Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 119

Russian President Vladimir Putin used two days of talks in Berlin last week to push a Kremlin plan for a European missile defense system, boost German-Russian economic dealings, and forge a personal relationship with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. More generally, the Russian leader sought to rebuild bilateral ties between the two countries, which had deteriorated over the past several years, and to make his case for a stronger Russian presence in Europe. While Putin does not appear to have gotten all that he hoped for, his visit to Berlin appears to have been a success for him in many regards. He and Schroeder did not develop the back-slapping sort of relationship between their predecessors, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, but they did appear to interact in a friendly and constructive manner. Putin’s facility with the German language and his knowledge of Germany, sharpened in the 1980s when the former KGB official was stationed in the DDR, apparently contributed to the personal chemistry which developed between them. In addition, Putin won a cautious endorsement from Schroeder for several of the Kremlin’s most recent security proposals.

The accomplishments in Berlin were sufficient for the two sides to talk in terms of an emerging German-Russian “strategic partnership.” These were strong words, given that Germany and the United States have used the same term to describe their bilateral relationship, as have Russia and its erstwhile most important foreign ally of recent years–China. In addition, Putin described Germany as “Russia’s leading partner in Europe and the world” (AP, June 15; Washington Post, June 16; Reuters, June 18). That seemed an exaggeration at this point, but did suggest that, with regard to Europe at least, Moscow may now be giving pride of place to Berlin over London. Until his arrival in Berlin, Putin had gone to great lengths to emphasize his personal friendship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and to underscore the importance of Russian-British ties.

Putin’s rhetoric (he is said to tell foreign leaders the sorts of things they want to hear) may be understandable. Germany has been Russia’s leading trading partner and largest financial backer over the past decade, having channeled some US$67 billion in loans, grants, credits and other guarantees to Moscow. In addition, more than 60 percent of Russian’s foreign debt of US$150 billion is owed to Germany (AP, June 16). German economic interest in Moscow has fallen since 1998, however, when the collapse of the ruble forced German banks and investors to take major losses. In fact, Schroeder won election that year on a platform which accused then Chancellor Kohl of having gotten too cozy with Moscow. Over the past two years Schroeder seems to have pointedly distanced himself from the Kremlin.

Although Schroeder now seems intent on rebuilding friendly relations between the two countries, the Germans made clear before and during Putin’s visit that debt relief is not in the cards. One German official was quoted as saying that Russia cannot expect to be treated as a great power and at the same time demand debt relief similar to the poorest developing countries–especially at a time when the country is experiencing economic growth (AP, June 14). The Russian side apparently got some debt restructuring during Putin’s visit, and several significant economic deals were signed, but the Germans apparently held to their hard line on the issue of debt relief.

But Schroeder’s apparent determination to mend fences more generally with Moscow was evident in the days leading up to the Russian president’s arrival, when the German government downplayed both Germany’s earlier criticism over Russia’s war in the Caucasus and the more recent controversy surrounding the arrest of Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. Schroeder’s top foreign policy advisor, Michael Steiner, told reporters that the German chancellor had conveyed Berlin’s continuing concerns over these issues, and conveyed them strongly, during a key meeting between the men on the evening of June 15, and even claimed that Schroeder had played a role in winning Gusinsky’s release from prison. In fact, however, human rights got little play in subsequent public statements. Putin, for his part, did appear during his Berlin visit to back off some earlier statements defending the propriety of Gusinsky’s arrest (International Herald Tribune, June 15; The Guardian, June 16; Reuters, June 18).

But it was unclear whether his German hosts accepted the Russian leader’s dubious assertion that he had had nothing to do with the events in Moscow. In the end, the German leadership, like that of the United States and other Western countries, chose largely to ignore the Caucasus war and the worsening human rights situation in Russia so as to ease the way toward improving ties with the new Putin government.