German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a long list of contentious topics to discuss during Merkel's last official visit to Russia before retiring from politics after next month's general elections.
The controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear deal, and the stalled peace process to end the conflict in Ukraine were just some of the headline issues discussed by the two leaders during their nearly three-hour talk in Moscow on August 20.
Also up for discussion in the Grand Kremlin Palace were upcoming elections both in Russia and Germany and the continuing postelection crisis in Belarus, with Merkel stressing at the beginning of the meeting that Moscow and Berlin need to maintain dialogue despite “deep disagreements."
Nord Stream 2
Putin said that there were only 15 kilometers to go to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring natural gas under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, and which has been a source of dispute between Berlin and Washington for years.
In July, Germany and the United States reached an agreement on the Nord Stream 2 project, with the two allies pledging to support Ukraine and committing to confront Russia if it uses energy to apply political pressure.
One big question that remains is Ukraine's traditional role as a major transit point for Russian natural gas being piped to Europe.
Merkel told Putin that Moscow's transit agreement with Ukraine, which depends on the fees it receives to transit Russian gas, should be extended beyond 2024.
Putin said during a post-meeting news conference that Russia planned to fully comply with its obligations on gas transit via Ukraine, even after 2024, but first needed to get a better understanding of demand amid Europe's push for green energy.
"For this, we need to get an answer from our European partners on how much they are ready to buy," Putin said. "We cannot sign a transit contract if we don't have supply contracts with our consumers in Europe."
Putin also noted that the Nord Stream 2 route is 2,000 kilometers shorter than the trans-Ukrainian route, and claimed it significantly reduces emissions.
Ukraine has opposed the construction of Nord Stream 2, saying it was politically motivated. Ahead of the Merkel-Putin meeting, the head of the Ukrainian energy giant Naftogaz told Reuters that the project breaches European Union regulations and should be stopped.
"We continue to insist that this geopolitical project of the Kremlin must be stopped. In particular, through U.S. sanctions," Naftogaz's Chief Executive Officer Yuriy Vitrenko said in written comments.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has chosen not to try to kill the project, but shortly after the conclusion of the Putin-Merkel meeting the United States announced that it would impose new sanctions against one Russian vessel and two Russian individuals involved in Nord Stream 2.
The same day, President Biden separately issued an executive order allowing for sanctions to be imposed with respect to Russian energy export pipelines such as Nord Stream 2.
Turning to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine that has pitted Kyiv against Russia-backed separatists since 2014 and was sparked by Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Merkel said it was important to continue peace talks under the Normandy format.
"My advice is to continue trying to keep this format alive and not let it end at an impasse," she told Putin during their joint news conference. "Even if the progress isn't as fast as we hoped."
Merkel said she would continue "to work for the territorial integrity of Ukraine" until she steps down following elections in Germany in September.
For his part, Putin also called for the continuing of peace talks, as "there is no other instrument for achieving peace."
On the topic of Russia's upcoming elections, Putin brushed back criticism of the Kremlin's treatment of its political opposition, including the alleged poisoning and subsequent incarceration of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and the arrest of key figures and restrictions against and even banning of some opposition movements.
Merkel said after the talks that she had urged Putin to free Navalny, whose prison sentence is widely seen as politically motivated. Putin reiterated the Kremlin's official line that Navalny's conviction had nothing to do with his political activities.
Putin claimed that all Russian citizens enjoy the right to express their own views on political issues, but said that it "must be done in conformity with the current law and constitution."
"We will do our utmost to make the situation in Russia stable and predictable," Putin said. "Russia reached its limit of revolutions back in the 20th century."
As for international issues, the Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan was a priority topic.
Putin harshly criticized the United States for what he said was the imposition of its own values on Afghanistan, and highlighted the importance of establishing good relations with Kabul following the Taliban's return to power.
The Russian president also said it was necessary to prevent "terrorists" from entering neighboring states from Afghanistan "under the guise of refugees."
Merkel said the risk of terrorism in Afghanistan was manageable for now.
Both leaders expressed hope that the Iranian nuclear deal, abandoned by the United States in 2018, could be saved after the formation of a new government in Iran.
The two also discussed Belarus, where Russia-backed strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has harshly cracked down on his political opposition following the controversial outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
Merkel condemned Minsk for using refugees at its borders as "hybrid weapons," a reference to accusations that Belarus has deliberately sent refugees, mainly from Iraq, across its borders into EU countries in retaliation to Western criticism of Lukashenka's continued rule.
Putin said that the situation in Belarus should be settled without interference from the outside.
After 16 years at the height of European politics, Merkel is stepping down at the end of her fourth term as chancellor following German elections on September 26.
During her time in office, the "crisis chancellor" has met and spoken by phone with Putin more than any Western leader as the two engaged in global diplomacy on some of the toughest issues, from Ukraine and the Iran nuclear deal to the conflict in Syria.