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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Angela Merkel seeks friendship with Vladimir Putin


On June 24 and 25, the European Union summit took place in Brussels. The leaders of European countries discussed a number of domestic and foreign policy issues, however, the most resonant topic was the issue of relations with the Russian Federation. Chancellor Angela Merkel, supported by the French President Emmanuel Macron, submitted for consideration the issue of a possible resumption of the dialogue with Vladimir Putin. In 2014, the European Union decided to freeze EU-Russia summits amid Russian aggression against Ukraine. Despite the lack of constructiveness in Kremlin's foreign policy, ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine, refusal to implement the Minsk Agreements and their brutal violation by the Russian side, in particular through the certification of the Ukrainian population, and the large-scale deployment of armed forces around the Ukrainian border, Angela Merkel said: «In my opinion, we as the European Union must also seek direct contact with Russia and the Russian president ... It is not enough for the U.S. president to talk to the Russian president. I very much welcome that, but the EU must also create forums for dialogue».

Such a proposal was opposed by the vast majority of EU countries. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, was one of the first to negatively assess the proposal. He motivated his position by the downing of the MH-17 aircraft by Russian militants. Sweden, Poland, and the Baltic states were among those who strongly opposed it as well. According to European Truth, Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, and, unexpectedly, Denmark, were among the countries that supported Merkel's idea.

During the summit, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Dmitry Kuleba was on a working visit in Brussels. The foreign minister took the opportunity to discuss the German Chancellor's proposal with European officials face to face, warning his colleagues about the ineffectiveness of the appeasement policy towards Russia. «Initiatives to resume the EU-Russia summits without any progress on the part of Russia will be a dangerous deviation from EU sanctions policy. This can only undermine the EU's non-recognition policy and the effectiveness of the sanctions regime, and, moreover, push Russia to non-fulfillment of the Minsk agreements», the Foreign Minister said. His position was supported by European Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who took a tough stance on relations with Russia after personal humiliation in Moscow.

While Angela Merkel believes that dialogue with Putin can help change Russia's behavior, the Kremlin's actions suggest otherwise. Readiness to deviate from restrictions imposed for Russian aggression, is perceived as weakness by Putin, which encourages him to pursue even more aggressive policy. Germany, France and the Russian Federation have been negotiating in the Normandy format for years. This did not change Russia's policy; on the contrary, the influence of the Russian Federation, as well as the scale of hybrid aggression, has only increased over time. The return of the Russian delegation to PACE also confirms the ineffectiveness of such methods since it did not lead to positive changes. Russia continues to use international platforms, including PACE, to promote Russian narratives, and still illegally detains political prisoners and oppositionists. Recently, Moscow also banned access to its territory for French parliamentarian Jacques Maire, who is the PACE rapporteur on the arrest and imprisonment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

It is worth noting that Angela Merkel mentioned Joe Biden's meeting with Vladimir Putin, which seems to have been one of the reasons that prompted the Chancellor to make a proposal to restore dialogue with the Russian Federation. Somewhat paradoxically that the states that opposed the EU-Russia summit did not criticize Joe Biden's decision to meet with the Russian leader. And although Eastern European states would obviously not prevent US and Russian presidents’ summit, it seems that such a different reaction is justified by the different perceptions of geopolitical players on the European continent by EU leaders. France and Germany are trying to maintain economic relations and not to confront the Russian Federation, while the United States provides security guarantees and plays a key role in deterring Russia in the Baltic-Black Sea region.

Trying to understand Angela Merkel's real intentions in the last weeks of her 16-year tenure as a German chancellor, a diplomat Bohdan Nahailo makes an assumption that this may be a pre-election ploy to increase the chances of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in the parliamentary elections taking place this September. «Perhaps she desires to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize together with Macron and Putin? Or perhaps she is counting on Putin's offer to join her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder in the board of the Russian energy giant Gazprom?»[1] This option should not be ruled out, because this is already a systemic practice, when the Russian Federation lobbies its own interests through European politicians who subsequently receive high positions in Russian gas and oil companies.

It is worth noting that the Franco-German proposal contradicts the actions recently taken by the North Atlantic allies - Great Britain and the United States. Britain has clearly outlined its determination to oppose the Russian Federation by directing the HMS Defender along the route near the occupied Crimea. Joe Biden, who systematically emphasizes his intention to restore transatlantic unity, was sent a signal that the two main EU states are not abandoning the idea of strategic autonomy. However, so far the idea of strategic autonomy has not been clearly formed. First, there are currently doubts about the readiness of Western European states to defend Eastern European states in the event of a full-scale attack by the Russian Federation. Second, Germany has so far failed to meet the conditions agreed at the NATO summit in Wales to increase defense spending to 2%.

Given the lack of resources to ensure the security of Eastern European states without the United States involvement, and the lack of a harsh response to Russia's aggressive policy, it is more likely that the leaders of France and Germany are reproducing their own «strategic neutrality» concept rather than «strategic autonomy», neglecting the interests of the states of Eastern Europe, which consider the Russian Federation as an existential threat.

Despite the controversial Franco-German proposal, the conclusions adopted at the summit were quite tough and were in line with the new EU strategy towards Russia, which was adopted on June 16. Back then the European Union adopted 3 principles of interaction with the Russian Federation: to push back against human rights violations and to speak up for democratic values; constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine EU interests; to engage on several key challenges of common interest.[2] The conclusions of June 25 reinforce the need for Russia to assume its responsibility as a party to the conflict and to fully implement the Minsk agreements, which is the main condition for the possible change in EU – Russia relations. Also, the EU states have endorsed the possibility of strengthening economic sanctions against the Russian Federation. This decision is a big step since over the past 7 years, some EU leaders have periodically advocated weakening economic pressure on Russia.

New economic restrictions may be imposed in the event of further malicious, illegal and subversive actions of Russia, as a joint response by the EU and in coordination with other international partners (such as the United States and Britain). Also, the intention to further deepen relations, economic ties, interpersonal contacts with the member states of the Eastern Partnership, including Ukraine in order to «increase their resilience» was emphasized. At the same time, it is noted that the European Council will operationalise the EU-Russia agenda, recalling that «selective engagement on some issues such as climate change, public health, Iran nuclear deal, Syria and Libya is in the interests of the EU».[3]

The European Union summit has consolidated new approaches in EU-Russia relations. The intention to increase economic pressure on Moscow is an adequate response to the Kremlin's aggressive policy. At the same time, the proposal of Angela Merkel, which was supported by Emmanuel Macron, and which angered even the representatives of the EU member states, demonstrates the lack of a common vision and common perception by European states of the threats posed by the Russian Federation. The thinking in the paradigm of neoliberalism that united the European Union in the past century is now becoming a factor that divides the organization around the issue of common security and defense.