The West is barely flexing its muscles, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is already signaling a willingness to talk. His visit to Berlin is no more than tactical maneuver, thinks Andrey Gurkov.
Vladimir Putin is coming to Berlin. Just a few years ago, this would have been primarily evidence of a strong German-Russian relationship. Today, it is practically a foreign policy sensation. That is because it is the Russian president's first visit to the German capital since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which sparked the conflict in eastern Ukraine and put Moscow's relations with the West on ice.
The Russian leader is coming at the invitation of the politician who is the biggest advocate of European sanctions against Moscow and is therefore under a massive propaganda blitz there: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That he only accepted the invitation a day ahead of their planned Wednesday meeting shows that he was rather hesitant.
Minsk II has reached its limits
The meeting in Berlin, however, will not be bilateral: It is taking place in the so-called Normandy format. This group of four has existed since June 2014, when French President Francois Hollande, along with Merkel, Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko came together for informal talks on the sidelines of the D-Day commemoration in Normandy.
The quartet's political climax came in February 2015, when the Minsk II protocol was agreed to in the Belarusian capital. It was unable to bring an end to the separatist problem in eastern Ukraine, but it at least silenced the heavy weaponry in the region, and thus greatly reduced the amount of casualties in the conflict.
But since then, the agreement has reached its limits. The Minsk deal contains terms that neither Kyiv nor Moscow want to adhere to. The special status for rebel areas, including local elections and amnesty, is not enforceable in Ukraine, because in the eyes of much of the local population, that would be legitimizing the rebellion. The Kremlin cannot surrender control of large swaths of territory on Ukraine's official eastern border because that would cut off supply routes for pro-Russian separatists, and be equivalent to betrayal.
Russia's course correction has much to do with Syria
President Putin's sudden trip to Berlin, if not a complete turnaround, looks at least like a clear course correction.
There are two possible explanations for the Kremlin's change in direction. They do not contradict each other, so both could be true. First, Russia is clearly struggling in Syria, and would like to divert international attention to another topic. The country's military campaign in Syria drew a lot of focus away from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Now, the tables have turned.
Second, Putin has experienced in recent days that the West can also be tough. The Americans are breaking off Syria talks, Britain and the EU are talking about Russian war crimes in Aleppo, Germany is discussing strengthened sanctions and halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, and France's president made it clear he could only discuss Syria with his Russian counterpart in Paris, forcing the Kremlin to cancel a long-planned state visit. Putin had intended to open a Russian church and art exhibition on the Seine river, and capitalize on the media opportunity of doing so alongside Francois Hollande.
It was precisely this public affront by the French president - a man Moscow had previously regarded as a weak and shaky representative of the West - that may have greatly impressed Putin. And thus, he promptly signaled his willingness to talk. One should not overestimate this maneuver, and do not expect anything groundbreaking from the October 19 talks. But Putin seems, in regard to his relationship to the West, to be giving in. Now the Kremlin is feeling its opponent's potential strength.
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