German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first visit to Russia in two years on May 2, meeting President Vladimir Putin to discuss July’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and other issues that continue to cloud bilateral and global relations, including claims of extensive cross-border cyber warfare by Russia.
“You have referred to an example that hasn’t been proven by anyone or anything. These are merely rumours that are being used in US political in-fighting,” Putin said after what the Kremlin called “intensive” talks, referring to US claims that Russia covertly tried to influence November’s election won by Republican candidate Donald Trump.
“We never interfere, either in political life or in the political processes of other countries. We would also like that no one would interfere in Russia’s political life,” Putin told a news conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. However, “precisely the opposite” had been observed, he added, claiming that NGOs are often used for attempts to exert political influence in Russia.
Merkel in turn said she was not concerned about the possibility that Russia could meddle with the upcoming election in Germany. “I am not the kind of a person that is easily scared,” she told reporters.
The German leader stressed the right of anti-government forces to hold rallies against the Kremlin, after scores of protesters were arrested in recent protests. She also pressed Putin on the issue of gay rights in Russia following reports of organised violent persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya.
EU and US sanctions that were imposed on Russia in 2014 for its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine were mentioned but not discussed, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who added that Putin “typically avoids discussing the sanctions”. Merkel has been one of the staunchest advocates of the sanctions remaining in place.
However, Merkel said at the briefing that there had been “pleasing developments” in talks to end the conflict in East Ukraine, and hinted at a possibility that sanctions against Russia could be “lifted at one point in time”.
The leaders agreed that there is no need for new agreements aimed at stabilising the situation in Ukraine, since it would be more practical to wait for results to be achieved by the existing Minsk deal and the Normandy format for negotiations.
However, neither Russia nor Germany has a clear understanding of how to push Kyiv to implement the Minsk agreements, according to the Kremlin.
“There is no clear understanding, and, naturally, Vladimir Putin called on the chancellor to use her relations with the Ukrainian president [Petro Poroshenko] and her influence on [him] to push him towards more responsible implementation of the Ukrainian side’s liabilities,” TASS quoted Peskov as saying.
The last time Merkel visited Russia was on May 10, 2015, the day after the Victory Day celebrations marking 60 years since the end of the Second World War. Most Western leaders stayed away from the celebrations in protest at Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
On Syria, Putin said the priority was to use existing international mediation channels to broker a full ceasefire in the more than five-year-old conflict. He also called for a thorough and unbiased investigation into the incident in April where chemical weapons were released in the Syrian province of Idlib, which drew punitive US missile strikes against a Syrian government airbase. Moscow backs the position of its Syrian ally President Bashar al-Assad that substances from a militant chemical weapon production killed around 60 people rather than an attack by Syrian government forces.
“We resolutely condemn any use of chemical weapons,” Putin said. “Naturally, those responsible for the death of Syrians [in Idlib] must be found and punished. But it should be done only after a thorough and unbiased investigation.”
The possibility of establishing security zones in Syria was mentioned but not discussed in detail, according to the Kremlin.