Reordering Power in Europe: The Putin-Merkel Meeting

During this past Saturday, 18 August, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a brief visit to Austria to attend the wedding of the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Karin Kneissl. Per the Kremlin, this stop of several hours in the Styrian wine country not far from the border with Slovenia was a “purely private” side excursion “on the road to Germany” for the state visit with Chancellor Angela Merkel starting later in the day at the Meseberg Palace, the federal guest house 60 km north of Berlin.

Journalists were admitted to film the wedding party, including Putin’s dance with the 53 year old bride. No questions were taken and no statements were issued by the President’s Press Secretary, who also was present. We know only that on the return journey to Graz airport, Putin was accompanied by Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Presumably they had some issues to discuss that may be characterized as official talks.

Prior to their meeting both Putin and Angela Merkel made statements to the press listing the topics they intended to discuss. We may assume that these lists were not exhaustive. Comparing their lists, we find that the respective priorities of the parties were in inverted order, with economic cooperation at the head of Putin’s list while regulating the Donbass crisis in Ukraine was the top concern of Merkel. Moreover, the content of issues bearing the same heading was very different. Both sides spoke of Syria, but whereas for Putin the issue for discussion is the humanitarian crisis of refugees, ensuring their return to their homes from camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey by raising funds to repair and replace fundamental infrastructure destroyed in the war. For Merkel, the number one issue in Syria is to prevent the Russian-backed Syrian armed forces from creating a new humanitarian disaster by their ongoing campaign to retake Idlib province from the militants opposed to Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, what is surely the single most urgent issue for both sides was not mentioned at all in their opening statements: namely how to respond to US President Donald Trump’s new sanctions on Russia and on participants in the Nord Stream II gas pipeline project that both countries support.

As was explained at the outset, there was to be no press conference or joint statement issued at the conclusion of the talks. The only information we have is that Merkel and Putin conferred for more than three hours, which is in itself quite extraordinary and suggests that some understandings may have been achieved.

In a word, the potentially very important diplomatic developments of Saturday remain, for once, a state secret of the parties, with no leaks for the press to parse. And yet there is material here worthy of our consideration. I have in mind the interpretations of what might transpire before, during and after the events of Saturday in the news and commentary reportage of various countries having greater or lesser interest in Russian affairs. Indeed, my perusal of French, Belgian, German, British, American and Russian news media shows great diversity of opinion and some penetrating and highly pertinent remarks based on different information bases. This material is all essential if we are to make sense of the behavior of the parties on the international stage in the coming weeks.

In this essay, I will set out what I have found per country , starting with the least attentive to detail – the United States – and ending with those who offered the best informed and most interested reportage, Germany and Russia. I will conclude with my own reading of the tea leaves.

Let us take The Washington Post and The New York Times as our markers for how US mainstream media reported on Putin’s meetings this past Saturday.

On the 18th, The Washington Post carried in its online edition two articles dealing with the Putin diplomatic doings. “At Austrian foreign minister’s wedding, Putin brings the music, the flowers and the controversy” was written by the newspaper’s bureau chief in Berlin, Griff Witte. It is accompanied by video clips of Vladimir Putin dancing with the bride and speaking, in German, to the wedding party seated at their banquet table. The journalist touches very briefly on the main political dimensions of Putin’s visit to Austria, including the party relations between United Russia and the far right Freedom Party in Austria’s ruling coalition which nominated Kneissl for her post, the criticism of Putin’s participation in the wedding coming from the Opposition parties in Austria who see it as a violation of the government’s own ambition to be a neutral bridge between East and West, and the issue of Putin’s sowing division on the continent. The only criticism one might offer is that the article is superficial, that each of the issues raised deserves in-depth analysis separately.

The newspaper’s second article online, which spread its net more broadly and covered the meeting with Merkel in Germany as well as the visit in Austria, came from an Associated Press reporter, not its own staff. Here again, the problem is that issues surrounding the meetings are not more than bullet points, and the reader is given no basis for reaching an independent finding on what has happened..

