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Putin and Merkel: A Rivalry of History, Distrust and Power

Before Ms. Merkel took power, Mr. Putin had that rapport with her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Now it is one of Mr. Schröder’s heirs, Martin Schulz, leading the center-left Social Democrats, who poses the biggest challenge to Ms. Merkel. Having the Social Democrats back in power, with their warmer embrace of Russia, would be a boon to Mr. Putin — just as he is hoping for friendlier leadership in France, and with Mr. Trump in the United States.

The Merkel-Putin relationship is defined by wariness, mutual suspicion, if also mutual respect. Yet along the way, there have been missed opportunities and misjudgments, which are culminating now in a moment of reckoning, as Ms. Merkel tries for another term — and Mr. Putin’s Russia is accused of working to thwart her.

Shaped by East Germany

Ms. Merkel traces her first political memory to when she was 7, living in East Germany in the town of Templin, where her father was a Lutheran pastor. On Aug. 13, 1961, a Sunday, the news came that the Soviets had started constructing a wall to divide Berlin between East and West. As young Angela watched, many of her father’s parishioners wept openly in church that morning.

Her most fateful moment came in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The long years between those bookend events shaped the politician Ms. Merkel would become: cautious, calculating, yet also idealistic; deeply suspicious of Russia, if fascinated by it, having studied Russian literature and culture and attained enough of a fluency in the language to win a prize and travel around the Soviet Union as a student.


Angela Merkel, then 36, was sworn in as federal minister for women and youth in Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s cabinet in 1991. Credit Martin Gerten/Picture-Alliance, via Associated Press

Growing up in East Germany, in what she would describe as a dictatorship, Ms. Merkel became accustomed to regurgitating nonsensical Soviet platitudes, or listening to the mind-numbing decrees broadcast daily on state radio. “We had to deal with this every day,” Ms. Merkel recalled in a 2009 interview with the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “It’s a miracle that we could even unlearn it.”

Not surprisingly, Ms. Merkel doesn’t get misty-eyed about the Russians, as do some of the Social Democrats who grew up in democratic West Germany and recall the reconciliation with the Soviets born of Ostpolitik, a policy of détente in the 1970s. In East Germany, the Stasi and the K.G.B. oversaw one of the Soviet bloc’s most extensive spy states. Mistrust and mediocrity were rife, yet, Ms. Merkel has noted, few really thought the system would collapse.

“And just when almost nobody believed it possible anymore,” she once recalled, “it happened.”

For Ms. Merkel, the lesson is that resolving some things, such as the conflict in Ukraine, takes a long time, and patience is essential. Yet for Mr. Putin, now eager to undermine the cohesion of the European Union, the lesson may be that seemingly impregnable political systems can be unexpectedly vulnerable.

Born in 1952, Mr. Putin grew up in a communal apartment in the tough back streets of what was then Leningrad, the city that had survived a Nazi siege and famine, which claimed the life of an older brother he never knew. Mr. Putin studied law in Leningrad, while Ms. Merkel chose science, a subject where, she said decades later, “you could change the facts less” than in something like history or law as taught by the Communists.

He joined the K.G.B. and in 1985 was stationed in Dresden, a backwater posting in East Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell, Germans rejoiced at the reunification of their country and the departure of Soviet troops, while Ms. Merkel soon plunged into the newly democratic politics of her new country.


A photograph from the late 1980s provided by the Stasi Records Agency shows Mr. Putin, second from left, and Horst Böhm, third from right, who was the head of Stasi in Dresden at the time. Mr. Putin was posted in Dresden as a K.G.B. officer from 1985 to 1990. Credit BStU

By contrast, Mr. Putin has lamented that it all happened too fast, once describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

“We would have avoided a lot of problems if the Soviets had not made such a hasty exit from Eastern Europe,” he told three Russian journalists commissioned by the Kremlin to write a book about him in 2000.

Mr. Putin, the K.G.B. agent, watched in horror from Dresden. The local Stasi boss, with whom the K.G.B. worked closely, was detained and committed suicide by taking sedatives and lying down beside an oven belching gas. Mr. Putin later recalled how an angry crowd in “an aggressive mood” gathered outside the K.G.B. offices. Fearing mayhem, Mr. Putin asked for help from Soviet military forces stationed nearby but was told that the order must come from Moscow.

“Moscow is silent,” he was told. The crowd finally dispersed, but the drama left Mr. Putin with “the feeling that the country no longer existed.”

Mr. Putin later described the lesson he learned: that power had to be asserted boldly, at home and abroad, if Russia was to avoid the same fate as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, he recalled, “had a terminal illness without a cure: a paralysis of power.”

