Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to visit Moscow in May, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While meeting Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, Putin asked him to pass on his "very best wishes" to Merkel.
Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) in the state of Bavaria, met with Putin on Thursday, kicking off his three-day visit to Russia. The conservative German politician and Merkel coalition ally has raised more than a few eyebrows in Berlin with his repeated calls for sanctions against Moscow to be eased. He also openly broke rank with the German chancellor with his previous Russia visit in February 2016.
The relations between Moscow and the federal government in Berlin took a plunge after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea. Merkel's last diplomatic trip to Moscow was in May 2015, when she attended the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of World War II. Merkel and Putin have met several times since but only on the sidelines of multilateral events such as the talks on resolving the crisis in Ukraine.
Moscow in May?
The diplomatic ice age, however, might be nearing an end, according to the latest remarks by Seehofer and Putin. After meeting Seehofer on Thursday, Putin said that Merkel was set to visit Moscow in early May.
"Give my very best wishes to the federal chancellor," Putin told Seehofer. "We are awaiting her visit on May 2."
Seehofer confirmed that Merkel was preparing for the trip, adding that the German chancellor had sent her "cordial regards" to Putin.
"She reminded me to tell you this several times," Seehofer said.
Pressure from German business
Germany, as the leading economic power in the EU, played a key role in maintaining a regime of economic sanctions against Moscow. The sanctions, however, came with a hefty price tag for Berlin. The volume of trade between the two countries dropped from 80 billion euros ($86 billion) in 2012 to 47 billion in the first 11 months of 2016. Russia is also one of key trade partners for businesses in Bavaria.
German authorities faced pressure from business lobbies to resuscitate trade.
It remains unlikely that Germany would remove sanctions on Russia after any visit by Merkel. However, a bilateral meeting would send a strong diplomatic signal that Germany was ready to engage diplomatically with Moscow.
While meeting Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel last week, Putin said he would also like to improve ties. The Kremlin chief told Gabriel in Moscow that "our common goal is to fully normalize the relations and to make sure all the difficulties we face are overcome."
Two sides to Minsk
Neither Moscow nor Berlin immediately provided details on the agenda for the upcoming visit. One of the topics, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, will be the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine.
Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer also urged Putin to implement the Minsk treaty for Ukraine on Thursday. "I have asked him several times: Do you stand by [the peace treaty]? He replied: without question."
At the same time Seehofer noted that Ukraine also has a responsibility to ensure peace. "Minsk is a treaty that applies to two parties," he said.
dj/jm (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, Interfax)