprise guests. At a 2007 meeting with Merkel, Putin summoned his black Labrador, Koni, into the room, knowing Merkel’s fear of dogs.

Putin is committed to maintaining close ties with Austria as it currently holds the European Union’s (EU) rotating presidency. Austria is the jewel in Putin’s crown of EU member states led by populist parties sympathetic to his regime.

Italy, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus and Austria are ‘united in their sympathy’ for Russia. All five states are vocal proponents of lifting sanctions. Also, each has held bilateral meetings with Putin, explicitly flouting the EU’s informal policy that prohibits official diplomatic activities with Russian officials.

However, Putin knows that all paths to Europe go through Merkel – ‘jeder Weg nach Europa führt über Merkel’. Reciprocally, Merkel has a vested interest in improving Germany’s relationship with Russia.

Both leaders privileged pragmatism over politics during Saturday’s three-and-a-half-hour talks, particularly concerning the Syrian conflict and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Merkel and Putin have a shared interest in shepherding the Syrian conflict toward a political settlement.

For Merkel, it would ease domestic pressure as she confronts increased resistance from the public and her government for Germany’s decision to allow more than one million people – mostly refugees fleeing Syria – to apply for asylum. Stability in Syria could allow Germany to support refugees returning home.

Putin seeks to minimise the already corrosive impact of tying Russia’s fortunes to that of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Since Putin ‘can neither withdraw nor push real political change in Syria without risking the collapse of the Assad government’, he is rallying support to promote political stability and to avoid further jeopardising Russia’s geostrategic standing.

With EU leaders palpably incensed by Trump’s positions on tariffs, trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, Putin is also appealing to European solidarity on key international issues.

His calls to revisit Europe’s relationship with Russia is resonating with Germany’s press. The Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in its 3 June article, Together with Russia, that ‘Europe alone cannot oppose the US’.

Saturday’s meeting confirmed Merkel and Putin’s joint willingness to defy US President Donald Trump, with both emphasising that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline ‘would not be derailed by American ire over the project’.

Trump accused Germany of being a ‘captive’ to Russia at a NATO meeting on 11 July, asserting incorrectly that Germany relied on Russia for 60 to 70 per cent of its natural gas.

Germany imports 40 per cent of its natural gas from Russia. It has also supported strong retaliatory measures against Putin’s administration. Germany has maintained economic sanctions against Russia since 2015 and it joined the EU’s coordinated response to the alleged nerve-agent attack against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain.

Saturday’s meeting was touted as a tentative reset between Germany and Russia. However, Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations warns pragmatic dialogue should not be interpreted as heralding a new strategic partnership. Saturday’s meeting was ‘a chance to normalise German-Russia relations on operational terms, without either side abandoning their fundamental differences.’

Caitlin Clifford is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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