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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It's Not Just a Question of Personalities

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For anyone wondering how German Chancellor Angela Merkel's attitude toward President Vladimir Putin will differ from that of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder, the media have done their best to clear things up over the last week.

In the run-up to Sunday's meeting between the two leaders in Sochi, a series of articles explained why the relationship would be lukewarm at best. We read about their different backgrounds; about Putin's experience as a KGB agent in East Germany at a time when Merkel, raised in East Germany, was supporting reunification with the West; and about a meeting last April in Tomsk, when Merkel quipped to Putin that the "chemistry" between the two would be complicated.

This makes for interesting reading, but it also reduces questions about Russia's relations with the European Union and the West in general to the level of personalities. Both reason and history indicate the folly of this approach.

The fact that Merkel holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2007 and the Group of Eight chairmanship for the entire year will restrict her latitude to set policy and cut deals on her own. As EU president she represents the interests of 27 governments, and as head of the G8 her remit will be to work for consensus among the member states.

This is unlikely to leave much room for personalities.

And as was the case with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- who held the EU presidency in the second half of 2003 and is Putin's friend -- getting carried away with personal feelings is unlikely to produce results.

Berlusconi's attempts to defend Putin against criticism of his government's attack on Yukos and human rights violations in Chechnya prompted immediate disavowals from other European leaders, who pointed out that Berlusconi's comments did not represent the EU's position. There is no reason to believe that an overly negative approach to Russia would elicit a different response.

The range of issues on which the Kremlin and Western governments don't see eye to eye is broad, including questions about energy policy, democratic and human rights and security. If Merkel and Putin are able to make some progress on these issues this year, both should be given their due. If, on the other hand, little progress is made, putting this down to a lack of chemistry will only deflect attention from the gravity of the disputes themselves.