German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow on August 20 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the last time as chancellor for wide-ranging talks where jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny and gas deliveries to Europe featured prominently.
Merkel was a staunch critic of the jailing of Navalny earlier this year and her visit comes a year after he collapsed on a plane in Russia after being poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent that ended with Navalny recovering in a Berlin hospital. Merkel went to visit Navalny while he was recuperating in a show of solidarity with the Kremlin critic, reiterated her objections to the Kremlin’s decision to throw him in jail and “demanded” he be released.
“We … spoke about the depressing situation of Alexei Navalny,” the German leader told reporters after the talks.
“I have demanded once again from the president to release Navalny and I have made it clear that we will remain on the case,” she said.
But Putin said Navalny had been punished for breaking the law. While in Germany last year Navalny missed several meetings with his parole officer that are connected to a previous conviction and suspended sentence for fraud that Navalny says was politically motivated.
“He is convicted not of his political activity, but of a criminal offence,” Putin said and called for his critics to respect the Russian judicial system and its decisions.
Putin went on to say that Russia allows for protests and opposition but said they had to be conducted within the framework of Russian legislation, which allows the Kremlin to control the process and ban protests it doesn't like at will.
“Russia fulfilled its quota of revolutions in the 20th century already. We don't want any more revolutions,” Putin said.
The Russian foreign ministry followed up and lashed out at the criticism with a long statement charging that actions by “Germany and its allies” over the past 12 months indicated “a planned provocation aimed at discrediting Russia in the eyes of the global community and at damaging its national interests”.
The ministry accused Berlin of failing to provide evidence that would support its “brazen allegations” that Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent. It said Germany left legal requests from Russian law enforcement without any “meaningful answers” and instead played “bureaucratic ping-pong” with Moscow.
Navalny celebrated the anniversary of his poisoning with a letter that was published in many European newspapers that called on the West to do more to crackdown on corruption, accusing the west of double standards.
“At present, alas, the western establishment acts like Pavlov’s dog: you show them a colonel of the intelligence services and they yell, “Sanction him!”; you show them the oligarch paying the colonel, and they yell, “Invite him to Davos!”,” Navalny wrote in his letter.
Nord Stream 2
At a news conference following talks that lasted almost three hours, Merkel listed the issues that the two leaders had discussed that highlighted the depth and breadth of the relationship she has built up over the years that touched on most of the world’s major international issues such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and climate change where Germany has been seeking to rope Russia into the international efforts to solve these problems.
While Merkel admitted that German-Russian relations have had their ups and downs she emphasised that she thought it was important to maintain the dialogue between not just Berlin and Moscow, but between Russia and Europe as a whole.
High on the agenda was gas supplies from Russia to Europe. Merkel has drawn flak for pushing through permission to build the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that allows Russia to cut out Ukraine from its gas deliveries to Europe and is due to be completed next week.
Putin said there were just 15 kilometres left to complete the pipeline. He also said Russia planned to fully comply with its obligations on gas transit via Ukraine.
Merkel has been pushing for a face saving solution where Russia continues to route some of its gas deliveries via Ukraine after the current transit deal expires.
Gazprom signed off on a new transit deal at the last minute in December 2019 that commits the Russian gas giant to send 40bn cubic metres via Ukraine’s Druzhba pipeline until 2024. There is an option to extend the deal for another ten years after it expires.
Putin reiterated that Russia has no objection to routing some gas via Ukraine, but said it was a question of volumes. Europe’s Green Deal comes into effect next year that will lead to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and is expected to impact Russia as the demand for gas will fall.
He said Moscow was ready to send gas via its neighbour even after 2024 but Russia needed to understand the scale of demand for its fossil fuel first.
"And for this, we need to get an answer from our European partners on how much they are ready to buy," Putin told the press conference. "We cannot sign a transit contract if we don't have supply contracts with our consumers in Europe."
The European gas market is eagerly awaiting Russian flows via Nord Stream 2 as European gas prices have reached record highs due to a combination of high demand following a cold winter and a hot summer that has seen gas storage fall to unusually low levels. Delivery outages caused by summer maintenance work and an accident at Gazprom’s Urengoy condensate processing plant have reduced deliveries further.
Putin said future gas supplies were a matter for talks given Europe's green energy drive, suggesting that Merkel was attempting to thrash out a supply deal for Europe that would result in gas continuing to transit Europe. The Gas Transmission System Operator of Ukraine (GTSOU) told bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview that Ukraine would decommission its pipeline system if Russia could not provide sufficient volumes of gas in transit to make the system economically viable.
The US has also opposed the construction of Nord Stream 2 as it seeks to boost its exports of LNG to Europe, but the Biden administration dropped its objections in July, admitting the pipeline was a fait accompli.
While the two leaders discussed the situation in Afghanistan, nothing concrete was proposed as the situation remains chaotic and the evacuation effort is still underway. However, Putin took advantage of the drama to harp on his favourite theme and reject the “unipolar” approach to foreign relations.
Putin called on the global community to prevent the “collapse” of Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover there, warning it was “important to prevent … terrorists” entering neighbouring countries, including under the guise of being refugees.
He also criticised the “irresponsible policy” of imposing “outside values” on the country.
The US withdrawal has considerably bolstered Russia’s role in Central Asia as it has become the guarantor of security in the region. Russia has a military base in Tajikistan and has already moved troops and weapons up to harden the Tajik border. Russia has also begun a month of military exercises in Uzbekistan to ensure security in that country as well.
Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that is led by China and Russia, which includes a security mandate. However, the organisation has largely been concerned with economic integration in the region and both China and Russia are looking at expanding their business ties with Afghanistan that has risen in importance in recent years as it represents a gateway to the markets of Southeast Asia – Pakistan and India in particular – for the Central Asian republics.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also seriously unsettled its other allies that have been depending on Washington for security in the face of Russian aggression, Ukraine amongst them. The US abandonment of the Afghan government came as a shock in Kyiv, which is now questioning US support for its fight against Russia.
Merkel was due to fly on to Kyiv on August 22 to discuss the gas and security issues with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy following her talks with Putin, again suggesting she is trying to thrash out some sort of compromise gas deal with the Russians that she will then sell to Ukraine. In addition she is trying to make some progress on the Minsk II protocol to bring the conflict in Donbas to an end.