When Angela Merkel receives Vladimir Putin on Saturday at Meseberg palace, a baroque German government retreat outside Berlin, the two will have a lot to talk about.
They could discuss claims of Russian interference in the US presidential election, or argue over allegations that Moscow ordered the poisoning of former Russian spies in the UK.
Instead, the German chancellor’s spokesman said, she and the Russian president will chew over three gristly topics: Syria, Ukraine and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
Perhaps the most significant fact is that the one-on-one meeting – Putin’s first in Germany since 2013 – is taking place at all.
“The meeting is a chance to normalise the German-Russian relationship at a working level without giving up fundamental differences,” suggests Stefan Meister, Russia analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
The two leaders are wily foxes of the international scene who have known each other in office since 2005, and have a wary relationship shot through with grudging respect for the other’s staying power.
Their long-running battle of wills and wits is most in evidence in the unresolved Ukraine conflict, which has claimed at least 10,000 lives since 2014. Along with its EU partners, Germany deplores the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and is critical of Russian troops reportedly fighting alongside the pro-Russian separatists in control of Ukraine’s eastern regions.
Given how often the regional ceasefire she helped broker has been broken, Merkel hopes to at least prevent an escalation of tensions there – both on land and on the Black Sea between the Ukrainian and Russian navies.
On Syria, German foreign policy experts see a growing acceptance in Berlin that President Bashar al-Assad, supported by Russia, will be part of the post-war order in that country. Berlin has an interest in expediting the search for stability in Syria and allowing an estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees in Germany to return home.
In Meseberg the German leader will also sound out her Russian visitor on his efforts to exploit US tensions with Turkey to bring the Nato member into the Russian camp.
On Nord Stream 2, the planned second undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, Merkel still has Donald Trump’s broadside ringing in her ears; the US president said the project has made Germany an energy “hostage” of Russia.
It’s not a new claim, and reflects fears in Poland and Ukraine that the pipeline will allow Russia bypass them, avoid much-needed transit fees and allow Moscow play politics again with energy.
After Trump’s broadside Merkel is extra-sensitive to perceptions of sweetheart deals at others’ expense, and may press Russia to agree fixed gas quotas through older pipelines to calm their mutual neighbours.
In efforts to normalise Russian-German relations in difficult times, Trump has proved an unexpected catalyst. Washington’s retreat from the Iran nuclear deal, and its sanctions against Tehran, has put Russia and the EU on the same side of that argument, supporting Tehran alongside China.
And then there are new US sanctions against Russia that will come into effect next Wednesday, with further penalties likely unless the White House sees more engagement from Moscow over the poisoning in Britain of the Russian former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter.
Given that looming threat Putin may offer his German host something to secure a quid pro quo to soften any sanctions blow to an already fragile economy, amid popular dissent in Russia over pension reforms.
At the same time Berlin has no interest in additional Washington action against Russia given the potential collateral damage to German firms involved in – or supplying to – the consortium building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia.
After years of estrangement there is growing agreement that the current Oval Office occupant has concentrated minds in Berlin and Moscow. At her last meeting with Putin in May, Merkel underlined her “strategic interest” in good German relations with Russia.
Obvious policy differences, the source of what she called “open exchanges”, did not mean the two countries did not have “areas in which we are completely of one opinion”, she said.
And there is one point on which the German and Russian leaders are in complete agreement. “Both want to send out a signal to Washington,” says Meister of Berlin’s DGAP, “that they will not allow themselves be blackmailed by US president Donald Trump.”
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