Merkel seeks to navigate Germany’s complex relations with Russia

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Angela Merkel cannot expect too many favours from her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, whose political career she ended when she first took office as German chancellor nearly a decade ago.

But she must have found it particularly unhelpful of Mr Schröder to be seen hugging Russian president Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on Tuesday night just three days before she meets US president Barack Obama in Washington.

Mr Schröder’s critics were quick to point out that the ex-chancellor, who was celebrating his 70th birthday, was making merry with Mr Putin at a time when the Kremlin is accused of destabilising Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists are holding captive an OSCE observer mission that includes four Germans. Elmar Brok, the German chairman of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said it sent “the wrong signal”.

Mr Schröder’s allies responded by saying he would have used the event to raise the captives issue with Mr Putin. Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman, put a brave face on events, saying that anybody who tried to free the captives was “doing right”.

But the episode is an embarrassment for Germany when Berlin and its allies are seeking to present a united front to Russia.

Mr Schröder was not the only German at the party. The German ambassador attended, as did Phillip Missfelder, the foreign affairs spokesman of Ms Merkel’s CDU. The celebrations were hosted by Nord Stream, the Baltic gas pipeline company controlled by Gazprom, the Russian state-run group. Mr Schröder became chairman of Nord Stream in 2006.

The affair highlights the complexity of Germany’s relations with Russia – and how Ms Merkel is struggling to control policy in the face of competing personal, political and economic ambitions.

The chancellor herself is tougher on Moscow than most of the German political elite and public. As a former East German familiar with Kremlin power, she has long been wary of Mr Putin, an ex-KGB officer. Until recently she balanced this scepticism with a pragmatic appreciation of Germany’s huge economic interests in Russia.

But she has noticeably hardened her approach during the Ukraine crisis, responding to what she sees as repeated Kremlin failures to keep its word, most recently over the Geneva accord. As Henning Riecke of DGAP, the German foreign policy think-tank, says: “Putin is hiding things, and that is undermining Merkel’s trust in him.”

Ms Merkel has not said what might persuade her to bow to US pressure for further sanctions. Mr Seibert said on Wednesday that Germany and its allies had agreed to escalate sanctions in response to the situation on the ground, and that the situation in east Ukraine “continued to deteriorate”.

Ms Merkel will not rush into action, partly because EU measures must be agreed among all 28 EU members and partly because her instinct is against running much ahead of German opinion.

The government is divided, with the chancellery tougher on Russia than the foreign ministry, headed by Frank-Walter Steinmeier. A social democrat and Mr Schröder’s former chief of staff, Mr Steinmeier is sympathetic to Russia. So are many officials: they have spent decades co-operating with Moscow, notably on German reunification.

Business leaders, worried about the potential loss of Russian gas supplies and export markets, make no bones about opposing sanctions, even if they have mostly toned down the rhetoric.

Meanwhile much of the public, wary of foreign policy adventures, sees Ukraine as a far-off country that should not be allowed to disturb Germany’s economic wellbeing. But according to an ARD television poll this week, support for economic sanctions has grown, from 38 per cent a month ago to 50 per cent.

Further complicating Ms Merkel’s job in Washington is a surge in German anti-Americanism, fuelled partly by last year’s NSA spy scandal and partly by concerns that the US might push Europe into conflict with Russia.

Heike MacKerron, the Berlin director of the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think-tank, says: “In my view this [Ukraine] crisis has all the ingredients for strengthening anti-Americanism.”

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