September 28, 2018

Putin and Merkel discuss Nord Stream, Ukraine and Syria in a changing strategic context


German Chancellor Angela Merkel uncharacteristically interrupted her summer vacation to receive Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 18 at Meseberg Castle, near Berlin. It was the second Merkel-Putin meeting within three months. Their meeting in Sochi last May triggered a flurry of bilateral German-Russian high-level discussions, which continue to this day.

This development reflects a growing, if chimerical, belief within German government and business circles that Germany should seek a rapprochement with Russia in response to the United States’ policies under the Donald Trump administration. The overall assumption is that Russia’s cooperation is indispensable to achieving some of Germany’s main policy objectives: ending the war in Syria (a generator of mass migrations to Europe, with disruptive effects inside Germany), bringing a political solution to “the Ukraine crisis” (Russia’s aggression there being a generator of divisive economic sanctions in Europe), and Russian long-term guaranteed energy deliveries to Germany. The notion that “Germany needs Russia” is an attitude described by its critics as a German Mantra (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 20).

That belief seems to credit Russia with an interest in cooperative solutions to problems that Moscow in the first place created or exacerbated, with a view to gaining leverage through problem-solving on Russian terms. Berlin has become the proactive side in exploring possible joint solutions with Moscow, albeit not unconditionally. Moscow, however, maintains a wait-and-see attitude for now, content to see Berlin acting as the demandeur. Therefore, the Merkel-Putin meeting in Meseberg could not be expected to produce significant decisions. To keep expectations down, the two leaders had decided in advance that there would be no joint communiqué and no concluding press conference. Instead, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin each delivered a statement in a joint appearance at the start of their meeting, with no questions allowed from the assembled press.

The Gazprom-led Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project, the war in Ukraine’s east, the fighting in Syria with its European implications (which seemed to command more time and attention than the other topics) and follow-up German-Russian contacts were the salient issues in Ms. Merkel’s and Mr. Putin’s remarks (,, August 18, 19).

On Nord Stream 2, which is based on diverting gas flows away from Ukraine’s transit system, Ms. Merkel remarked that “Ukraine must play a role in the gas transit to Europe even if Nord Stream 2 does materialize” – a position she had already expressed to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in April. This position is theoretically consistent with Moscow’s, allowing room for negotiation on the practicalities. The German chancellor refrained this time from noting (as she had first admitted to Poroshenko in April) that Nord Stream is not entirely an economic project but also involves political aspects.

Mr. Putin restated the familiar theses that Nord Stream is a “strictly economic project,” and one that does not exclude a continuation of Russian gas transit to Europe via Ukraine, provided that the Ukrainian transit route would correspond with commercial criteria. The latter point conforms with Gazprom’s and the Kremlin’s position ever since 2015 that some residual volumes of Russian gas could continue to transit Ukraine from 2020 onward, subject to negotiation on volumes and tariffs.

According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s readout of the Meseberg meeting, the two leaders “agreed to defend the Nord Stream 2 project from anti-competition and unlawful attacks by third countries” (Interfax, August 19). This is the Kremlin’s understanding of the German government’s resistance to possible U.S. extraterritorial sanctions on German and other companies involved with the Nord Stream 2 project.

The existing transit agreement is due to expire at the end of 2019, coinciding with the planned start of operations on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. A replacement agreement on Ukrainian transit would have to be negotiated and signed by that time, if Russia were to continue using the Ukrainian route at all. However, the volumes that Moscow hints it might deliver to Europe via Ukraine would be far from sufficient for the economic viability of Ukraine’s gas transport system (Margarita Assenova, “Europe and Nord Stream 2: Myths, Reality, and the Way Forward,” Center for European Policy Analysis, Washington, June 2018).

Ms. Merkel has tasked her confidant Peter Altmeier (currently economics and energy minister, formerly head of the Chancellor’s Office under Ms. Merkel) to negotiate with Gazprom toward a possible continuation of Russian gas transit via Ukraine after 2019. This is not only (if at all) a political gesture to Ukraine. It is, mainly, a hedge against possible delays to the start of operations on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This is officially due by the end of 2019, but seems jeopardized by serious objections on varying grounds in Washington, Brussels, Copenhagen and elsewhere. Berlin and Moscow must be equally concerned about the possibility of missing that deadline. This prospect necessitates for Gazprom to prepare a transit contract with Naftohaz (for an as yet undeterminable duration) as a back-up solution, before the existing contract expires, which is also December 2019.

