August 15, 2016 –
By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ
Translated by J. Arnoldski
A meeting between the foreign ministers of Russia and Germany was held in Yekaterinburg a few days following the Crimean incident. Although the meeting was meant to discuss the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, last week’s events in Crimea created a special atmosphere for the meeting.
On August 10th, Vladimir Putin refused to participate in the Normandy Quartet meeting planned for September in China. On the same day, the French foreign ministry issued an essentially pro-Ukrainian statement calling on both sides to settle their disputes peacefully. When one side becomes the victim of a terrorist attack by the other, such a call can only be considered dubious. Russia might as well have called upon the government of France to sit down at the negotiating table with Islamists after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice.
Thus, the face-to-face meeting between Sergey Lavrov and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Russia, and what’s more in deep Russia (Yekaterinburg is the geographical center of Russia), resembles something like a separate set of negotiations.
Both diplomats are political heavyweights. Steinmeier, for example, is more popular than Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany and it is quite possible that he expects to run for the lead post on behalf of his Social-Democratic Party in the Bundestag elections of 2017. It has long since been noted that Steinmeier visits Moscow and meets with his Russian colleagues, and even President Putin, way more often than Madame Merkel. If Moscow prefers to negotiate with Sarkozy and Republicans when it comes to French politicians, then Steinmeier (a member of the same party as Gerhard Schroeder) can be considered more than just a diplomatic figure. He is famous for his special opinion on the question of relations between Russia and NATO and his approach to sanctions is markedly more flexible than that of his competitors in the CDU and even his own party comrades. Although there are indeed parties and politicians that are more convenient for Russia, such as Die Linke and Alternative for Germany, none of them, especially the young AfG not yet represented in the Bundestag, can be called heavyweights in German politics like Steinmeier.
So allow me to posit the following: the meeting between Sergey Lavrov and his German colleague (with whom Lavrov spoke with obvious pleasure, using the informal Russian word for you, ty, and calling each other by their names), is an attempt to build an alternative to the Normandy Four format. From a psychological standpoint, the German minister of foreign affairs’ agreement to meet in Russia with his Russian colleague is obviously an expression of support.
Perhaps, if I am right in my assumptions, this separate alliance outside the Normandy Quartet is capable of transcending situational frameworks. It is probably no coincidence that German politicians’ criticism of Moscow’s position (and, indirectly, its minister of foreign affairs) on a humanitarian corridor from Aleppo has collapsed. If you look at the headlines from Ekaterinburg, the obvious dominance of Lavrov over the conversation immediately catches the eye. Among other things, the minister of foreign affairs of Russia made harsh anti-Ukrainian statements (of course, with the tone and restraint of a superior diplomat) which were not met with any strong objections from his German colleague.
Perhaps the meeting in Yekaterinburg was a step in comparing notes and networking with the potential winner of Bundestag elections which are not too far off (a year). Frank-Walter Steinmeier is not a pro-Russian politician. He is a pro-German politician and a professional, and as such Russia understands and is interested in him. What Russia failed to do with Gerhard Schroeder (due to the SPD’s defeat in elections, i.e., build a mechanism for particularly trusting relations with Europe’s #1 leader, might succeed with Steinmeier if the results of next year’s elections to the Bundestag will be favorable to his party. This is possible as long as today’s meeting in Yekaterinburg was not held simply so that Germany’s popular foreign minister could improve his international image and bargaining power against Madame Merkel, his boss and rival.