On the Rise

If not accidental leaders, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin were unexpected ones.

Little known to the outside world or even to the Russian public, Mr. Putin became president after Boris N. Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999. Soon afterward, Ms. Merkel took charge of the center-right Christian Democratic Union by pushing aside her mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Underestimated as a female politician, Ms. Merkel proved the skeptics wrong when she became chancellor in 2005.


The departing Russian president Boris N. Yeltsin, right, shaking hands with Mr. Putin, the prime minister and acting president, before leaving the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 31, 1999. Credit Alexander Sentsov/TASS, via Getty Images

During Ms. Merkel’s first official visit to Moscow in early 2006, Mr. Putin demonstrated his style of gamesmanship, presenting her with a stuffed toy dog even though the Kremlin had been alerted that she was uneasy around dogs. During talks held a year later on the Black Sea, he let his large black Labrador into the room.

Toomas Ilves, Estonia’s president until last year, described the dog ploy as “classic K.G.B.” Mr. Ilves said Ms. Merkel “never had any illusions about Russia” and “was clearly one who understood” how Russia worked under Mr. Putin.

“She grew up in Stasiland,” he said, “so of course she had his number all along.”

Yet Ms. Merkel continued the German tradition of frequent meetings with Russian leaders, positioning herself as Europe’s main interlocutor to Russia, while maintaining the centuries-old business relationships between the two powers.

She chided him, too, standing up for democracy and human rights, meeting with Russian opposition figures and voicing outrage over the 2006 murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was strongly critical of the Kremlin.

Just days after the murder, Mr. Putin was again visiting Dresden. He and Ms. Merkel gave a rare joint interview to a local German public broadcaster in which Mr. Putin lost his cool after being asked about Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder. That exchange was deleted from the broadcast, but viewers did get to see Mr. Putin praise Ms. Merkel as a good listener, which he described as “a rare characteristic in women.”

Konstantin Eggert, a Russian journalist who has spoken privately with Ms. Merkel over the years, said the Kremlin never understood the chancellor, believing that, like Mr. Schröder, “she would be in thrall to German business and the traditional German faith to Ostpolitik.

“But she was not in thrall to anybody, or anything.”


Ms. Merkel in Berlin in 2005, speaking at her final campaign rally as the Christian Democratic Union’s candidate for German chancellor. Credit Eric Feferberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Imagese

Scrambled Signals

Mr. Kohl bonded with Mr. Gorbachev in the sauna. Mr. Schröder appealed to Mr. Putin as a kindred manly spirit. Not Ms. Merkel. “What she always found distasteful was these man things,” said Stefan Kornelius, a Merkel biographer.

Instead, Ms. Merkel has impressed Mr. Putin with her grasp of detail, a quality he shares, and her knowledge of Russia and its culture and her readiness to stand up for her views — just as he does for his own. At a security conference attended by Ms. Merkel in Munich in February 2007, Mr. Putin made what is now considered a pivotal speech, signaling his turn against the West and lambasting American domination of world affairs.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was Ms. Merkel’s defense minister, recalled that while many in the audience, including American officials, were shocked and alarmed by Mr. Putin’s tone, Ms. Merkel “did not seem to be surprised. She already had an extremely cautious view about Mr. Putin’s wider strategy.”

On one notable occasion, Ms. Merkel’s resolve may have backfired. At a meeting of NATO leaders in Romania, in 2008, Ms. Merkel, backed by the president of France at the time, Mr. Sarkozy, successfully resisted pleas by Mr. Bush that Ukraine and Georgia be given a so-called Membership Action Plan, or MAP, a move that would have put the two countries on track to join the military alliance.

To let the White House save face, the chancellor took charge of drafting a communiqué that, while rebuffing a formal program toward membership, declared that Ukraine and Georgia would still, one day, join the alliance.

“Merkel was at the center of this negotiation about words, clearly enjoying it,” recalled Italy’s NATO envoy, Stefano Stefanini, who took part in the meeting. “That is what she feels she does well.”

But, in the end, Ms. Merkel may have miscalculated. Ukraine and Georgia were furious that they had been denied. Also furious was Mr. Putin, who took the vague pledge of ultimate membership for Ukraine and Georgia as evidence of NATO’s resolve to expand into former Soviet lands.

“For him, it was like a slap in the face, the sentence that said Ukraine and Georgia will be members of NATO,” Mr. Stefanini said. “At the same time, he felt emboldened” because Washington had not been strong enough to put the formal gears in motion toward NATO membership for the two former Soviet republics.

Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia, testing the West’s readiness to intervene — it didn’t — which, in turn, set a precedent that, in 2014, would encourage Mr. Putin to seize Crimea.

Source: NYT > World

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