Mr. Altmeier’s bilateral negotiation with Moscow runs in parallel with the trilateral negotiation that involves Gazprom, Naftohaz Ukrainy, and the European Commission as mediator, with the Commission’s Vice President for the Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič chairing these talks. The commission has insisted all along that Ukraine retain a significant transit role, at volumes commercially viable for its transit system, as well as tariffs commercially attractive to the Russian side. While the commission seeks to integrate a reformed Ukrainian gas transit system with a unified European energy market, German policy on Nord Stream 2 and its overland extensions into Germany runs counter to the goals of the EU-driven Energy Union. In effect, Mr. Altmeier’s bilateral negotiation with Gazprom seeks a hedge for both sides to protect the Nord Stream 2 project, circumventing the EU’s common energy policy.

The war in Ukraine’s east

The war in Ukraine’s east was the topic that Ms. Merkel placed at the top of her remarks at the August 18 Berlin-Meseberg meeting with Mr. Putin. The Russian president relegated this topic to the end of his remarks, as if to confirm Russia’s current tactic of feigning disinterest and playing for time. Nevertheless, in what seems to have been a prior arrangement, both leaders stopped short of even alluding to the matter of economic sanctions in their public remarks (,, August 18, 19). 

The European Union introduced and periodically prolongs the sanctions on Russia with Ms. Merkel’s decisive support. However, the lifting of sanctions is made conditional on the fulfillment of the Minsk “agreements” by both Russia and Ukraine, instead of registering the fact of Russia’s aggression in the Donbas and conditioning the removal of sanctions on the cessation of that aggression.

Both leaders reconfirmed, as usual, the “indispensability” or “irreplaceability” of the Minsk “agreements” and negotiations in the Normandy Group (Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France) and the Minsk Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), albeit from different standpoints. Mr. Putin does so because that set-up (whether “successful” by Moscow’s criteria, or otherwise paralyzed by Moscow as it currently is) works in Russia’s favor in the Donbas. For its part, German diplomacy professes allegiance to Minsk and Normandy because it is trapped in that set-up, of which it is a co-author and could not come up with more creative ideas of its own. While Ms. Merkel pleaded for a stable ceasefire, or at least a ceasefire timed to the start of the school year in the Donbas, Mr. Putin did not mention the desideratum of a ceasefire in his remarks. Low-intensity but unabated warfare with threats of escalation is Moscow’s pressure tool on Ukraine as well as on the Normandy negotiators (,, August 18, 19).

Beyond Minsk and Normandy, the two leaders disagree over the proposed peacekeeping mission under the aegis of the United Nations in Ukraine’s east. While Ms. Merkel suggested that they should discuss the possibility and the role of a U.N.-led mission, Mr. Putin omitted any mention of the U.N., reaffirming instead that he would only consider some additional support to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s existing Special Monitoring Mission (OSCESMM) in Ukraine. Ms. Merkel suggested that Russia and Germany should work together on peacekeeping in Ukraine when Germany joins the U.N. Security Council as a nonpermanent member for the 2019-2020 period. Mr. Putin, however, gave no answer to that offer. His performance confirms the Kremlin’s position of rejecting a full-fledged U.N.-led peacekeeping operation. Instead it proposes a lightly armed police escort mission for the OSCESMM, and only within the latter’s highly restrictive mandate, and furthermore conditional on Ukraine’s approval of a “special status” for the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 22, 2017)

Mr. Putin’s Berlin performance also presages a continuation of stonewalling by his assistant, Vladislav Surkov, in the informal consultations with the U.S. State Department’s special envoy, Kurt Volker, about the proposed U.N.-led peacekeeping mission. Mr. Surkov has been feigning disinterest in, or disengagement from, those consultations since January of this year. 

For his part, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov has ruled out any ministerial-level meetings in the Normandy format in the foreseeable future, citing the assassination of “Donetsk republic” leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko as an alibi (Interfax, September 1). Mr. Zakharchenko, however, did not participate in any negotiations and had no decision-making role in this regard.

“Peace order” in Syria

As she did with regard to Ukraine, Ms. Merkel also offered to work with Russia on a “peace order” in Syria at her joint press conference with Mr. Putin in Meseberg. Bowing to the facts on the ground, Berlin no longer links a political solution with the removal or departure of the Kremlin-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. This shift in Berlin’s position can be traced to Ms. Merkel’s meeting with Mr. Putin in Sochi in May (,, May 18), when the chancellor implicitly accepted a negotiated solution with Mr. al-Assad’s participation. In Meseberg, Ms. Merkel confirmed, “As we already said in Sochi, the priority [in Syria] is, before anything else, getting started on a political process, constitutional reform and possible elections” (,, August 18, 19).

