German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin, her final official trip to Russia as she prepares to step down next month after nearly 16 years.
Afghanistan is anticipated to dominate the pair’s discussions on Friday, as well as issues the pair are at odds over, including Russia’s treatment of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, Belarus and alleged cyberattacks.
Merkel and Putin, who has been in power for more than 20 years, have managed to maintain a line of communication over the years despite their many political differences.
The 67-year-old is readying to bow out of politics after Germany’s election, scheduled for September 26.
Putin greeted Merkel with flowers at the Kremlin, a gesture he reserves for female leaders.
“Even if we have deep disagreements, we are talking to one another and it should stay that way,” Merkel told Putin in a televised exchange before the talks.
“We have a lot to talk about,” she added, naming several issues on their agenda, including the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany and is fluent in Russian, has always stressed that relations with Russia can only improve through dialogue.
But her relationship with Putin has deteriorated sharply since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“Mrs Merkel, as an East German and with her background, right from the start understood better than her predecessors how Russia works and how Putin operates. There always was a matter-of-fact relationship … based on respect,” said Stefan Meister, a political analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations, adding that all changed with the beginning of armed hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
“The big break was the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”
Another topic of discussion will likely be the nearly finished Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany.
The project has angered the United States and some European countries, but the US 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.
The unfolding situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban seized power on Sunday following a blistering nationwide offensive, could now become the latest subject to drive a wedge between the two leaders.
While Merkel has described the Taliban’s return to power as “bitter”, the Kremlin has taken a more conciliatory tone.
Moscow is seeking engagement with the Taliban, with top diplomat Sergey Lavrov calling it a “positive signal” that the group are “declaring and in practice showing their readiness to respect the opinion of others”.
Division over Navalny
Friday’s talks will “surely be about the big outstanding international questions,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters in Berlin this week.
“Obviously Afghanistan. Furthermore, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, for the solution and settlement of which Russia could do much more,” he said.
“Belarus, a country, a dictator, who goes against his own people in the worst kind of way and on whom the Russian leadership has influence as we believe,” Seibert added, as he listed possible talking points.
Merkel’s trip marks her 20th visit to Russia since assuming office and comes on the anniversary of Navalny falling gravely ill while on a plane flying over Siberia on August 20, 2020.
At his wife’s insistence, the opposition leader was transferred for medical treatment to Germany, where officials said tests revealed he had been poisoned with a Soviet-developed nerve agent.
Upon his return to Russia in January, Navalny was immediately arrested and jailed. A month later, he was ordered to serve two and a half years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he has dismissed as fabricated.
“This still unsolved case is putting a very severe burden on the relationship to Russia,” Seibert said. “Mr Navalny is wrongfully imprisoned.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a lengthy statement on Wednesday about “the Navalny case”, charging that actions by “Germany and its allies” over the past 12 months indicated “a planned provocation aimed at discrediting Russia in the eyes of the global community and at damaging its national interests”.
The ministry accused Berlin of failing to provide evidence that would support their “brazen allegations” that Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent. It said Germany left legal requests from Russian law enforcement without any “meaningful answers” and instead played “bureaucratic ping-pong” with Moscow.