Is there a new EU approach toward Russia?
Tomorrow, Vladimir Putin will hold talks with the Federal Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, in Sochi. According to the Kremlin, the leaders will discuss the current state and prospects of the bilateral relations, including cooperation in the energy, trade-economic and cultural-humanitarian spheres; the key international problems, including the fight against terrorism, situation in the Middle East, the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. The leaders will also exchange views on the eve of the upcoming July G-20 summit in Hamburg. As Global Times reminds in its article Is there a new EU approach toward Russia? it is the first time Merkel is visiting Russia in two years. Political relations between the EU - mainly Germany - and Russia have been deteriorating since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis at the end of 2013 and entered a phase of serious crisis after the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014.
European sanctions on Russia in parallel with the Russian embargo on some European products led to new rounds of disagreements. The West - under the guidance of former US president Barack Obama - endeavored to isolate Moscow. The suspension of Russia from the G8 was a characteristic example. Putin responded by aggressively pushing forward his pro-Assad policy in Syria and by strengthening ties with non-Western countries, including China. Some analysts subsequently drew parallels with the Cold War period.
Merkel, a politician seeking to find midway solutions and balances, attempted to intervene politically and bring the hostilities in Ukraine to an end. Her efforts culminated in the signing of Minsk II protocol in February 2015. Although this agreement has not been fully respected by either Ukraine or Russia, it constitutes a basis for a better understanding.
During her stay in Sochi, Merkel is expected to focus on the revival of the peace talks in her meeting with Putin. A few weeks ago, she also met President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko with the same purpose. Her policy aims at securing a ceasefire and adding a critical foreign policy aspect to her impressive economic record as German chancellor. In terms of the Ukraine crisis, the next critical question for Merkel is whether she should soften her approach on implementing European sanctions against Russia. On December 15, 2016, the European Council extended sanctions until July 31 and a new decision should be made in June. For the time being, there is no indication that these sanctions will be lifted.
In the previous years, the EU had been put under pressure by the US administration to remain strict toward Moscow. And Merkel never sought to disappoint Obama in that regard. New US President Donald Trump has not yet made his stance clear. But the ongoing disagreement between the US and Russia over Syria challenges the previous expectation of a rapprochement. It is not a coincidence that some Western news agencies such as Reuters have expressed that the EU's potential intention to renew sanctions is "encouraged by Trump's unexpectedly frosty relations with Moscow."
Along with looking to the US, Merkel needs to forge her own approach by taking into account what other politicians in Germany suggest. Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer, who is also the leader of the Christian Social Union, a sister-party of the Christian Democratic Union in Bundestag, does not agree with the policy of sanctions. He reiterated his position during his recent visit to Moscow in March. Financial Times then saw "Seehofer's trip to Russia a challenge to Merkel." The German chancellor cannot completely ignore the Bavarian leader as the federal election is quickly approaching.
Another issue, not widely discussed by international media in the framework of Merkel's Moscow visit, is the highly politicized domestic debate about the construction of Nord Stream 2. If constructed, this pipeline will transport Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, complementing Nord Stream 1, which was completed six years ago. Merkel is put in an awkward position because the project is controversial. While the EU is making efforts to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, Berlin might be the pioneer of exactly the opposite trend. Under these circumstances, the EU wants to remain steadfast on its principles and has started to view energy projects, such as the construction of EastMed pipeline that can transport gas from Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, more positively.
All in all, the main challenge ahead of the Merkel-Putin meeting in Sochi is whether the German chancellor might want to explore more opportunities to cooperate with Russia in international affairs. Even if sanctions are extended in June, the so-called selective engagement approach can gain some ground. The relations between the EU and Russia are not solely defined by their differing opinions on Syria and Ukraine, but also by their similar interests in countries like Libya and issues such as the fight against terror. The Merkel-Putin meeting can perhaps be the beginning of more constructive discussions, to be followed at the July G20 Summit in Hamburg.