German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin met this Friday in Moscow for the last time before the German elections (on September 26) that will mark the withdrawal of the president after 16 years in power. Both leaders have taken the opportunity to say words of appreciation for their mutual willingness to dialogue over the years, but they have not avoided the thorny issues that have strained their relations in recent times. Merkel has demanded “once again” the release of Russian opponent Alexei Navalni and has described his prison sentence as “unacceptable”.
The disagreements surrounding the Navalni case are just one of the many fronts on which the chancellor and the Russian president collide. In the press conference after their meeting in the Kremlin, the leaders have exhibited several of their disagreements, such as the war in eastern Ukraine, the relationship with Belarus and the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and its consequences for third countries. The crisis in Afghanistan has starred in much of the appearance, in which the leaders have assured that it will be necessary to establish a dialogue with the Taliban.
It is Merkel’s second visit to Moscow in less than two years, and it occurs precisely one year after the poisoning of the Russian opponent Navalni, who recovered in the German capital and is currently imprisoned in Russia. “The prison sentence based on a previous sentence, which the European Court of Human Rights has described as manifestly disproportionate, is unacceptable,” said Merkel. The Foreign Minister’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, announced on Wednesday what the leader’s position would be before Putin, recalling that the Navalni situation is “a heavy burden” on bilateral relations.
Berlin welcomed the opponent and confirmed the poisoning with a nerve gas similar to Novichok, something that a year later Putin continues to deny. The Russian president has defended before Merkel that Navalni was sentenced for a “criminal offense” and not for “his political activity”. “I ask that Russia’s judicial decisions be treated with respect,” he added. The dissident returned to Russia in January after recovering from the poisoning that occurred the previous summer and was arrested for violating the probation of a 2014 sentence. The entire network of Navalni collaborators has been dismantled by the Russian authorities. Precisely this Friday, the United Kingdom and the United States have imposed new sanctions on several members of the Russian intelligence responsible for the Navalni poisoning.
“Although it is clear that we have profound differences, we continue to talk to each other. This dialogue must continue and shape relations between Germany and Russia, “said Merkel, who on this occasion did not refer to Russian espionage, another of the issues that has caused the most friction between the two powers. At the last meeting they held, in January 2020, the alleged hack mailings of members of the Bundestag and also to Merkel’s own office by the Russian secret services, in 2015, or the assassination in broad daylight in a Berlin park of a Chechen rebel, in August 2019.
Disagreement in the Ukraine war
One of the key issues addressed by Merkel and Putin has been the war in Ukraine. Berlin believes Putin can “do much more” – in the words of Merkel’s spokesman – to achieve a solution to the conflict if he used his influence on pro-Russian separatists. The German leader will travel to Kiev on Sunday to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky. A day later there will be the launch of the Crimean Platform, a project in Kiev to recover the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 that also has the support of the US, Turkey and Spain, among more than 40 countries.
Putin assured that the chancellor “has done a lot to resolve the Ukrainian crisis,” as he describes the war in which Moscow has indirectly participated, something recognized by the paramilitaries who appeared in the Donbas region in April 2014. During his speech, the Russian leader accused Kiev of the increase in shelling on the line of contact and of the military deployment in the area. “The Ukrainian government has given up trying to implement the Minsk agreements,” said Putin, who assured that Kiev wants to withdraw from the pact signed in February 2015 by both parties, Germany and France. That initiative envisaged, among other measures, the withdrawal of all foreign military deployment, amnesties and more autonomy for the region. “There are no other instruments than the Minsk accords to achieve a stable peace. We are concerned because the Ukrainians say one thing and then do another, ”added the Russian leader.
Both leaders agreed in calling for pragmatism to address the complicated situation in Afghanistan. “The Taliban have controlled the country and we have to start from that reality,” said Putin, who called on the international community to prevent the “collapse” of the country. The Russian president also asked that foreign interference cease, that no attempt be made to impose “external values” or “a democracy based on foreign models.” Merkel, for her part, said: “We are going to have to dialogue with them if we want to save lives.”
Although Putin did not refer to the matter during his speech, the rulers also spoke of the tense relationship that the European Union has maintained in recent months with Belarus, a country in the orbit of the Kremlin. Merkel is one of the European leaders who has publicly denounced that Alexandr Lukashenko puts pressure on Brussels by directing migrants towards its borders with Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Frontex, the European border agency, has confirmed that the Belarusian authorities allow illegal crossings. Experts believe that Lukashenko is thus responding to the sanctions imposed on him by the EU after the hijacking of the Ryanair plane in which Roman Protasevich, a critical journalist living in exile in Lithuania, was traveling. Merkel wants Putin to mediate with Lukashenko and in her speech condemned the use of migrants as weapons in a hybrid attack.
The controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will link Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea, and which Ukraine and other Eastern European countries oppose, is practically completed. “It has 15 kilometers left,” said Putin, who assured that he will fulfill his gas transit commitments through Ukraine even after Merkel leaves the German Chancellery. He added, of course, that the volume of gas that is sent through this pipeline will depend on the demand in Europe.
Merkel stressed, as she has done on other occasions, that the project is purely commercial. “It is not a bilateral Russian-German project, but one with a European scope in which companies from other countries participate,” he said. Putin also denied that Nord Stream 2 is a political project or of geostrategic interest for Russia. He listed that it is 2,000 kilometers shorter than the gas pipeline that runs through Ukraine and that it is “more modern and ecological”, since it reduces the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by a fifth.
Kiev fears that the infrastructure will deprive it of its status as a transit country for Russian gas to Europe, making it easier for Moscow to cut off its supply as a measure of pressure. Berlin got the go-ahead from the Joe Biden Administration last July after years of Washington’s opposition to the project – however, the US on Friday imposed sanctions on a Russian ship and two Russian citizens involved in the gas pipeline. In return, Berlin will have to ensure the supply of Russian gas by Ukraine in the next ten years and adopt sanctions against Moscow’s “export capabilities” if it uses the natural resource as a weapon.
A day before the meeting with Merkel, the Russian leader had a telephone conversation with the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, in which he accused Kiev of “exacerbating the situation” in Donbas and of enacting “provocative laws that contradict the Minsk agreements. ”, According to the Kremlin in a note where it omitted the French president’s demand to release Alexei Navalni and comply with the firm ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, which considered the trial against the opponent in the Yves Rocher case to be partial.