Vladimir Putin tells Angela Merkel: EU can't afford a new Syria refugee crisis

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met outside Berlin on Saturday for talks ranging from the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, to Iran and a gas pipeline project that has drawn US ire.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive to address the media. PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel he supports the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, warning that Europe can't afford another migration crisis.

Putin's remark, made before his first bilateral meeting with Merkel in Germany since 2013, hinted at the tension between the two leaders even as President Donald Trump's disruption of the global order pushes them into alliances of convenience after years of antagonism.

The invitation by Merkel, Putin's most implacable critic since he annexed Crimea in 2014, is a break in his isolation that also reaffirms the German leader's pivotal role in Europe.

Yet, while Putin dangled the vista of humanitarian aid paving the way for some Syrian refugees to return home, German officials say that is unrealistic for now.

"I remind you that there are a million refugees in Jordan and a million in Lebanon," Putin told reporters alongside Merkel on Saturday before they met at a German government chateau north of Berlin.

"There are three million refugees in Turkey. This is potentially a huge burden on Europe, so it is better to do everything possible so that they can return home."

For all their differences, Merkel and Putin agreed that they want to preserve the nuclear accord with Iran after Trump withdrew US support for the deal.

They're also pushing ahead with the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany over US objections.

Putin, alongside Merkel, cited the pipeline as a key economic bond.

Russia-Germany Pipeline "Nord Stream 2 is a purely economic project," Putin said, adding that the Ukrainian transit route should be economically viable.

Merkel has said a certain level of gas transit through Ukraine must be ensured.

Merkel opened her remarks by telling Putin that Russia has an elevated responsibility to solve global crises.

The German leader, who faces pressure from German industry to lift economic sanctions on Russia, said the leaders would discuss a possible United Nations peace mission for the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

"We have a responsibility - Germany, but mainly Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council," Merkel said. "So we should work on finding solutions."

In Syria, Putin has used his military to tip the civil war in President Bashar al-Assad's favour and Russia's joined with Turkey and Iran in trying to engineer a settlement.


In the years since Putin's previous bilateral visit to Germany, he and Merkel have met at international events including the 2017 Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. Merkel has also visited Putin in Russia several times, most recently in May.

She has advocated engagement, principally to deliver blunt messages rather than being a bridge between the European Union and Russia.

The Kremlin views divisions between the US and Europe over trade and the Iranian nuclear deal as a chance for Russia to mend relations with Germany by presenting itself as a more reliable partner in negotiations.

Trump last month slammed Germany as "totally controlled by Russia" because of its dependence on Moscow for natural gas supplies. Work on a new gas pipeline linking the two countries, the Gazprom PJSC-backed Nord Stream 2, began in May amid a US threat of sanctions targeting the project.

Putin came to Schloss Meseberg after attending the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, at which the Russian leader danced with the bride and brought along a Russian choir. Kneissl is an appointee of the far-right Freedom Party, which has long-standing ties with Russia.

"It was very good trip and nice," Putin said of jaunt to Gamlitz, Austria, near the border with Slovenia. "It was a private visit."

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