The New York Times’ feature article “Merkel and Putin Sound Pragmatic Notes After Years of Tension,” also published on the 18th and datelined Berlin was cited by Russian television news for a seemingly positive valuation of the talks in Meseberg Palace. However, the content of the article by reporter Melissa Eddy is more cautious, highlighting the pattern of “conflicts and reconciliations” that have marked German-Russian relations over the centuries and seeing the present stage not as a warming of relations but instead as reaching for compromises “on Syria, energy and other key issues while maintaining their differences over Russia’s role in the conflict in Ukraine.” She sees the Syrian issue as one where German and Russian interests may be closest given that refugees from the Middle East are now a German preoccupation with political weight. The reporter cites several experts attached to well-known institutes in Germany that are generally skeptical about Russia’s intentions. But the end result is better informed than most NYT reporting on Russia even if it leaves us wondering what will result from the Saturday diplomacy.

In both mainstream papers there is no attempt to find a link between Putin’s two visits on Saturday.

I close out this little survey of English-speaking media by pointing to an article in The Guardian from the 18th entitled “Putin urges Europe to help rebuild Syria so refugees can return.” This piece comes from the Agence France-Presse in Berlin. It is not much more than a recitation of the lists of topics for discussion that Putin and Merkel issued before their talks. But the reporter has made his choice for the most important of them, Syria and refugees.

The French-language press does not seem to have been very interested in Putin’s “private” trip to the wedding of the Austrian foreign minister, but was definitely keen to discuss Putin’s trip to Berlin. On the day preceding the Putin-Merkel meeting, the French press offered a clear concept of where things were headed. We read in Figaro, “Merkel receives Putin Saturday to renew a difficult dialogue.” A caption in bold just below is more eye-catching: “While the German Chancellor has become the main opponent to the Russian President within the EU, the policy of sanctions conducted by Washington has led to a rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow with regard to numerous issues.”

The reporter notes that following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, relations between the two heads of state had become quite bad and in four years they met only when obliged to do so during international summits.

“But starting three months ago, their diplomatic exchanges have intensified: in May Angela Merkel met the chief of the Kremlin in Sochi, Russia. In July, she met the head of the Russian diplomatic corps, Sergei Lavrov, in Berlin. By inviting Vladimir Putin this time, the German Chancellor has promised ‘in-depth discussions.’ “She is pursuing a pragmatic attempt at normalization of German-Russian relations, because the international realities have changed,’ explains Stefan Meister, director of the Robert Bosch Center for Russia.”

And how has the calculus of international relations changed? Both Merkel and Putin are now facing the same challenge: US foreign policy has become unpredictable, both for its allies and for rivals like Moscow. Notwithstanding the warm discussions Donald Trump had with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the American administration has just announced a new wave of sanctions on Russia relating to the Skripal affair.

“The American policy represents a danger for the Russian economy and a threat to German interests.”

A spokesperson from Merkel’s CDU party responsible for foreign policy is quoted on the possible dangers of secondary sanctions being directed at Germany through the application of US extraterritoriality against those failing to respect the new sanctions on Russia.

The article explains the issues surrounding the Nord Steam 2 pipeline, and in particular Trump’s hostility to the project for its locking in German dependence on Russian hydrocarbons.

And the author points to the common interests of Germany and Russia over maintenance of the Iranian nuclear deal as a factor powering the rapprochement of the two countries. Here again the common threat is Donald Trump and American sanctions against those companies which continue to trade with Iran.

The article concludes that divergent views of Russia and Germany over Ukraine and Syria exclude any breakthrough at the meeting on Saturday. But nonetheless the dialogue that was lacking these several past years is being recreated.

In its weekend edition issued on 18 August, the Belgian mainstream daily La Libre Belgique was even more insistent on interpreting the Merkel-Putin meeting as a consequence of the policies of Donald Trump. Their editorial captures the sense very nicely in its tongue-in-cheek headline: “Trump is the best ‘ally’ of Putin.”

