News analysis

German-Russian meeting to test chance of thaw in ties

German President's visit to Moscow closely watched for signs of concessions by Putin

Visits by German presidents usually attract little attention; the position of Germany's head of state is a purely ceremonial one, and most of his foreign trips are largely about protocol.

But when Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier lands in the Russian capital today, matters will be very different, for the visit is politically significant, and will be keenly watched by foreign diplomats as to how far Russian President Vladimir Putin will go in efforts to reset strained ties with Germany.

This is partly because Dr Steinmeier, who became Germany's President in March, served as his country's foreign minister twice for a total of almost nine years over the past two decades, so his insights into diplomacy in general and Russia in particular are exceptionally good.

But it is also because Mr Putin regards his German counterpart as one of Moscow's few remaining European friends, and hopes Dr Steinmeier could improve relations between their two countries.

Germany is the European Union's biggest nation and economy and also Russia's top supplier of manufactured goods and industrial machinery, as well as the biggest consumer of Russian oil and gas.

And, if there is one nation Mr Putin claims to know, it is Germany. He started his professional life as a counter-intelligence officer in the former East Germany. German is the only foreign language he speaks.

Still, Mr Putin often misreads the mood of German politics. When Russian forces intervened in Ukraine in 2014, he assumed Berlin would be there to veto any demands for EU sanctions against Moscow, given Germany is the first country hit by such sanctions.

But to Mr Putin's surprise, German Chancellor Angela Merkel resisted pressure from her business community and not only accepted the necessity of imposing sanctions on Russia, she actually pioneered the idea of sanctions.

But Dr Steinmeier, who was Dr Merkel's foreign minister, took a more emollient stance, and often criticised the West for goading Russia. In one of his controversial pronouncements just before he left the foreign ministry, he dismissed military manoeuvres by the US-led Nato as "sabre-rattling" against Russia, and as destabilising to European security.

So it was not surprising that immediately after Dr Steinmeier became Germany's President, an invitation to visit Moscow landed in his office in-tray. For although Mr Putin won't admit it in public, he is very keen to lift the EU sanctions, and knows that if Germany can be persuaded to do so, the rest of Europe would have no choice but to follow suit, and that could give justification for US President Donald Trump to do the same.

Russia has also made genuine efforts to be more cooperative. President Putin has touted the possibility of introducing United Nations peacekeepers into Ukraine and, although he has said nothing about what this would entail, the offer has opened up the possibility of reducing tensions in Ukraine, a precondition for lifting the sanctions.

Mr Putin has also drawn some encouragement from remarks from Dr Merkel, who referred to the need to forge a new "constructive partnership" with Russia and highlighted its contribution to the fight against terrorism at the latest Group of 20 summit of the world's biggest economies, which she hosted in the northern German city of Hamburg.

Mr Putin knows the powers of the German president are limited and that Dr Steinmeier cannot be his intermediary to Dr Merkel. Still, he believes Dr Steinmeier can exercise some influence over the new German coalition government that Chancellor Merkel will form by the end of this year.

So, Mr Putin's discussions with his German counterpart in Moscow today will be substantial, rather than just about diplomatic pleasantries, and will be treated as such by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, as well as most other European governments.

However, the biggest danger for Moscow is that, although it is prepared to offer concessions Mr Putin considers serious, these still over-estimate Russia's importance to Germany and Germany's need for compromise with Russia. Bilateral trade between the two is rising again, but is still half what it was at the beginning of this decade, and puny by German standards.

Russia does not even figure among Germany's top trading partners. And prices for oil and gas, Russia's top export items, are low and likely to remain so.

So, although Dr Steinmeier might come back from Moscow with offers of cooperation, Dr Merkel could well decide she can still reject them as long as Russia does not completely pull out of Ukraine.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'German-Russian meeting to test chance of thaw in ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe