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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sochi Doesn't Mean Retreat for Merkel

Two weeks ago, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Russia's behavior during its gas dispute with Belarus as "unacceptable," one listener e-mailed a question to me at Ekho Moskvy radio.

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"A torrent of insults against Russia has streamed from Chancellor Merkel's lips," the angry patriot wrote. "Couldn't President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, find a way to expose the former East German for complicity with the KGB?"

I recalled this remarkable message while watching my television in amazement as Putin had a friendly meeting with Merkel in Sochi.

The original plan called for Merkel, who currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, to meet with Putin in Moscow. The move to Sochi came as a surprise.

Putin usually invites only friends to his private residence, as in the case of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and U.S. President George W. Bush. Merkel is clearly not Putin's friend. Moreover, however fair Merkel's criticisms of Putin in the past have been, they were criticisms nonetheless. Following such criticism, it is considered bad form to invite the offender to your personal residence, because this diminishes the country's prestige.

It takes a special kind of person to take such a shot and continue a constructive dialogue.

The new German leader has always been more severe than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroder. Her biggest rebuke came in October, when Putin offered Germany an agreement on access to output from the western Siberian Shtokman gas field. The offer, which was only made after Gazprom broke off negotiations with U.S. and European oil majors and announced that it would develop the field alone, sounded too good to refuse.

But Merkel did refuse. She turned it down, saying the EU would stick together and follow a common energy policy. Merkel then responded to pressure on the companies developing the Sakhalin-2 project -- Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi -- to sell a share in the project to Gazprom, by saying, "If Russia creates obstacles to European investment, it shouldn't object to reciprocal measures."

Following Merkel's response to the Shtokman offer, her comments about the Sakhalin-2 controversy and her strong comments about the Russia-Belarus standoff, we end up with the two leaders in talks in Sochi.

There is only one explanation I can provide for this: Putin is used to working out policy – both foreign and domestic – on the basis of personal relationships, by winning his partner's trust. In the language of his former profession, he managed to recruit his friends: former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Jacques Chirac and Schroder.

Bush looked into the president's eyes, heard Putin tell the story of a cross given to him as a child that had been miraculously found after a fire, and concluded that those eyes were incapable of lying.

The Kremlin operates according to simple principles. Make a friend of someone and you can do as you please; your friend will always back you up. If someone does not give you his support, it is not because of what you did, but because that person is not your friend.

Looked at this way, Merkel's behavior has nothing to do with energy, the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, or the cancellation of gubernatorial elections in Russia. She just has it in for Putin. The answer is for Putin to invite her to Sochi and receive her there as a true friend.

After the meeting, Putin told a news conference that to prove how committed Russia was to energy security, it was prepared to build a large natural gas storage facility in Germany.

Merkel listened politely, but made no comment on the suggestion.

I would imagine that Germany could build such a facility without help from the very country she sees as the problem in the first place.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.