German chancellor Angela Merkel has a lot on her plate. In addition to keeping her rabble-rouser junior coalition partners in the tent, constantly looking over her shoulder for the increasingly renegade Horst Seehofer, and trying to come up with a European solution to the headache that is illegal migration, Merkel will be sitting down with Russian president Vladimir Putin this weekend to talk state business at the Meseberg.
Merkel and Putin have a lot to discuss. The war in Ukraine’s Donbas region continues at a steady clip, notwithstanding the short-term ceasefires that usually collapse after a few hours or (if one is lucky) days. Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s man in Damascus, is currently planning for another indiscriminate, scorched-earth military campaign in Idlib, an operation that could push millions of Syrians towards Turkey’s southern border. The Nord Stream II pipeline, an energy transit project Donald Trump hates about as much as Omarosa, will be on the docket. And encapsulating it all are the conniving, rules-busting Russian intelligence operations on European soil, which include everything from allegedly bribing Greek power-players to opposing the Macedonia name-change to a suspected assassination attempt (using the deadliest nerve agent on the planet, no less) on British soil.
Whether Merkel and Putin can come to pragmatic agreements on anything is open for debate. Both leaders are sly, smart and transactional, so there’s always a possibility something could come out of the weekend’s meetings. But regardless of the results, Merkel and Putin’s dalliance at a German castle will be one more episode in a rivalry between the two that can be best described as the diplomatic equivalent of the Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield boxing matches in the 1990s.
One (Merkel) is a quantum physicist and a political survivor who political allies call a human computer. The other (Putin) is a former KGB intelligence operative and an expert in playing a weak hand quite well. The two have tangled repeatedly over the years. There was the incident in 2007 when Putin brought his labrador into the room, knowing that the chancellor was terrified of dogs (Putin claimed not to know). There was the time in 2012, when Merkel condemned the two-year prison sentence of the Pussy Riot band to Putin’s visible annoyance. In the fall of 2014, when Ukraine’s war was at its deadliest, Merkel tried to talk sense into her Russian colleague over endless phone calls, before giving up in frustration that no diplomatic off-ramp was available. Two months later, the two butted heads again during an all-night negotiating session in Minsk on a diplomatic framework to cease the violence in the Donbas and find a peaceful transition out of the conflict.
There have also been times when the two were in agreement. Removing Syria’s declared stocks of chemical weapons over US military strikes was one. The 2011 Nato-led regime change campaign against Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi was another. Moscow abstained at the Security Council, and Berlin opted from joining the anti-Gaddafi military coalition. Merkel and Putin generally like to go through the UN system; Merkel because she likes to promote multilateral solutions to world problems as much as she can, and Putin because he can leverage Moscow’s veto at the Security Council to block US initiatives. Today, Germany and Russia are on the same side on Iran courtesy of President Trump, who decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement despite the International Atomic Energy Agency verifying nearly a dozen times over the last nineteen months that Tehran is complying with its obligations. One gets a feeling that the two have a mutual respect for one another, even if neither says it openly.
The Merkel-Putin saga will continue this weekend. Both will press their points forcefully. There may be some yelling and finger-waving involved. Labrador or no labrador, the Merkel-Putin match moves on to the next round.