La Libre sees Vladimir Putin’s latest diplomatic initiatives as directly resulting from the way his host at the White House has annoyed everyone. Moreover, his outreach is welcomed:

“Germany is not the only ‘Western’ nation to return to the Kremlin. Putin is taking full advantage of the boomerang effect caused by the policies of Donald Trump, who, by hammering away at his customary allies is pushing them to other interlocutors. By looking for confrontations, imposing taxes and sanctions while thinking that this rampant isolationism will make the United States ‘great again,’ Trump is helping to build a wall that he no doubt did not imagine, that of the anti-Trump people.”

The editors point to Turkish President Erdogan’s clear signal that he is now looking for other allies. He has done his calculations and has said he has more to gain with Moscow than with Washington.’

The editorial concludes that a summit on reconstruction of Syria might even take place at the start of September between Moscow, Ankara, Paris and Berlin. The conclusion? “Putin has taken center stage on the chessboard. Thank you, Mr. Trump.”

The article filed by La Libre’s correspondent in Berlin, Sebastien Millard, bears a heading that matches the editorial view of the newspaper: “Merkel and Putin – allies of convenience facing Trump.” The author credits Donald Trump with being the catalyst for the resumption of dialogue between Germany and Russia; they are telling Washington that they do not accept its blackmail. He notes that we should not expect any reversal of alliances. There are too many differences of view between Berlin and Moscow on a variety of issues.

The German press paid a good deal of attention to Vladimir Putin’s visit to Austria for the wedding of Foreign Minister Karin Kreissl.

In an article posted on the 16th entitled “Suspicion that Austria is a Trojan horse,” Die Welt highlighted the negatives of Putin’s presence. Quoting an “expert from the University of Innsbruck” this does not cast a good light on the country. They anticipate political fallout. This will impair Austria’s ability as chair of the European Council to play a role of intermediary in the Ukraine conflict. The only beneficiary of the visit will be the the Russia-friendly

be the Russia-friendly Freedom Party. For Putin, being a guest provides him with the opportunity to demonstrate that he is not isolated but is instead highly welcome in society of an EU country.

As for the coming meeting with Merkel on Saturday evening, Die Welt in a related article of the same day lists the issues for discussion. Without taking a position, it cites experts for and against the Nord Stream II pipeline and other issues on the list.

Welt’s report from the wedding party on the 18th was gossipy and unfriendly, comparing it to a wedding of some European royal family because of the extraordinary guest list that included the country’s chancellor, vice chancellor, and defense minister as well as the head of OPEC and…Vladimir Putin. With typical German petty financial accounting, they reckon that the 500 police and other security measures needed for the safety of the highly placed guests cost the Austrian tax payers 250,000 euros.

A separate article in Die Welt deals with Putin’s meeting with Merkel at the Meseberg Palace. The emphasis here is on Merkel’s remarks during the Statement prior to the talks that cooperation with Russia is “vital” to deal with many conflicts globally and that both sides bear responsibility to find solutions.

The article quotes from the opening statements of the leaders on all the issues in their list for discussion – Syria, Ukraine, Nord Stream II. We are given bare facts without any analysis to speak of.

The other major mainstream daily Frankfurter Allgemeine in its Saturday, 18 August edition offered separate articles on Putin’s visits to Austria and Germany.

The article on Karin Kneissl’s wedding heads off in a very different direction from the reporting in other media that I have summarized above. FAZ notes that Kneissl is rarely in the headlines and it asks: who is she? They answer the question with some curious details. We learn that Kneissl was once active in competitive sports and even now swims a kilometer every day. For many years she has lived on a small farmstead with a couple of boxers, two ponies, hens and cats. Each morning her chauffeur takes her and the dogs to her office in Vienna, to return in the evening. Regrettably, FAZ does not take this curious biographical sketch further. No connection is drawn between her personality and the Russian President’s acceptance of her invitation to her wedding.

