NEWS ANALYSIS: Trump’s attacks on Merkel make her more receptive to Putin
Merkel has been Putin’s most implacable critic since he annexed Crimea, but will be on the back foot when she hosts him for their first bilateral meeting in five years
Moscow/Berlin — The whirlwind that is US President Donald tearing through international relations, may be forcing Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin to come together after years of confrontation.
Merkel has been Putin’s most implacable critic since he annexed Crimea in 2014, plunging relations to their worst in decades. On Saturday, however, the German chancellor will welcome the Russian president to an 18th century Baroque palace near Berlin for their first bilateral meeting in Germany in more than five years, handing Putin a major breakthrough in ending Russia’s isolation and reaffirming Merkel’s pivotal role in Europe despite election setbacks.
"Merkel is hedging and Putin is exploiting," says Josef Janning, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
After Trump met Putin while attacking Merkel and the German economy, Janning says, "she needs to have her own contact with Putin. She doesn’t want to give up the chance of keeping Putin within a margin that is manageable for Germany."
This is Putin’s highest-profile bilateral trip to Germany since 2013, though he and Merkel have met at international events including last year’s Group of 20 summit in Hamburg.
Merkel has visited Putin in Russia several times, most recently in May. She’s advocated engagement principally to deliver blunt messages rather than being a bridge between the European Union and Russia.
While officials from both countries played down the significance of the invitation to Putin, it comes after Trump last month slammed Germany as "totally controlled by Russia" because of its dependence on Moscow for natural gas supplies.
Work on a new gas pipeline linking the two countries, the Gazprom PJSC-backed Nord Stream 2, began in May amid a US threat of sanctions targeting the project.
Putin stressed the importance of Merkel’s support for Nord Stream 2 as evidence of her willingness to assert Europe’s independence, said three people who attended a recent meeting between the president and senior diplomats.
The Kremlin views divisions between the US and Europe over trade and the Iranian nuclear deal as a chance for Russia to mend relations with Germany by presenting itself as a more reliable partner in negotiations, according to other officials, who asked not be identified discussing internal matters.
Amid rising US pressure over the pipeline, Merkel moved to ensure Russia continues to supply gas through existing networks via Ukraine. She sent one of her closest allies, economy minister Peter Altmaier, to Moscow and Kiev in spring to help mediate a deal on gas between the two countries that are in conflict over Crimea and separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine and Syria
"Russia is an international actor without whom the solution of various issues is unthinkable," Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, told reporters in Berlin on Friday.
The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine are on the agenda for discussion as well as "big commercial projects in the context of threats that are being made by third countries", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Friday.
There will be no breakthrough over Ukraine, though "it’s advantageous for Putin to play along with Merkel because there’s no one else in Europe to rely on", said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.
"Merkel understands that it’s now time to look for opportunities with Russia," said Alexander Rahr, a former member of the German Council of Foreign Relations who’s now a senior adviser to Gazprom. "If it’s possible to take a step forward on Syria, energy issues or Ukraine, it will be good for Germany as the leader of Europe."
Merkel is suffering domestically after a political backlash against her 2015 decision to leave the border open and allow more than 1-million refugees, most of them Syrian, into Germany.
She needs an end to the war in Syria to allow migrants to return home, and is also under pressure from German businesses to allow the lifting of EU sanctions on Russia over the Ukrainian crisis.
"Exchanges between Germany and Russia have increased markedly in recent months," Wolfgang Buechele, head of the German Eastern Business Association in Berlin, said. "That’s a welcome development."
Germany is seeking a political solution on Syria that would create conditions for refugees to return, though "we’re still a long way away from that", Seibert said on Wednesday.
After Putin used his military to tip the war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favour, Russia joined with Turkey and Iran in trying to engineer a settlement.
Putin also agreed co-ordinated steps with Trump at their Helsinki summit last month to try to stabilise the situation.
The economic crisis in Turkey may loom over Saturday’s talks. A possible Syrian government attack on rebel-held Idlib province could spark another refugee exodus, giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "potential if unsavoury leverage" to secure Western aid by deciding whether to open Turkey’s borders, according to Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Amid growing conflict between Trump and Turkey that has prompted US sanctions on its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ally, Merkel "doesn’t have an interest in Erdogan being driven into Moscow’s camp by Washington", says Janning. "She doesn’t have an interest in Putin breaking Turkey away from Nato."