Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 13

Amid the political shenanigans in Moscow, the Kremlin’s “Putin-era” diplomatic offensive continued over the past fortnight as the Russian president followed up earlier EU-Russian and Russian-U.S. summit talks with state visits to Spain and Germany. In addition, Moscow announced that Putin would make a ground-breaking visit to North Korea, probably just prior to next month’s Group of Seven plus Russia summit talks in Japan. Putin’s most recent activities on the foreign stage appeared designed to stiffen international opposition to U.S. national missile defense plans while simultaneously strengthening ties between Moscow and Europe. The trip to North Korea, meanwhile, seems to be aimed at raising Moscow’s diplomatic profile in Asia while procuring for it a seat at talks devoted to peace on the Korean Peninsula. In general–though not entirely–Putin’s recent diplomatic initiatives have had the added benefit for Moscow of diverting international attention from the Kremlin’s increasingly ominous attacks on human rights in Russia, from its ongoing war in the Caucasus to its efforts, outlined above, to intimidate domestic political opponents.

The highlight of Putin’s diplomatic itinerary was his June 15-16 visit to Berlin for talks with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and German business leaders. The visit, which came after a day of talks in Madrid, was aimed at reversing the long slide in German-Russian relations which had followed Schroeder’s election and the collapse of the Russian ruble in 1998. Indeed, the German chancellor had run on a platform critical of the cozy friendship that had developed between his and Putin’s predecessors, Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin, and had moved deliberately to distance Germany from Moscow. German banks and investors, meanwhile, had been hit hard by the collapse of the ruble. Germany has been Russia’s leading trading partner and largest financial backer over the past decade, having channeled nearly US$70 billion in loans, grants, credits and other guarantees to Moscow. More than 60 percent of Russia’s foreign debt of US$150 billion, moreover, is owed to Germany, so Putin had good reasons for trying to mend fences with Berlin.