By Andrew Wilson and Nina Bachkatov
For a man described as isolated on the world stage, President Putin has been shaking a lot of hands in the course of a week. The most predictable was his meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, in the President’s Sochi summer residence on 2 May.
It was their first gathering in two years – officially to prepare the G20 summit in Hamburg in July. After a promising start, German-Russian relations turned sour, up to the point that the two leaders could hardly hide their contempt for each other. (So much for “cultural diplomacy”, in this case Putin’s time in Germany with his command of the German language). Things became even more frosty after Merkel played a key role in the EU’s decision to sanction Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its support to East Ukrainian separatists.
Russians also reacted badly to her decision to boycott the 9 May military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. (She arrived privately the day after.)
Tension has not dissipated, witness a press conference at which Angela Merkel raised questions about human rights and Putin, who should have been prepared for such de rigueur mentions, showed over-much irritation. Yet the coldness of earlier encounters during the international gathering was clearly gone, with many smiles exchanged during the reception.
As expected, the meeting did not erase divergences over most international dossiers on the agenda (Syria, Libya, Ukraine), but the key message emerging was about the need for cooperation and maintaining a dialogue. On Ukraine, both leaders agreed that there was no option but the Minsk Agreements and work inside the ‘Normandy Four’ format. It was a relief for Moscow after months during which voices, including from Kiev, called for the enlargement of discussions to new partners and repeated the old mantra that the Minsk Agreements were too favourable to Moscow.
Russia could not have expected more from a German Chancellor during an electoral campaign, when Merkel had not only to show “leadership in EU” but also to pay attention to the growing pressure of German business in favour of a relaxation of sanctions. Supporting a full lifting of the latter would be politically dangerous for the cautious Merkel; nevertheless, she cannot be blind to the fall by nearly a half in trade between Trance and Germany due to sanctions (despite a recent improvement of 40% in two months).
On 3 May, following a telephone conversation with US president Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin was greeting Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan in the same official residence. In the conversation they talked mostly about Syria, and particularly measures to consolidate the 30 December cease – fire and to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees. To this effect, they agree to create four “de-escalation zones”, without going far on details concerning the security guarantees. They also agreed on the importance of maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity, reflecting the obsession of Erdogan with the Kurdish question and Russian fears of partition that could risk an explosive redrawing of regional borders.
On the same and next day, 3-4 May, a new round of talks in Astana ended with the signature by Russia, Iran and Turkey of a memorandum on the establishment of “de-escalation zones”, valid for 6 months, with possibility to extension. The Syrian opposition walked out and the Syrian government did not sign the agreement, which reinforces the impression of a growing dependency by the Syrian actors on their international “godfathers”. Even imperfect, this looks like a Russian diplomatic success – and one not only concerning Syria, since it allows Moscow to involve both Turkey and Iran in the process, an important geopolitical exercise with implications at bilateral and multilateral levels.
It also adds to the value of the moment that, for the first time, and after the telephone conversation between Trump and Putin, the talks were attended by US State undersecretary for the Middle East, Stuart Jones. (Up to now Moscow invited only the American ambassador to Astana as an observer). The other value is to confirm the importance of Moscow’s decision to involve an ally, Kazakhstan, in international talks that increased Astana diplomatic profile through the world. It also took the Syrian negotiations away of Western cities, in a country having close cultural links with Turkey and the Muslim world.
All this did not prevent a post-Astana telephone discussion, on 6 May, between US State Secretary Rex Tillerson and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, when the American underlined the importance of keeping a parallel between the talks in Astana and those in Geneva under UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, the one trying to find long term cease fire conditions and the other focusing on a political settlement.
All this points to a de-escalation of the tension born of the Ukrainian crisis, without exonerating Russia from its responsibilities -a tension which has been poisoning co-operation on dossiers such as Syria, where the latest events reinforce the impression that Moscow is playing part of the solution in Syria, and even a central part.
This diplomatic activity contrasts cruelly with the 3 May visit to Russia of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The visit was her first to Russia since she took over her post, leaving the handling of relations with Moscow to national leaders or discreet EU officials, despite Brussels’ renewed claims in Brussels of growing diplomatic growing influence . It will hardly help that, amid the usual platitudes, she repeated during a conversation with foreign Russian minister Lavrov that the West will never recognise the annexation of Crimea, and that it was a question of principles – which are by definition not negotiable.