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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Energy but No Chemistry for Merkel's Visit

APPutin making his point to Merkel at a summit last year in Tomsk. Relations have cooled between Russia and Germany.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel spends several hours with President Vladimir Putin at his summer home in Sochi on Sunday, it's unlikely to be all smiles.

Gone are the days when Putin and former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder signed multibillion-dollar gas deals with hearty slaps on the back, a testament to one of the closest relationships Putin has enjoyed with a European leader.

Putin's dealings with Merkel, the first German chancellor to hail from former East Germany and the first woman to lead the country, are considerably frostier.

Merkel's visit on Sunday -- her first since taking over the rotating European Union presidency from Finland and the Group of Eight leadership from Russia this month -- will carry even more weight than usual.

Coming hard on the heels of Russia's bruising energy dispute with Belarus, the visit will allow Merkel to raise personally with Putin her doubts about Moscow as a reliable energy supplier for Europe.

And judging from her past meetings with Putin, Merkel will likely not shy away from speaking her mind.

The two leaders have met for talks a half-dozen times, including at a university in the Siberian city of Tomsk last April.

Merkel, who has a doctorate in physics and worked in quantum chemistry before entering politics, was met at the university by the dean of its science college.

"We talked about molecules," she told Putin upon his arrival, German press reported at the time.

Putin responded with a smile: "I hope that our chemistry will also generate a good atmosphere."

"It's a little more complicated than molecules," Merkel quipped.

Germany is heavily reliant on Russian gas, importing around 35 percent of its supply from state-run Gazprom. When disputes over oil and gas have flared between Russia and its former Soviet neighbors, Germany has often been one of the first countries to suffer.

Germany faced a drop in oil supplies earlier this month when a key pipeline was shut during the conflict with Belarus over oil tariffs, and its gas supply dipped last year during Gazprom's pricing dispute with Ukraine.

Merkel led European criticism of Russia over the Belarus crisis, saying it was "unacceptable" that Putin had failed to inform European countries that their oil supplies would be affected.

"Merkel was genuinely displeased with the back-and-forth on the issue, and also saw it as an opportunity to take a stern tone," said Jon Levy, a New York- based analyst at Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy.

Merkel said this week that she would use her six-month stint as head of the EU to forge a bilateral agreement with Russia, and that energy would top the agenda. She also said she hoped to formulate the bloc's approach to Central Asia -- an exercise that could potentially step on Russia's toes.

As Merkel gets set to ruffle more Russian feathers, the contrast with Schroder, her predecessor, could not be starker.

Schroder's spokeswoman Sigrid Krampitz said Thursday that he was not making comments ahead of Merkel's visit.

But in a speech at a Berlin conference on Wednesday, Schroder was trenchant in his praise of the Russian leader: "President Putin's historical achievement is that, after this decade, he has put Russia, in both domestic and foreign policy, on a path to stability and reliability."

Schroder was seated at the conference next to Igor Shuvalov, Putin's G8 envoy, and joined Shuvalov in a robust defense of Russian energy policies.

As the head of the Gazprom-led consortium building a pipeline from Russia under the Baltic Sea to northern Germany, Schroder has spoken at a series of conferences in support of Gazprom's line. He took the $320,000 per year job shortly after leaving office.

Schroder's close ties to Russia are also illustrated by his adoption of two children from Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg. Putin was the only foreign leader that Schroder invited to celebrate his 60th birthday in April 2004.

Merkel, meanwhile, often mentions her upbringing in East Germany, where Putin served as a KGB lieutenant colonel from 1985 to 1990. And she has made it clear that she does not agree with Schroder's characterization of Putin as an "impeccable democrat."

"I would not call him a flawless democrat," Merkel said earlier this month.

"The difference [between Merkel and Schroder] does not matter so much in day-to-day business, but more in the atmosphere and mood," said Alexander Rahr of the Berlin-based Korber Center for Russia and CIS Affairs. "The Russians feel it. They are afraid they may lose Germany as a strategic partner."

Yet Levy of Eurasia Group said pragmatism would win out. "This criticism does not signal a radical shift in Germany's Russia policy -- it's a strategic opportunity to take the lead from the European side," he said. "Merkel is still geared toward engagement."

While she rejected Putin's request for Russian bank Vneshtorgbank to increase its 5 percent stake in European aerospace firm EADS during his visit to Germany in October, she has come out for the North European Gas Pipeline.