FAZ similarly has chosen to amuse rather than inform in its coverage of the meeting in Berlin entitled “Sparkling wine in Austria, sparkling water in Meseberg.” They comment on how Putin arrived half an hour late, on how it is hard to see how the meeting could be characterized as a success. They stress that we know nothing about the content of the consultations. Then they tick off the opening positions of the sides as set out in their statements before the talks.

Spiegel online risks more by giving more interpretation and less bare facts. Its article entitled “Something of a new start” suggests that a rapprochement is underway and that both Merkel and Putin have a lot in play. Unlike the other German press we have mentioned, Spiegel sees a direct link between Putin’s attending the wedding in Styria and his visit to Merkel.

Putin is under economic pressure to find closer ties with Europe. In Austria, which now chairs the European Council, he has allies in the government, namely the extreme right populists of the Freedom Party which installed Kneissl. But the way to Europe passes by way of Merkel and Putin knows that.

Meanwhile, says Spiegel, Germany also is interested in improving relations with Russia despite all the controversy, namely due to the growing conflicts with US President Donald Trump. We don’t know the exact content of the talks which were confidential, but there is some movement now between Germany and Russia.

Spiegel remains cautious. Cordiality does not enter into the relationship. The parties keep their distance. There is no laughter to lighten the atmosphere. Yet, it concludes: “The talks have prospects and we can see the wish to make progress through common positions, and without being silent about contradictions. Diplomatic normality, as it were. A step forward.”

If the great bulk of commentary in the West about Putin’s diplomatic weekend was reserved and stayed by the bare facts without speculation, Russian television more than made up for dryness. I point in particular to two political talk shows which invited a mixture of experts from different backgrounds.

Let us begin with the show Vremya Pokazhet (Time will tell) on state television’s Pervy Kanal.

Their Friday, 17 August program focused on Putin’s forthcoming visit to the wedding ‘on the road to Berlin,’ which several panelists saw as a strong signal to Germany that Russia had other channels to the EU if Germany refuses to be its intercessor.

The visit was said to be breaking new ground in diplomatic practice. According to panelist Andrei Baklanov, deputy chair of the association of Russian diplomats, this kind of positive, human diplomacy is Russia’s answer to the negative behavior in international affairs that has occupied center stage in the recent past – sanctions, fake news, etc. As another panelist interjected, this is the first time that a Russian head of state attended a wedding abroad since Tsar Nicholas did so in Germany in 1913.

Baklanov proceeded to provide details about the bride, however, bringing out aspects of her career that are far more relevant to her attracting the attention of Putin than the Frankfurter Allgemeine produced. We learn that she grew up in Amman, Jordan, that she speaks 8 languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Magyar, French, Spanish, Italian, English as well as her native German. She studied Near Eastern languages in Vienna University, in the Jewish University of Jerusalem, in the University of Jordan and also graduated from the National School of Administration in France. She holds a doctorate in law. She is a non-party minister, which also attests to her generally recognized professionalism. For all of these reasons, she is a good fit with Putin’s determination to find supporters in Europe for investments to restore Syrian infrastructure and enable the return of refugees.

The country’s most prestigious talk show, “Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov,” had a couple of Duma members and a well-known politician from Liberal circles comment on the diplomacy of the day before.

Sergey Mironov, leader of the socialist party Fair Russia said that despite Merkel’s warning in advance not to expect breakthroughs it is likely progress was made in agreeing how to deal with US sanctions. This would be tested in the coming days.

As for the link between the visits to Austria and Germany, the representative of a pro-business party Sergey Stankevich reminded viewers that Germany and Austria are the market makers in Europe for Russian gas. Nord Stream II gas may land in Germany but a large part of it will be pumped further to Austria’s hub for distribution elsewhere in Europe. Whatever may have been said publicly, Stankevich believes that Merkel and Putin did agree on many if not all the subjects named before the start: Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Nord Stream.

Russian media coverage of the Saturday travels of their President continued on Russian news programs into Monday, with video clips of Putin dancing at the wedding and speaking alongside Merkel before entering into their talks at Meseberg Palace.

