Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Hedges His Bets in German Campaign

ReutersSchroeder welcoming Putin on his arrival at the chancellory in Berlin on Thursday. Putin later met with Angela Merkel.
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday broke new ground in Russian foreign policy by meeting not only with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, but with his likely replacement, opposition leader Angela Merkel.

Putin and Schröder attended the signing of a landmark agreement in Berlin between Gazprom and Germany's E.ON and BASF to build a $5 billion gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea.

Putin met with Merkel, leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Union, at the Russian Embassy in Berlin.

The meetings came ahead of Germany's Sept. 18 parliamentary elections, which look set to make Merkel the country's next chancellor, either at the head of a conservative government or as the leader of the largest party in a grand coalition with Schröder's Social Democrats. The latest opinion poll, conducted this week, gave Merkel's CDU a lead of 8 percentage points.

During the election campaign, Merkel has promised to take a more conservative stance in relations with Russia compared to Schröder, who is a firm ally of Putin. Schröder and Putin have met a total of 32 times since Putin came to power in 2000.

Merkel, an East German, has said she would pay more attention to Poland and Ukraine, and would not overlook their interests when dealing with Russia.

Putin's evenhanded treatment of Schröder and Merkel stands in contrast to his stance during foreign elections last year, when he openly backed the incumbents and their allies in the Ukrainian and U.S. presidential elections.

The different approach looks to be aimed at pre-empting a possible chill in relations with Berlin in the event of a Merkel victory -- and to ensure that the Baltic pipeline goes ahead, regardless of which party or parties form the next German government. Under a Merkel-led coalition government, Schröder could still play a key role in policy, particularly in shaping relations with Russia.

At their meeting, Putin and Merkel both said they saw Russian-German relations developing positively.

"Regardless of internal political processes in Germany, this desire to positively develop our relations is intact," Putin said, Interfax reported.

Merkel said she was also keen on cooperation. "If I manage to come to power, we will develop a strategic partnership," she said, according to a Russian translation of her remarks carried by Interfax. "I adhere to the traditions of Chancellor [Konrad] Adenauer."


Herbert Knosowski / AP

Christian Democrat leader Angela Merkel and Putin smiling ahead of talks Thursday at the Russian Embassy in Berlin.

Speaking earlier at a joint news conference with Schröder, Putin said that a Merkel victory would not affect bilateral relations. "Germany and Russia have always had good relations. It's good if they are supported by good personal relations, but ... relations between Russia and Germany should exist and develop regardless of whether there is such a friendship," he said.

Putin said he hoped to remain friends with Schröder after the elections.

When Putin was asked if he was supporting Schröder's campaign by meeting with him ahead of the elections, he replied, "You know that I have a planned meeting with Angela Merkel. Why don't you ask if I support her?"

Putin said last week that his visit was not aimed at backing Schröder.

"We don't meddle. ... Also, it is pointless and silly to stop all contacts just because they have elections," Putin said.

At his meeting with Merkel, Putin noted that his Sept. 8 visit came just five days before the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and West Germany. He said that former chancellors Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, both from Merkel's CDU, had favored good relations with Russia.

Merkel replied by saying that she would have visited Russia to celebrate the anniversary if it had not coincided with the German election campaign.

It was Merkel who proposed the meeting, Putin aide Sergei Prikhodko said, RIA-Novosti reported Thursday.

Roland Goetz, a Russia analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said that Putin's visit could qualify as a campaign intervention, as it gave Schröder the chance to "make a show for the media." But it would have "no big effect" on German voters, he said by telephone from Berlin.

Last year, Putin made a series of statements in favor of President George W. Bush during the United States' closely fought election campaign. Putin also made public appearances with the Kremlin's favored candidate in Ukraine's disputed presidential elections, Viktor Yanukovych, but not with his successful rival, Viktor Yushchenko.

Putin broke new ground by meeting with Merkel, said Boris Shmelyov, head of the Center for Comparative Political Research at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It's the first such step in Russian foreign policy. In previous years, there were no cases when the head of state met the leaders of the opposition in other countries," he said.

By meeting Merkel, Putin was following the example of Western leaders, in part because he does not want Merkel to block the pipeline deal if she should become chancellor, Shmelyov said.

The importance for the Kremlin of Germany, Russia's largest trading partner and creditor, extends far beyond the gas pipeline deal. Germany has advocated Russia's interests in the European Union and NATO, Shmelyov said.

In 2003, Russia, Germany and France opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Some of the sheen could be taken off the countries' friendship if Merkel were to win the election, Shmelyov and Goetz said, as she has criticized Schröder for sacrificing ties with Germany's eastern neighbors in cozying up to Moscow and has promised to pursue a more evenhanded approach. "Merkel is more skeptical about Russia and is closer to the United States," Shmelyov said.

Germany could review its Iraq policy, and listen more to Poland and the Baltic states in their relations with Russia, Shmelyov said. A Merkel-led Germany could also express more criticism over Chechnya and democracy issues, he said.

Merkel won't likely repeat Schröder's description of Putin as a "democrat through and through," Goetz said.

Germany's energy needs and economic interests, however, will always prevent it from drifting too far away from Russia, Shmelyov said.