Merkel, Putin and the high-stakes game


Angela Merkel will soon meet Vladimir Putin.  Diplomats on both sides feel a bold move is now due.  A rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow could de-escalate a number of the current conflicts – and signify a long-term power shift in global politics.

Has Russia truly been the villain of the piece?

On a summer’s day in the sixties a young girl’s bike disappears near the town of Templin, located in the GDR back then.  The bike belongs to Angela Kasner – who would later change her name to Merkel.

The young Angela was cycling through the forests of northern Brandenburg with some other children collecting berries and mushrooms.  They had left their bikes at the edge of the forest.  When it was time for them to saddle up once more, three bikes were missing.  Suspicion fell on the Soviet soldiers.

But similar to today’s dispute over the use of poisonous gas in Syria and the Skripal case in the UK, there were leads, suspicions and presumptions – but no clear evidence.

Surprisingly this issue has recently resurfaced.

Vladimir Yakunin, a long-time close ally of Putin’s and erstwhile head of the secret service before becoming the president of Russian Railways, describes in a recently published book how at the start of a meeting with the chancellor he wanted to resolve her presumed trauma: “there is big department store nearby,” he said to the chancellor.  “I could have hurried over and bought bikes for everyone.”

Merkel wants to retain room for manoeuvre

Merkel spoke about the case of the stolen bikes back in 2005 and told German journalists: “I don’t carry around any distress with me from my childhood if you’re planning to imply anything.”

Merkel wants to retain some room for manoeuvre regarding Russia.  She does not want to rule out anything positive nor rule out anything negative.  She outlined this on Wednesday this week in a meeting with the presidents of the eastern German states in Bad Schmiedeberg in Saxony-Anhalt.  Behind closed doors a very serious dispute over the West’s sanctions imposed on Russia suddenly broke out – and the rupture split the CDU too.

Merkel placated them.  She was said to be in no way bound ideologically to a tough anti-Russia stance.  And if Putin were to finally implement the agreed terms in the Ukraine conflict, the sanctions would be eased.  But not before.

Merkel knows that whoever loses their nerve now, will have lost the entire game.

Should we compare it with chess?  With poker?  The strange thing is that has become more and more like a game between her and Putin over the years – a multi-dimensional test of strength with political, economic and not least psychological factors.

Putin is always playing a double game

Merkel’s relationship with Putin has been a mind game right from the start.  From time to time they throw themselves into their special relationship – with astonishment on both sides – during private meetings, with him speaking German and her Russian.  More often than not though the mutual understanding soon develops into an alarmingly precise depiction of their different opinions.

Putin, as Merkel has often experienced first-hand, is always playing a double game.  She knows his sombre icy side.  He once made her wait an age at a meeting in Moscow.  He once taunted her with his black labrador Koni in front of live TV cameras – Merkel who was bitten by a dog as a kid and has been scared of them ever since.  Putin can not only lie with a straight face; he has turned the modern-day production of untruths into an art form of his own.  Like when he had “little green men” march into the Crimea.  Then he plainly denied to everyone that they are Russian soldiers.  And in the third act he honoured the Russian soldiers for their deployment in the Crimea with a medal.

Merkel sends beer over to the Kremlin

The peak of their estrangement was reached when it was reported that Putin regularly delves into the works of certain Russian philosophers, that he greets people with a sombre expression and animals with a smile – and that he, as US magazine Newsweek noted in 2014, swims for two hours every morning.  Sighing, Merkel said regarding Putin: “He lives in his own world.”

Merkel no longer regarded Putin’s actions that year as normal acts of aggression: against the Ukraine, against the West, against international law, against the principle of truth.  It must all have consequences – Merkel was united with the rest of the West on this.

But the chancellor knows the other side of Putin too.  The man who in their first meetings told her how he lived in Dresden while with the KGB.  The man who campaigned for a free trade zone from Lisbon to Vladivostok in 2010 and found it fell on deaf ears – a historic mistake by the West.

A year-long test of strength between Merkel and Putin

At one point the tension erupted between Merkel and Putin in an evening meeting of thunder and lightning between the just the two of them.  During the G-20 summit in Brisbane in November 2014 Merkel and Putin argued for an entire evening in a hotel room to the consternation of both delegations.  How should it proceed between Russia and the West after the annexation of the Crimea?

He prophesied at the time that the West wouldn’t maintain the sanctions – out of sheer economic stubbornness the EU and US would soon give in once again.  Merkel countered that Putin underestimated the Western world but, above all, he overestimated himself and Russia’s economy.  Sooner or later, she told him, they would be discussing the issue again.  Whether or not the test of strength may last another a few years, was of no consequence to her.

The woman from Uckermark can be extremely stubborn.  Putin left Brisbane early after that.

Nevertheless, the impression that sticks is that they understand one another.  Both of them can get to the point without mincing their words but can also be sarcastic – all without the usual diplomatic nonsense.  The lines of communication remain open even at the most testing of times in world politics.  “Angela sends me a few bottles of Radeberger beer from time to time,“ Putin told Russian state tv in March this year.

Germans are counting on a detente

Most Germans, according to polls, are very happy that someone in Berlin has a special direct line to Moscow.  Brits and Americans, for example, cannot say the same when they look at their own heads of government.  While Theresa May only talks about Putin, griped one British political commentator recently, the German chancellor talks to him.  Merkel last telephoned with Putin on Tuesday.  On Wednesday she mentioned in passing while she was standing before the press next to the New Zealand prime minister at the chancellery, that she would soon meet with Putin in person: “I think the number of issues demands that we have a face-to-face discussion in the foreseeable future.”

German voters will be happy to hear this.  According to political polls Germans are generally more worried about Donald Trump’s policies (82 percent) than Putin’s (53 percent).  And a Forsa poll shows that even the sentiment in Merkel’s own party hardly varies from the feeling within other parties.

Gone is the time when only the CDU campaigned for integration with the West and only the SPD spoke in favour of an opening up to the east.  The new general secretary of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has had the situation sussed out for some time – and now wants to use it to her advantage.  “I’m strongly in favour of actively using the channels of communication we have with Russia,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer this Monday in Berlin before adding something somewhat prophetic: “this is certainly something where the chancellor can play a decisive role.”

The question is: will Putin play along?

In reality Merkel could kill a number of birds with one stone here.  Should she manage to bring Putin back into the world of rule-based collaboration, above all regarding the Ukraine, Syria and chemical weapons, Merkel would not have only achieved something for world peace but also strengthened her own position – on the world stage, but domestically too, and even as far as the Russian-friendly constituencies dominated by the Left Party and the AfD.

The burning question is: will Putin play along and get involved in something new?

There are many within German-Russian circles who believe that we are ready for a new direction.  In Moscow share prices are wobbling, capital is being sent out of the country, the Russian Rouble is falling.  The Oligarchs, some of whom have been hard hit by the most recent US sanctions, are becoming unsettled.  Added to that a lot of Russians are fed up with being regarded as poisoners.

“Perhaps it has to get worse for it to get better soon,” pondered one diplomat recently.  Putin desperately wants a detente to the tensions, and before the World Cup starts in Russia on 14th June.  The German chancellor could be of some help to this end.

Some even go as far as to outline a brand new, much more wide-ranging vision: if Germans and Russians could sensibly organise a new collaboration, the entire Eurasian zone may become an area with a new economic dynamic.  In this way the EU and Russia could assert themselves better against China.  All of a sudden the players in Berlin and Moscow sense that by working together they can change more than just a few details.

By Matthias Koch


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