President Putin’s visit to Germany (August 17) came in the backdrop of worsening US-Russia relations (as described), President Trump’s public rebukes to Germany, and personally Chancellor Merkel, on German defence spending and the Russo-German Nord stream 2 gas pipeline project.
In the event, Chancellor Merkel was cautious in her public statements. She confirmed that Nord stream 2 would go ahead, but warned that gas transit through Ukraine should also continue (President Putin responded that it would, provided it is economically viable – in other words, Russia will not allow Ukraine to blackmail it on transit fees). She talked about the need to implement the Minsk Agreements on Ukraine (she did not mention Crimea) and the idea of a UN mission to play a role in it (Russia, as President Putin indicated, sees only a limited role for a UN mission in monitoring the implementation of the Minsk Agreements). Both spoke of support for the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran (Chancellor Merkel added that Iran’s missile programme and “regional politics” should also be carefully followed). Chancellor Merkel was cautious in her utterances on Syria, in view of the strong US line on humanitarian assistance and the Astana process (see subsequent section).
The threat of US tariffs on German exports and sanctions for Nord stream 2 have put Germany in an awkward position, particularly since it has borne the maximum economic brunt of the US-led sanctions against Russia since 2014. Its trade with Russia - $50 billion even after the fall since 2014 – and investment of $18 billion have both suffered at the altar of Western unity against Russia. Disruption of Nord stream 2 would be both a political and economic blow, impacting on Germany’s standing in the European Union and its ambition to remain an important energy hub for Europe. The US game plan, as clearly enunciated by President Trump, is to step up supply of US LNG, mainly to terminals in Central Europe – in countries which are far more receptive to a strong line on Russia than some countries of “old Europe”.
The United States did not mute its public opposition to Nord stream 2: in a media interaction on August 22, an Assistant Secretary in the State Department said it poses “a significant geopolitical threat” and that the US “will continue to call on its European allies to reject it”.
President Putin’s expectations from the visit may have been, inter alia, to secure German support for rehabilitation assistance to Syria and coordination between the “small group” and the Astana process. On both these issues, he had received positive resonance from the leaders of France and Germany in his interactions with them in July (Review, 7/18). In fact, a joint Franco-Russian humanitarian assistance mission had already been carried out in Eastern Ghouta in southern Syria. However, by the time of the Putin visit, the US had slammed both these doors shut (see subsequent section on Syria); Chancellor Merkel had, therefore, nothing to offer.
Perhaps in recognition of the absence of demonstrable outcomes of the summit, the two leaders decided to hold their joint press availability before their meeting and not after, as had been announced.
President Trump’s utterances and policies on Europe may be opening up new political and economic fault lines in Europe (similar to those during the Iraq invasion and after), as a by-product of US-Russia tensions.
August 30, 2018