Putin and Merkel: Personal Relations and Big Politics

Historically, personal relations between the top officials of Germany and Russia (earlier, the Soviet Union) have largely determined the nature and content of official cooperation between the two countries. This is largely due to the level of trust between leaders.

If it was low, the relations deteriorated, and vice versa. When Vladimir Putin made his famous speech in the Bundestag in September 2001, Angela Merkel, a deputy and politician, along with her party colleagues, very much appreciated it, and this moment became, in my opinion, a pivotal point for establishing the future relations between the two leaders.

Since 2000, both politicians have been political heavyweights. Merkel replaced Helmut Kohl as chairman of the leading German Christian Democratic Union (which was then in the opposition); Putin became Russia’s president, which he still is (with a stint as prime minister in 2008−2012). Since 2005, Merkel, as the permanent CDU chairman, has led German coalition governments. Dozens of face-to-face meetings and hundreds of phone calls have taken place since then. Arguably, the two leaders learned to listen, hear and understand each other over the past 16 years.

Unlike Gerhard Schroeder, personal relations between the Russian president and the German chancellor were initially based not on friendship, but professional and working factors. I think Merkel has much to do with this, as she uses this communication model in dealing with people in her inner circle and other people as well. Putin's attempts to introduce a "personal touch" in their relations were not successful, in my opinion.

Most importantly, the two leaders appreciate each other for their professionalism. As professionals, they understand the role and place of bilateral cooperation in the European and global dimensions. Notably, the main contribution to strengthening its institutional foundation was made in the days of Kohl and Schroeder. Merkel’s watch fell on difficult times when the strategic agreements were actually needed to address specific issues (such as, for example, the Partnership for the Modernization or the implementation of the Nord Stream project) and, more importantly, there was a need to overcome the crisis caused by reasons lying beyond the realm of such projects. I’m referring to the 2008−2010 global financial crisis, the negative stance of the European political establishment toward the situation surrounding democratization processes in Russia (2011−2013) and the crippling political trust crisis caused by the Ukraine events (2014−2015).

All these years, the two leaders have found common ground for discussing problems. For example, after March 2013, when Germany took a harsh stance with regard to Cyprus, which affected Russian companies’ financial interests, and Russia conducted unexpectedly tough inspections of NGOs, including the representative offices of German foundations and political parties, it seemed that bilateral relations would deteriorate sharply. But private talks in Hanover in early April (especially, the constructive approach toward problems on Putin’s behalf) stabilized and even improved the situation. In Vilnius, in November 2013, when the summit faced major challenges, Merkel took the initiative and suggested that the EU discuss them directly with Putin to find common ground. Unfortunately, her proposal was rejected by Europe’s political leadership at the time.

In all situations, both leaders maintained high levels of interaction and always gave positive signals to the political and economic community about preserving a favorable framework environment for cooperation and their support at the highest level.

Importantly, good working relations never precluded criticism on behalf of Merkel and her inner circle of political processes in Russia. It may have hurt Putin’s feelings, but, fully aware of the fact that Europe must act that way, he never transferred his possible dissatisfaction or resentment onto existing good dialogue, and continued to support it.

The Ukraine crisis was the hardest test of the two leaders’ personal relations. Merkel was shocked by Crimea’s speedy transition from one jurisdiction to another, which took place, she believed, in gross violation of international law. Putin was unpleasantly surprised by the fact that the chancellor and her colleagues failed to hear his call to the German nation to understand and support such an effort to reunite Russians.

Both politicians have adopted extreme, tough positions. Moreover, Merkel initiated and became the most consistent proponent of sanctions on the Russian political establishment by the West and EU. However, unlike the United States, this pressure is exerted not to punish or humiliate Russia, but to explain the essence of the situation in the international legal framework and secure Russia’s return to this space. For the Germans (in contrast to the Russians), criticism is part of aiding, an attempt to help find a solution to a problem.

From March 2014, the bilateral relations were marked by a crisis of political trust, a sharp deterioration of Russia’s image and a halt in institutional cooperation at the highest level. Russian businesses were hardest hit by the sanctions and economic crisis. Research and technological cooperation, youth and cultural exchanges and partner relations between urban areas and regions were affected to a much lesser extent.

This difficult situation called for making use of the personal relations that formed between Putin and Merkel over these 15 years. In the spring of 2014, they started communicating more regularly, primarily by phone, and talking to each other for hours at various meetings. They were able to find a common language and understood the need for gradual and progressive solutions to existing problems.

In this regard, it can be argued that there is no need to renew personal relations. They never stopped. I think we can say that they have withstood the test of the crisis.

Today, the issue concerns the resumption of the difficult process of restoring political trust and dialogue. Judging from numerous bilateral events scheduled for the fall of 2015, "the ice is about to be broken" and, unless there are some unexpected events, in 2016, with Germany maintaining its tough position on the "Ukraine question," the bilateral contacts and projects in various fields will revive gradually. Ongoing personal communications between Putin and Merkel will contribute in this respect.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.