* In an international order that is beginning to resemble a competition between rival cartels
Angela Merkel risks becoming a kind of geopolitical Walter White.
In the popular television series Breaking Bad, Walter White, a chemistry teacher recently diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, fears that his family will be unable to afford his treatment or to provide for themselves after he is gone. In despair, he starts to produce and sell drugs – beginning his descent into a spiral of crime ostensibly intended to sustain his business and protect those he loves.
His noble cause eventually morphs into a criminal rampage that does more harm to his family than poverty and cancer ever could. To some observers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – known for her tough stance on Russia sanctions – may have begun a similar descent at a recent meeting in Meseberg with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For German Putinversteher – or Putin apologists – the meeting was a turning point towards re-engagement with Moscow and German-Russian rapprochement. Traditional transatlanticists have described the event the same way, but see this as a betrayal. They have been particularly critical of the new format on Syria diplomacy the leaders proposed in Meseberg – as it involves Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey but excludes the United States. Many European countries are especially worried that Merkel might have agreed to protect the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline against possible US sanctions (although these fears are based on Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s description of events, which one should take with a grain of salt). Meanwhile, Merkel and her staff have remained reticent about the meeting, fuelling speculation about its outcome and implications.
Judging by Merkel’s apparent emotional reaction when leaving the conference room, the meeting went poorly. Extrapolating from her previous meetings and negotiations with Russian interlocutors, one can sketch out the predicament she faced, and what was at stake for her country, in Meseberg.
Many European countries are especially worried that Merkel might have agreed to protect the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline against possible US sanctions
Germany has since 2015 negotiated the implementation of the Minsk agreement on the Ukraine conflict, which calls for bilateral meetings between its sponsors. Putin and Merkel have long fundamentally disagreed over the way to implement this agreement; there is nothing to indicate that the meeting in Meseberg changed this. Indeed, as usual, Merkel called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to brief him on the results of the meeting. While there is little hope that she can change Russia’s overall policy on Ukraine, Merkel uses these discussions with Putin partly to address pressing humanitarian issues, such as the fate of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and prisoners of war, humanitarian access to conflict zones, and other unspectacular but deeply important concerns.
In Syria, Putin largely won the war for the Assad regime using the most brutal means available. Now, he wants to make Europe pay for the country’s reconstruction. He talks of “refugees returning” to Syria, knowing that this resonates with European electorates. Merkel does not believe a word of this. She has set conditions on European aid to Syria, including constitutional reform and free and fair elections. As such concessions will only come about through regime change in Damascus – the very thing Russia’s intervention in Syria sought to prevent – these conditions provide Merkel with a way to say “no” on her terms.
But events in Syria may soon take a dramatic turn that will affect her calculations. Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces may soon take Idlib province, the rebels’ last bastion outside Kurdish-controlled territory. Many opposition fighters and their families have fled to this province to escape persecution by the regime. If pro-government troops conquer Idlib in characteristically ruthless fashion, they will precipitate a new humanitarian disaster that could force millions to flee the country. Mired in an economic crisis, Turkey can hardly afford to accommodate another large influx of refugees. Mindful of the continuing fallout from its 2015 decision to admit one million refugees, Germany is determined to avoid another refugee crisis in Europe. For Putin, Idlib is a hostage at the mercy of Russian troops; Merkel must pay a ransom to Russia – or else.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu