MESEBERG, Germany — Angela and Vladimir gave it another shot — with Donald watching from the wings — and agreed to stand together against pressure from the U.S. over a contentious energy deal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin flew into Berlin late Saturday afternoon to strengthen a brittle relationship with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and quell dissent over a contentious expansion of the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
The meeting may not have had the razzmatazz of the summit between Putin and Donald Trump last month in Helsinki — a meeting Trump called “tremendous” in a video he tweeted Saturday — but the American president is very much present at these talks.
At the Helsinki press conference with the Russian leader, Trump told the media: “I’m not sure necessarily that [the Nord Stream pipeline expansion is] in the best interests of Germany or not. That was a decision that they made. We will be competing [with Russia to supply gas].”
Just days earlier, at the NATO summit in Brussels, he had ranted that Germany “is totally controlled by Russia” — all part of an apparent attempt, to many German ears, by the U.S. president to bully them into buying more liquified natural gas from America.
In their pre-summit comments Merkel stressed global responsibility while Putin emphasized economic cooperation — especially on gas supply.
But if Trump hoped to knock the Nord Stream 2 project off course, Putin and Merkel were keen to show it was still very much on. “Germany is one of our country’s leading economic partners,” said Putin, rattling off statistics aimed at illustrating growing bilateral trade and the high number of German companies operating in Russia.
The two may speak each others’ language — Putin is fluent in German owing to his time as a spy in East Germany, while Merkel learnt Russian at school — but on international affairs they remain far apart. In their pre-summit comments, delivered without taking questions from the media, Merkel stressed global responsibility while Putin emphasized economic cooperation — especially on gas supply.
Merkel addressed a spectrum of international issues in her brief remarks, covering prospects for a U.N. mission in Ukraine and an expanded role for Berlin in resolving the dispute, while also taking in the conflict in Yemen and the role of Iran in international affairs.
The two last met for bilateral talks in Sochi in May, and haven’t met in Germany since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
Key to the talks, expected to run late into Saturday night at Merkel’s 18th century Meseberg castle retreat some 60 kilometers north of Berlin, are plans to double the capacity of the Nord Stream pipeline with a third and fourth line next year. That comes despite fears that the undersea link will be used to bypass, and economically and strategically undermine, transit states in Central and Eastern Europe.
“If Nord Stream 2 comes about, Ukraine must play a role in gas transit to Europe,” said Merkel.
Germany has backed the pipeline project despite criticism that it will be used as a lever to extract political concessions from import dependent countries.
Ukraine stands to lose millions in gas transit fees if its Soviet-era gas distribution network is no longer used to shuttle gas reserves to consumers throughout Central Europe, and a long-running legal stand-off over the terms of Russian deliveries both to and through Ukraine remains unresolved.
Putin didn’t rule out continuing to ship gas through Ukraine, but said the Nord Stream pipeline “is an exclusively economic project” designed to “minimize transit risk” for a growing quantity of gas delivered to Germany each year.
“I would like to stress, the main thing is that Ukrainian transit — which is traditional — meets economic demands,” said Putin.
Russia’s Gazprom delivered 53 billion cubic meters of gas to Germany in 2017, up 13 percent on the year before, Putin said at Meseberg. The Nord Stream 2 link will raise capacity to 110 billion cubic meters each year, allowing Russia to turn Germany’s network into a distribution hub for Central Europe.
Everything on the table
Putin arrived at the talks more than 30 minutes late, following a contentious appearance at the wedding of Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, at which the Russian leader was pictured dancing with the bride at the event in the Styria region of Austria.
The German chancellor had already played down expectations for the meeting, describing it as a “working meeting” with “no specific results” expected.
“I believe that controversial topics can be solved through dialogue” — Angela Merkel, German chancellor
On Syria, the two leaders agreed that measures to bolster the humanitarian response to the seven-year conflict were needed. “We must avoid a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Merkel. “We have observed that combatants are retreating, but peaceful order has of course not been established.”
“It is important to strengthen humanitarian aid to Syria,” said Putin. “It is important to support those areas to which refugees can return from abroad.”
Outside the gates of Meseberg, a group protested against Russia’s role in international conflicts. But Merkel promised to take a straight approach in the talks.
“We will of course discuss relevant human rights issues today,” said Merkel. “I believe that controversial topics can be solved through dialogue.”