With international media attention continuing to focus on events surrounding the U.S. antiterror war in Afghanistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin slipped quietly into Germany last week for several hours of informal talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The visit underscored the extent to which personal relations between the German and Russian leaders have blossomed in recent months, and the importance that Moscow in particular continues to attach to building friendly bilateral ties with Europe’s largest and most economically powerful nation. Indeed, last week’s visit was but the latest in a series of recent contacts between Putin and Schroeder. In September of this year Putin paid a high-profile, formal visit to Berlin that included a much praised address–delivered in German–to the German parliament. Then, on November 2, Schroeder traveled to Moscow for a “minisummit” with the Russian president. That visit came at the close of a one-week tour in which Schroeder visited Pakistan, India and China in order to help strengthen international support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism. Putin was, in a sense, returning the favor last week. His stopover in Hanover came at the close of a three-day visit to Greece aimed at boosting relations between Moscow and Athens.
The Putin-Schroeder talks were a largely private affair–a fact made possible in part by Putin’s fluency in German–and the two men provided few details in the joint press conference that followed their meeting. They did say that they had discussed the situation in the Middle East, and both called for increasing pressure on the Israelis and the Palestinians to halt the escalation of violence in the region. They also said that they had discussed Russia’s future relationship with NATO, and though Putin described himself as “very satisfied” with Schroeder’s positions on this score they provided no further details. The war in Afghanistan, not surprisingly, also figured prominently on their agenda. Putin praised Schroeder for the part Germany played in hosting UN talks aimed at creating an interim Afghan government, while the German chancellor applauded Russia’s role in facilitating antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan. Finally, the two men were reported to have discussed the world energy situation and, presumably, Russia’s increasingly important role as a supplier of energy to Europe. Again, the two leaders provided few details as to the substance of their discussions (AFP, December 9; Moscow Times, Interfax, December 10).
But if Putin and Schroeder had little to say in public about their Hanover talks, the Kremlin-backed Strana.ru website provided some insight into the motivations that may be driving the Kremlin’s current policy toward Germany. Indeed, Commentator Nikolai Ulyanov suggested that the meeting in Hanover was anything but prosaic, and that, in fact, it reflected broader and longer-term considerations in which Moscow and Berlin are seeking to gain strategic advantages in the new international security environment created by both the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the international response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. “The geopolitical tasks facing the two largest states in Europe are in many ways similar,” Ulyanov writes of Russia and Germany, “and it is because of this that their close cooperation under current conditions appears extraordinarily promising.” In a similar context, he argues that Germany continues to support retention of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and that there is an impressive similarity of positions held by the two countries on this key question. Putin’s visit to Germany came well before the Bush administration announced this week its intention to withdraw from the 1972 accord, but the U.S. move will likely test the extent to which Moscow and Berlin really are in accord on this contentious issue.
More broadly still, Ulyanov argues that the end of the Cold War has started a process in which alliance relationships (read NATO) are becoming weaker, while, much as was the case prior to the creation of competing blocs during the Cold War, national interests are gaining strength. This has led a newly reunited Germany to seek a leading political and economic role on the continent and especially in Eastern Europe, including in the European parts of the former Soviet Union, Ulyanov argues further. When combined with Germany’s need for Russian energy resources, this has not only made Germany Russia’s leading trading partner, but has led the two countries to engage each other on a host of regional issues. Given Berlin’s expanding influence in Europe, Ulyanov suggests, many in Russia foresee economic competition inevitably developing between Germany–albeit in the form of a united Europe–and the United States. And it is in this rivalry that Russia will find its diplomatic opportunities, he argues.
Indeed, Ulyanov suggests anew that the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin is pursuing a diplomatic strategy similar to the one developed and implemented by Aleksandr Gorchakov. He is the nineteenth century Russian foreign minister who, in the wake of his country’s defeat in the Crimean War, nonetheless pursued an activist foreign policy that aimed to maintain a weakened Russia’s international influence by exploiting differences between Europe’s most powerful states. So far as it is possible to say, Ulyanov writes, “Vladimir Putin also intends to conduct relations with Germany and the USA ‘a la Gorchakov,’ that is, to promote a balance in relations between a united Europe (read Germany) and the United States.” And treading carefully between these two major powers without leaning too closely toward one or the other, he suggests, will give Russia the breathing space to achieve the Kremlin’s primary goal: the rapid rebuilding of the Russian economy (Strana.ru, December 9).
BATTLE IN ARGUN ENTERS ITS THIRD DAY.