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U.S.-German Rapprochment Competes With Russian Advances

  • Bernd Volkert

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting in Dresden on June 5.

U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting in Dresden on June 5.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel held talks in Washington today with U.S. President Barack Obama, the third meeting between the two leaders in less than a year.

But the frequent contact has done little to cool speculation over what is seen by many as a growing rift between Berlin and Washington over economic policy and other issues.

The chill in the U.S.-German relationship could have ramifications elsewhere -- notably Russia, where Obama's "reset" policy may unsettle Moscow's historically close ties with Berlin.

After today's talks, both Obama and Merkel will begin preparing for individual talks with Kremlin leaders in July.

Obama, who will make his first presidential visit to Moscow on July 6-8, will meet with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. On July 16, Merkel will meet with Medvedev in Munich for annual German-Russian talks known as the "Petersburg dialog."

'Declarations Of Love'

The two sets of talks come as the newly seated Obama administration seeks a new point of departure for U.S. relations with Russia.

It's an effort that Germany, a historic ally of Moscow's, could have aided. But disagreements over the global financial crisis, the future of U.S. Guantanamo detainees, and other issues have driven a wedge between Merkel and Obama that Moscow may be eager to exploit.

Moscow has gone to great lengths in recent weeks to emphasize its affinity for Germany.

A visit to the Russian capital earlier this month by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was originally limited to talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Just hours before Steinmeier's departure, however, the Kremlin symbolically rolled out the red carpet, adding individual meetings with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the German diplomat's agenda.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko added to the glow in an interview with RIA Novosti, praising the relationship between the two countries and emphasizing the "cultural and psychological compatibility" of Russians and Germans.

Such moves by Moscow are "a declaration of love," says Constanze Stelzenmueller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank focusing on trans-Atlantic relations.

The overtures don't stop there. The past few months have seen a number of spectacular economic deals between Germany and Russia.

Germany's engineering giant Siemens this spring ended a cooperation agreement with France's state-owned Areva in favor of a rival venture with Russia's federal atomic energy agency, Rosatom.

More recently, the German government tapped a consortium including Russia's Sberbank and GAZ automaker to buy its Opel unit from U.S. car manufacturer General Motors. (German resentment over what was perceived as the U.S. Treasury's "unhelpful" role in talks between Berlin and GM has only contributed to the irritation between Germany and the United States.) GAZ officials hope the Opel deal may breathe new life into its moribund automotive industry.

Steinmeier, during his Moscow visit, praised Russia as an "indispensable" partner, and praised bilateral cooperation as a "model of interaction."

Moscow Spurned?

But Stelzenmueller suggests Germany, in fact, is turning away from the gestures of "love" that Russia is displaying: "I believe that the Georgian crisis of last August, in a certain sense, was a 'light bulb' moment for German foreign policy. It took some time -- several months -- for there to be some consequences, but I believe you can see these consequences today."

In her view, "there is a certain disappointment about Russian rhetoric and foreign policy -- which, in the best case, is very reactive and passive, and in the worst case highly aggressive. [Russia is] very obviously playing a zero-sum game."

Since then, Stelzenmueller says, there has been what she calls a "subtle downgrade" of German-Russian ties.

Berlin was openly critical of Medvedev's threat last autumn to deploy missiles against Europe -- a counter to continuing U.S. plans to build parts of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

German officials also began referring to bilateral relations with Moscow not as a strategic partnership, but a slightly frostier "modernization" partnership.

For another sign of Germany's growing wariness, Stelzenmueller also points to Steinmeier's decision to visit the editorial offices of the independent newspaper "Novaya gazeta," and a lawyer for imprisoned former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, during his visit to Moscow.

Steinmeier was low-key about both meetings, and came under fire from politicians back in Germany for passing on the chance to publicly criticize what is seen as the Kremlin's case against Khodorkovsky while in Russia.

Critics inside and outside Germany see Berlin's energy dependence on Russia as undercutting its role as a moral standard-bearer in the region.

But Stelzenmueller sees things like the meeting with the lawyer and the trip to "Novaya gazeta" as an attempt by the German government to acknowledge it is aware of such critiques: "I don't want to play this down. It has a certain symbolic effect."

To her, such approaches to Russian civil society always carry a strong message: "It brings into mind the first visit to Moscow of Angela Merkel as chancellor, when she openly met with human rights representatives. That had a tremendous impact. Symbols are important in politics; they shouldn't be underrated."

About Energy

Not all observers agree that Germany is displaying more reservation toward the Russian government.

Vladislav Belov, an expert on Germany with the Russian Academy of Sciences, says there are in fact no real problems between the two countries -- only possible problems of perception.

In that, he adds, Berlin is actually a ideal partner in breaking down the "hostile images" that often stand between Russia and the West.

A large part of that, he says, are improved trade and economic ties between the two countries. "In 2008, Merkel altered the official position of the Germany government," Belov says. "Germany used to criticize strategic investments from Russia, or at least used to view them negatively. But now it's positive; the Opel case is proof of that."

Belov says Germany has demonstrated its willingness to accommodate Russia in other ways. Berlin, for example, has expressed support for a number of Kremlin policy initiatives, including Medvedev's proposals for a new Euro-Atlantic security architecture, and a new energy charter to replace the EU's 1991 charter.

Medvedev's energy proposal contains mechanisms for resolving disputes and regulating transit of energy flows. Russia has argued that such an agreement would have prevented the January pricing dispute between Moscow and Kyiv, which left much of Eastern and Central Europe without heating gas during severe winter weather.

The EU has said it is not ready to replace the existing energy charter.

But German Foreign Ministry spokesman Jens Ploetner has signaled that Berlin is ready to consider Medvedev's proposal: "We're open for discussions about additional mechanisms. If, in the course of these discussions, the energy charter can become a part of things, can be amalgamated, integrated -- which is what we think should happen -- well, the discussions will show. The important thing now is to start the talks."

A Reputation To Consider

Stelzenmueller of the German Marshall Fund says she sees nothing wrong with improved trade with Russia. But she says Germany must impose some limits and rules in order to maintain its credibility.

She also says Berlin should not allow its friendship with Moscow to stand in the way of developing a common European energy policy. She suggests some simple guidelines for German politicians in their relations with Russia.

"Cooperate with the Russians where it is necessary and possible [and] push back wherever necessary," Stelzenmueller says. "I believe that the Germans have learned from last August's Georgian war what the Russians are ready to do if they feel the need."

At the moment, Russia appears to feel little pressure to accept international monitors in Georgia. It effectively ended the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia recently by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution.

That means that, as it stands, the mandate of the OSCE mission to Georgia expires on June 30.

In his Moscow talks, Steinmeier tried to get Moscow's approval for the extension of the mission.

Steinmeier spokesman Ploetner appears to share Moscow's optimism regarding Russia and Germany's psychological compatibility.

"I believe that the explanations of Mr. Steinmeier regarding the mutual advantages of an international presence, [which is] capable of acting, met with a certain 'reflectiveness' in Moscow."

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