The Berlin-Kremlin nexus

The Berlin-Kremlin nexus

Senior officials at Berlin’s chancellery chuckle when they recall the anecdote in Moscow when Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for official business some years ago. Putin’s long stint as a KGB operative in East Germany and Merkel’s background as one who grew up in that part of Germany saw an amusing exchange. Merkel practiced her knowledge of Russian to speak to Putin while the latter replied in fluent German!

This kind of bonhomie obviously retains its usefulness in the harsh times that now bedevils the Ukraine scenario where the EU and the West have imposed fresh sanctions on Russia toward changing its behavior in Ukraine after annexing Crimea earlier in the year. Perhaps the West did not expect Russia’s substantive ban on food imports from the West as a consequence of which Russian consumers have been isolated from world trade to a degree unseen since Soviet days.

This retaliation to Western sanctions has begun to hurt Russia as much as the West. Russian depends heavily on imported foodstuffs, most of it from Europe, particularly in Moscow and other large, prosperous cities. In 2013, the EU exported $15.8 billion in agricultural goods to Russia, while the U.S. sent $1.3 billion in food and agricultural goods.

The Netherlands, one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters, ships around $2 billion worth of farm products to Russia yearly and stands among the countries with the most to lose. The Russian ban has started to see prices drop across Europe because of oversupply. The Dutch and the EU are looking for ways to minimize the impact of this trade imbalance.

So what are we now looking at? Western policies and Putin’s anticipated reactions have led to a stalemate where pro-Russian forces continue to cross the Ukraine border under the guise of convoys ostensibly carrying humanitarian goods for the beleaguered Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. In turn, Kyiv has stepped up its operations in the light of NATO reports of mounting evidence that Russian troops are operating inside Ukraine and launching artillery attacks at Ukrainian troops from Ukrainian soil, as well as from Russia.

The Merkel-Putin equation comes in here in a very practical way as Putin has grossly miscalculated his moves so far. It is reported that Putin was truly taken aback when the 28 EU states imposed tough sanctions on Russia last month as he always thought Germany (read Merkel) would step in as the savior at Brussels with a more reasonable approach, pragmatism, national interests and diplomacy. In other words, he expected that Merkel would successfully resist taking action that would also affect its German exporters.

It’s an open secret that Merkel and Putin are constantly in telephonic contact and Berlin says Putin consults the chancellor as often as is diplomatically feasible. However, he seems to have seriously miscalculated this time and alienated the one German leader capable of finding a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis. But Merkel has had enough of Putin’s prevarication and delaying tactics and has begun to feel her trust in Putin somewhat shaken.

There is also the changing face of German foreign policy. Merkel has hitherto been seen as the troubleshooter in Brussels by the EU and the summits in Brussels relied on her steady hand in steering the never-ending eurozone crisis. In other words, it was her expertise and mediation in matters of fiscal and economic matters that saved the day. Now it is seen that, with the rest of the 28 EU member states doing little or nothing in foreign policy initiatives, Merkel is slowly taking over the conduct of the EU’s foreign policy as well,

Putin is believed to have now leaned on Merkel heavily for finding acceptable peace with Ukraine on a workable basis. The chancellor, who has steadily advocated a measured EU response to Russia’s aggressive policies in Ukraine, has thus made a trip to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Putin has stated that the Ukraine crisis cannot be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account vital interests of the southeastern regions of the country and without a peaceful dialogue with its representatives. If only the politicians truly walk the talk!