German Chancellor Angela Merkel is heading to Moscow on Friday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The visit comes during a low point in the relationship between the two countries, which continues to suffer from ongoing tensions over Moscow’s treatment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine.
Other challenging issues that are certain to arise are the current crisis in Afghanistan, the disputed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and Alexander Lukashenko’s repression of dissent in Belarus as well as his government’s efforts to channel migrants into Latvia, Lithuania and Poland with the aim of destabilising the European Union.
Merkel’s visit to Putin comes as the chancellor is nearing the end of her almost 16-year-long leadership of Germany.
Despite their many political differences, the two longtime leaders managed to hold up a line of communication over the years.
However, since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict in 2014, and Russia’s continuously more authoritarian behavior the personal relationship between Merkel and Putin has also deteriorated.
Merkel’s Russia visit will be one of her last trips abroad as Chancellor, as the 67-year-old does not run for office again in next month’s national election.
Putin, 68, who has been in power for more than 20 years, is Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Under communism in the 1980s, he worked for the Soviet intelligence service the KGB in East Germany.
Putin and Merkel, who is fluent in Russian, always held up a line of communication true to Merkel’s credo that relations in general can only improve if one continues talking with each other despite all political differences.
“I think what she has earned with Putin, and it’s mutual, is respect*, Dr. Stefan Meister, a political analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations told The Associated Press.
“So this test with the dogs, relatively at the beginning of her chancellorship, that was a test, so to speak, also how resilient she is”, Meister added, referring to a meeting in Putin’s residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2007, where Merkel – who is said to be known for her fear of dogs – encountered Putin’s labrador Cony.
“The big break was the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” Meister said, and that it “was a deep disappointment for Merkel, that this relationship of trust that they had, also the languages that they share, was basically broken by him”.
That conflict has strained relations between Russia and Germany, or more broadly the European Union, for the last several years.
The fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine erupted after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and has left more than 14,000 dead.
Efforts to negotiate a political settlement under the 2015 Minsk agreements brokered by France and Germany have stalled and the EU has imposed sanctions against Russia for failing to live up to its commitments to the peace agreement in Ukraine.
Merkel’s Russia trip comes on the anniversary of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, who fell ill on a plane over Siberia on Aug. 20, 2020, and was taken for medical treatment to Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.
Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
Upon his return to Russia in January, Navalny, Putin’s most outspoken opponent, was arrested and a month later ordered to serve 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.
“Russia has become an authoritarian regime,” Meister said. “It is no longer interested in improving relations with the West.”
Another topic of conversation will likely be the nearly finished Nord Stream II pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany, increasing Russia’s leverage as a vital energy supplier in Europe.
The project has angered the United States and some European countries, but the U.S. and Germany announced a deal last month to allow its completion.
Critics say the pipeline threatens European energy security, heightens Russia’s influence and poses risks to Ukraine and Poland in bypassing both countries.
Regarding Belarus, Merkel earlier this week accused President Alexander Lukashenko of a “hybrid attack” against the EU by channeling an influx of migrants to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland in retaliation to the EU’s sanctions against Belarus.
Merkel said she would raise the issue, too, with Putin.
Belarus depends heavily on Russian energy supplies and Moscow has authorized loans to prop up the country’s beleaguered economy.