Cold War kids Merkel and Putin square off over Crimean crisis

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) attends a joint press conference during the Saint Petersburg International Economy Forum on June 21, 2013 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

BERLIN - Could a fateful meeting between a doughty physicist, a steely ex-KGB agent and a slobbery black Labrador retriever hold the key to defusing Ukraine’s Crimean crisis?

As Russia’s de facto annexation of the Black Sea peninsula threatens to plunge Europe towards a new Cold War, focus has shifted to the tetchy ties between two leaders whose earliest political experiences were forged as the Iron Curtain crumbled: Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin.

With the United States and Europe struggling to come up with a response to Moscow’s Ukrainian land grab, the German chancellor is considered one of the few world leaders the Russian president will deign to hear out – even if he dislikes what she’s saying.

“Merkel’s personal rapport with Putin has never been very good,” Dr. Susan Steward, a Russian expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Yahoo News. “But their relationship is still professional and not unproductive.”

That’s largely because Germany remains Russia’s most important European economic partner, with last year’s trade balance of €76 billion roughly split between exports from both countries.

While Germany remains deeply reliant on Russian natural gas and oil, it exports vast quantities of precision machinery, chemicals and cars to Russia. This mutual economic dependency means Berlin has taken a more cautious approach toward levying sanctions on Moscow than some other European Union nations – but it also gives Merkel a modicum of leverage over Putin.

“One can’t just go on like nothing has happened,” she said at an extraordinary EU summit in Brussels last week, according to the DPA news agency.

President Barack Obama, aware of the chancellor’s special role and that American sanctions would have little impact on Russia, has had regular contact with Merkel over the past week.

She reportedly made little headway with the Russian president during a phone call on Sunday. But Merkel, who will stake out her stance on recent events in Ukraine in an address to the German parliament on Thursday, has made clear she is prepared to increase the pressure on Putin if diplomacy fails to resolve the crisis.

“We are prepared to act [with] a broad array of economic sanctions,” her spokesman Steffen Seibert said at a government briefing in Berlin on Monday.

The EU has set out three levels of punitive measures starting with the symbolic freezing of talks on a proposed partnership agreement, increasing to visa and banking restrictions for Russian officials, and only then continuing to more painful economic sanctions.

“That’s that where the German role becomes crucial,” Dr. Stewart told Yahoo News. “Germany has the most intense economic relations with Russia.”

But can Merkel really cajole Putin into backing down over the Crimea?

The two have remained distant despite sharing common experiences in the dwindling days of the Cold War and being able to communicate without the help of an interpreter. While she learned Russian growing up in communist East Germany, he picked up German stationed there as a Soviet spy in the late 1980s.

Both built their political careers in the wake of the historic upheaval in eastern Europe more than two decades ago. A scientist by training, Merkel only entered politics after Germany’s reunification in 1990. And years before he took power in the Kremlin, Putin watched the Berlin Wall fall while working for the KGB.

But they took very different lessons from those times. The daughter of an East German pastor, the conservative chancellor looked towards the United States as an example of freedom and democracy. Putin, by contrast, saw the implosion of the Soviet empire and the chaos that followed as justification for more authoritarian leanings that would restore Russia’s greatness on the world stage.

They are both hardnosed pragmatists. But whereas Putin has become the brash strongman, Merkel prefers to lead from behind, quietly sizing up a situation until one option becomes, in her words, “alternativeless.”

Merkel also hasn’t forgotten Putin’s brazen attempt to intimidate her during talks in 2007 by letting his black lab Conny – reportedly named after former US Secretary of State and Russian expert Condoleezza Rice – roam freely at his official Black Sea dacha. Pictures of the meeting show the German leader, who had been afraid of big dogs since being bitten by one in the mid 1990s, sitting with terrified look on her face as the lab sniffs her while Putin grins sadistically nearby.

Tellingly, Merkel recently informed Obama that Putin had seemingly lost touch with reality and that he was “in another world,” according to the New York Times.

Though Merkel is unlikely to let the possibility for personal schadenfreude cloud her analytical leadership style, the contrast to Putin’s cozy relationship with her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, couldn’t be greater.

Not only did the former chancellor adopt two Russian children with Putin’s help, he controversially took a well-paid advisory job with a Russian-German gas pipeline immediately after leaving office in 2005. Schröder has even refused to condemn Putin’s actions in the Crimea, saying he also broke international law when he agreed to join NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999.

Perhaps more daunting than risking Putin’s wrath, Merkel would also have to overcome domestic opposition to sanctions. Germany’s influential business lobby says trade with Russia directly supports some 300,000 German jobs.

Many of Germany’s EU partners, however, are urging Berlin to subordinate economic considerations to sending Moscow a strong message that its interference in Ukraine will not go unpunished.

“If there is a next step towards sanctions, all countries will suffer. It’s not just important for Germany and German companies,” Ambassador Kārlis Eihenbaums, Latvia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Yahoo News. “But you can’t just think about money your entire life. This is totally unacceptable in 21st century in Europe. It’s a tragedy.”

He compared Putin’s takeover of the largely Russian Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of German-populated territory in Czechoslovakia in 1938.

Latvia, one of three Baltic nations occupied by the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II, only regained its independence in 1991. Like Ukraine, it still has a sizable Russian-speaking population. Eihenbaums said recent events in Ukraine had vindicated Latvia’s decisions to join the EU and NATO.

Showing Berlin was taking their concerns seriously, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited all three Baltic countries on Tuesday.

“It’s important that Steinmeier is coming because Latvia had experiences with Russia that Germany and other western Europe countries have been spared,” Eihenbaums said.

But is Germany ready to break with its habit of prioritizing its own energy security needs over the political concerns of its eastern neighbors? Despite the loud protests of Poland and Ukraine, Schröder opted to build a Baltic Sea pipeline for Russian gas, ensuring Germany’s supply even during times of dispute between Moscow and other nations.

In the end, Merkel might be too timid to take decisive action against Putin. But the scientist in her is undoubted coolly analyzing her options against the dog-loving ex-KGB man.

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