Looking back at the media coverage of Putin’s visits to Austria and Germany on 18 August, and with all due respect to those who opinions are different from mine, I find that the most helpful for our understanding of the present day international situation were the report and editorial in Belgium’s Libre Belgique and the unruly, risky but at times brilliant insights on Russian television.

What comes out of this is the understanding that the visits to a wedding in Austria and to the federal Chancellor outside Berlin were directly linked in Russian diplomatic strategy, that Russia is playing

the Austrian card during the country’s six months at the helm of the European Council in Brussels, that Russia is pushing for a multi-party relief effort for Syria to facilitate the return of refugees to their home and pacification of the war-torn country. The web of common interests that Russia is pursuing has at its core the fragility of the current world order and generalized anxiety of leading countries due to America’s aggressive pursuit of narrow national interest under Donald Trump as seen in his tariff wars and sanctions directed at friends and foes alike.

Where I differ from the interpretations set out in the foregoing press reports is in my understanding of what Trump is doing and why.

The nearly universal assumption of commentators is that Trump’s policies known as “Make America Great” are ignorant and doomed to fail. They are assumed to be isolationist, withdrawing America from the world community.

However, Trump did not invent bullying of US allies. That was going strong under George W. Bush, with his challenge “you are either with us or against us” when he sought to align the West behind his invasion of Iraq in 2003 without authorization of the UN Security Council. His more urbane successor Barack Obama was no kinder to U.S. allies, who were slapped with crushing fines for violations of US sanctions on Iran, just to mention one way in which they were kept in line. And the US Congress today is no more reasonable and diplomatic than the President in the brutal unilateral sanctions it has on its own initiative advocated against not just Russia but also against Turkey and other states which are not snapping to attention with respect to purchases of military materiel from Russia.

What made US bullying tolerable before Trump was the ideological smokescreen of “shared values,” namely democracy promotion, human rights and rule of law, that all members of the alliances could swear to and which set them apart from the still unenlightened parts of the globe where autocrats hold sway.

In my view, Trump’s use of sanctions and tariffs here, there, everywhere has a totally different logic from what is adduced in the writings of my peers in the analyst community. He invokes them because 1. they are within his sole power as Chief Executive and 2. they are in principle as American as apple pie and do not require grand explanations in Congress or before the public. As to why he invokes them, there you have to look at Trump’s foreign policy from a 360 degree perspective and not merely as it relates to Putin or to Erdogan or to any of the small slices we see discussed in the news.

When viewed in the round, it is obvious that Trump is reshuffling the deck. He is doing what he can to break up NATO and the other military alliances around the world which are consuming more than half of the US defense budget and do not arguably provide greater security to the American homeland than the country can do for itself without fixed alliances and overseas bases.

The first two presidencies of this millennium undid the country’s greatest geopolitical achievement of the second half of the 20th century: the informal alliance with China against Russia that put Washington at the center of all global politics. Bush and Obama did that by inattention and incomprehension of what was at stake. That inattention was an expression of American hubris in the unipolar world which, it was assumed, was the new normal, not a blip.

By contrast, what Trump is now doing is not a blunder or a bit of bluster. Even if he is not conversant with the whole of the Realist School of international relations, as surely he is not, he does grasp the fundamentals, namely the centrality of the sovereign nation-state and of the balance of power mechanism by which these states are constantly changing alignments of these nation-states to ensure no one enjoys hegemony. We see this understanding when he speaks about looking out for American interests while the heads of state whom he meets are looking out for the interests of theirs. In his tweets we find that our allies are ripping us off, that they are unfair competitors. His most admiring remark about Russia is that it is a strong competitor. The consistent element in Trump’s thinking is ignored or willfully misunderstood in the press.

Accordingly, I insist that the possible rapprochement of Russia and Germany will be in line with Trump’s reshuffling of the deck not in spite of it.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. Reprinted with permission from his blog.