MOSCOW – She wore a lime green jacket and pushed for gay rights; he was in a black suit and tie and ignored the issue entirely. Even though German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have known each other for over a decade, and hold for each other an enduring mixture of resentment and respect, there were few smiles at Tuesday’s meeting between the two leaders.
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Flying to Putin’s Black Sea resort in Sochi, this was Merkel’s first visit to Russia in two years. The meeting came amid mounting tensions between Europe and Russia over Moscow’s alleged interference in the recent Dutch and French elections. It is worth noting too, that Merkel flew to Russia and not the other way round, suggesting she had a lot of issues to raise with the Russian leader.
While Merkel pressed Putin to act on reports of gay people in Chechnya being tortured and detained, the meeting primarily focused on the escalating crises in Syria and Ukraine. Merkel reiterated Germany's stance – and that of many leaders in Europe – that sanctions on Russia cannot be lifted until the Minsk peace accords aimed at ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine are carried out. Germany has been a stalwart supporter of Ukraine since the beginning of the crisis three years ago, when a revolution toppled its Russian-backed government.
Last week in Moscow the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was also resolute on the subject of Ukraine and the continuance of sanctions, using the opportunity to condemn Russia's annexation of Crimea once again.
While Putin conceded that the Minsk accords were important, he also pointed the blame at Kiev. At the two leaders' joint press conference it was not clear if any headway was made on either Ukraine or Syria, the two areas Merkel is most keen to make progress on in the months leading up to her possible re-election in September when Germany goes to the polls.
One thing that was clear, however, was the glaring absence of Ukraine in a phone conversation between the Russian leader and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump held just a few hours later. Statements from the White House and the Kremlin named two conflicts in their brief, similarly-sized statements published after the phone call, but Ukraine was nowhere to be seen. North Korea instead had taken the limelight.
It’s fair to say that Putin is unlikely to raise the thorny issue of Ukraine unless he has to, and judging by the post-conversation statements, Trump didn’t make much, if any, reference to it either. It was a key conversation between the two leaders, the first since the U.S missile strike in Syria following the deadly Idlib gas attack, and Ukraine's absence should not go unnoticed.
The question is, was it also a snubbing of Merkel, who had come all the way to Russia only for one of her major concerns to later be ignored?
Merkel and Putin’s relationship is complicated. The two speak each other’s languages: Merkel grew up in East Germany, where Putin was stationed as a KGB officer in the 1980s. Her viewpoint on Russia is considered to be more nuanced than those of other EU leaders, and the German leader is considered among the most prominent and influential of the region. Merkel will not abandon the EU’s agenda, just as she did not in Tuesday's meeting, despite how unpalatable it may be in Moscow.
After the meeting in Sochi, Merkel was described as being disingenuous by the outspoken and prominent lawmaker Alexey Pushkov, in remarks he made on state television. Likening Merkel to the NATO military alliance, Pushkov said, “Merkel hopes to lift sanctions, but insists on their extension. NATO wants to cooperate, but continues the conflict.”
Gevord Mirzayen, Associate Professor of Political Sciences at the government-sponsored Financial University in Moscow, suggested that the fact Merkel had focused on Ukraine was in fact proof that Kiev is losing its power as a bargaining chip. To Mirzayen, Ukraine is becoming more radical in its anti-Russian position in its plea for help.
“Before the Ukraine story, relations between Moscow and Berlin were good, almost too good,” Mirzayen said almost wistfully, in an interview with the state-run RIA news agency. That has all changed however, and now, “Merkel is tasked with not allowing further aggravation of Russian-Western relations, especially in the face of provocation by the Ukrainian authorities.”
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. was a key supporter of Kiev and provided extensive military aid whilst encouraging the country in its efforts to move toward European, and not Russian, integration. Under Trump, that support is fast becoming a distant memory. According to the proposed U.S. budget for next year, aid to Ukraine is in line to be slashed by almost 70 percent. Furthermore, the State Department’s restrained response to the death of a U.S. medic last month in eastern Ukraine – he was part of an international monitoring mission – also sent tremors in Kiev, where ministers and officials had openly lambasted Trump during his campaign, fearing he would give in to Russia on both Crimea and the conflict in the east of the country. The links between Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, and ousted Ukrainian leader and Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych, continue to give Ukraine cause for alarm.
By avoiding the subject of Ukraine in Tuesday's phone call with Trump, not only did Putin succeed in serving Merkel a thinly-veiled insult following the uncomfortable Sochi press conference, he also succeeded in taking Ukraine off the global agenda, for the time being.