Caught in the middle

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_DEU161616aa0030.jpegBERLIN—On Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the outskirts of Berlin, marking the pair's second meeting since May.

During what's normally a dull political season in Germany, much has transpired this summer that's affected the two nations' longstanding relationship. That included President Donald Trump declaring that Germany was "captive to Russia" due to a controversial new natural gas pipeline connecting the two nations.

But this latest meeting shouldn't be read as one of Russian appeasement, analysts said.

As the American-led diplomatic order of old is being dismantled piece by piece, the quick succession of meetings between Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin shows how the chancellor is leveraging her nation's historic ties to Russia to keep diplomacy and Western interests afloat.

"What's the benefit of having moral integrity toward Russia, which means a more confrontative position, when there's nobody left with a weight like Germany, with that relationship with Russia, who can talk to them on the same eye-level," asked Olaf Boehnke, a senior adviser with Rasmussen Global, a Brussels-based think tank.

At the height of the Cold War, as the United States pursued a strategy of Russian isolation, Germany believed that the best way to deal with Moscow was to foster good economic relations and interdependence – despite the fact that the Soviet Union was the overseer of formerly communist East Germany for more than four decades.

That strategy persisted well after German reunification in 1990 and into the new millennium, as former citizens of East Germany held steadfast to the notion of maintaining a special relationship with their former benefactor.

"It was an economically driven policy…where you're trying to ignore the political consequences," said Stefan Meister, the director of programs on Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

But things changed after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, what Meister calls the "big break in German-Russian relations" that led to Germany – once Moscow's most amicable partner in the Western camp – leading the charge on crippling, retaliatory sanctions and alienating Russia.

Even so, there are some policy initiatives that still show the bones of that former relationship – much to the ire of the United States and Germany's partners in the European Union.

Called Nord Stream 2, German businesses have led the charge in building a second natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline would effectively double gas supplies to Germany from Russia, which already accounts for 40 percent of German gas imports – 9.6 percent of total energy consumption – according to government statistics.

"[President Trump] wasn't so wrong" when he deplored Germany's energy dependence to cheap Russian gas at July's NATO summit – especially as Germany, Europe's largest economy, could buy gas from less problematic partners, said Claudia Kemfert, head of the Department for Energy, Transportation and Environment at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

Ms. Merkel has called the choice of Russia purely a business decision. But that decision becomes much more when considering the raft of geopolitical issues Nord Stream 2 presents.

For one, opening Nord Stream 2 threatens Ukraine's status as a transit hub for Russian gas heading to Europe. Of the 193.9 billion cubic meters of natural gas sent to Europe in 2017 from Russia, almost half transited through Ukraine's infrastructure, according to European Union statistics.

At the same time, a new pipeline only lines Mr. Putin's pockets and supports his network of corruption, all while aggravating states like in the EU like Poland – historically untrusting of both Russia and Germany – and the United States, who have long been against the project for its potentially disastrous consequences.

"From the perspective of Angela Merkel, I think she underestimated from the beginning the damaging factor of Nord Stream 2 within the European Union," said Meister.

But as the United States under Mr. Trump becomes increasingly absent in dealing with Russian aggression in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere, Nord Stream 2 presents an "opportunity to use this limited influence Germans might have on the Russian side" to curb Moscow's actions, said Boehnke.

It's a buyer's market for natural gas, with Germany able to turn anywhere – from the United States to inside the EU – to buy gas. That means that Russian state-controlled oil giant Gazprom won't play hardball out of fear that Germany will withdraw from the deal, said Gressel.

Ultimately, that means that Ms. Merkel can tease concessions out of Putin. She might score a guarantee that Ukraine doesn't lose its transit rights, or get Russia's commitment to help end the war in Syria so migrants from Germany can be sent back, a nagging domestic issue for Ms. Merkel, who has opened the door to more than a million refugees since 2015.

That leverage is only magnified by the fact that Ms. Merkel grew up in East German, speaks Russian and was surveilled by Russian intelligence. She knows how to deal with Mr. Putin, said Gressel.

"There is a micro version of the special relationship and (that is the one between) between Putin and Merkel," he said. "Other politicians from non-post-Soviet countries of Europe will be duped by Putin quite quickly."

And as Mr. Trump undermines the multilateral Western order and weakens international institutions, "we have to have clear positions, we need western unity," said Boehnke.

"She [Merkel] is maybe the best in negotiating this."

Photo: Chancellor Angela Merkel is leveraging her Germany's historic ties to Russia to keep diplomacy and Western interests afloat.
Credit: ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo published date: 08/26/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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