Germany fears that a continuation of fighting in Syria (and Turkey’s overcongestion with refugees from that war) would continue generating migration to Europe, where Germany is the destination of choice. Destabilizing Germany’s political system and society, mass migration has become the most sensitive political issue in the country. Ms. Merkel and many other German politicians are keen to demonstrate a start to a process of repatriating migrants, at least symbolically in small numbers; but they cannot do this until the areas of those refugees’ provenance are stabilized and designated as safe. A start to repatriation is a short- to medium-term goal, however. In the immediate term, Berlin fears that a Russian-backed assault by Syrian government forces on Idlib (the major remaining opposition stronghold) could result in another exodus of war refugees. Berlin is therefore urging Moscow to prevent an escalation by acting as a “moderating influence” on Damascus (, August 27). Such a demarche implicitly accepts the Kremlin as arbiter in the theater, potentially crediting it with moderation, and petitioning it to exert its influence in line with such hopes, all while awarding it leverage.

Exploiting the German vulnerability on this front, Mr. Putin asked Germany in Meseberg to support Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction, so as to make possible the repatriation of “millions” of refugees from Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, as well as from Western Europe back to Syria. In the name of stabilizing that country, Mr. Putin asked in Meseberg for German inputs into rebuilding basic infrastructure, electricity, water supply and communal services in Syria. Overall, Moscow takes the position that international assistance to Syria’s post-war reconstruction is a prerequisite to the return of Syrian refugees to that country – one in which Moscow now holds a major stake.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin have agreed to create an expert-level working group of four countries – Russia, Germany, France, Turkey – to deal with migration, reconstruction and related problems posed by Syria, bypassing the United States. The Kremlin wants to upgrade the level of this expert group, and suggests holding a high-level meeting in this quadripartite format (Deutsche Welle, August 18). Germany is already a member of the “small group” on Syria, a format initiated by France that also includes the United Kingdom, Germany, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Moreover, Germany intends – as Ms. Merkel told Mr. Putin in Meseberg – to take up its share of responsibility on Syria when Berlin joins the U.N. Security Council as a nonpermanent member for the 2019-2020 period.

High-level meetings

The meeting of Mr. Putin and Ms. Merkel in Sochi in May triggered a flurry of bilateral German-Russian high-level meetings. That same month, Economics Minister Peter Altmeier (a Merkel confidant) and Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas (Social-Democrat) held talks with their Russian counterparts in Moscow. In June, a Bundestag delegation conferred in St. Petersburg with Russian Duma members, who proposed creating a high-level Russian-German inter-parliamentary commission. On July 24, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Maas conferred in Berlin with Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Syria was the foremost topic in that meeting, but “they also addressed the conflict in eastern Ukraine” (, July 24). Upcoming actions this autumn include the St. Petersburg Dialogues and the Potsdam Encounters, annual high-level political events sponsored by economic interests via the Germany-Russia Forum.

Berlin’s search for a rapprochement with Moscow is still in a tentative, exploratory stage. A German strategic design can hardly be discerned behind it. However, Germany’s pre-existing strategic dependence on Russian oil and natural gas supplies can lend further impetus to an incipient political rapprochement – particularly one as improvised as this one seems to be. The German government attempts this rapprochement from weak internal political positions, following painful electoral setbacks and “left-right” polarization, all exacerbated by migration-related clashes for the first time in this country’s history.

Berlin seems to act as if “needing Russia” in reaching out to Moscow. Still, Ms. Merkel’s government holds firmly to the European Union’s economic sanctions on Russia, and it plays a key role in ensuring that sanctions are prolonged while Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine continues. At the same time, Berlin’s outreach to Moscow is a national sovereign policy, not one coordinated with the EU. The EU no longer has a coordinated policy (let alone a common policy) toward Russia, except on the Ukraine-related economic sanctions. Energy market legislation, centered on the EU’s Third Package, could have (and can still) form the basis for a common European external energy policy in relation to Russia, but Berlin is instead acting bilaterally with Moscow in this area. For its part, Moscow seems prepared to respond by restoring Berlin to its earlier status in Russian foreign policy – that of a privileged European interlocutor.


The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation,