German, Russia see goals align amid tension in Middle East

As the US and Iran teetered on the brink of war, the leaders of Germany and Russia made a plan to meet in Moscow. But a shifting balance in the Middle East could force Berlin to trust Moscow in the search for solutions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s working visit to Moscow couldn’t come at a more dramatic time. This week alone Iran and the US attacked each other on Iraqi soil, Iran left an international nuclear deal and Turkey sent troops to Libya. Certainly reason enough for Russian President Vladimir Putin to invite Merkel to the Kremlin for a Saturday meeting.

Conflict between Iran and the US will top the meeting’s agenda and Merkel and Putin will also discuss Libya, Syria and Ukraine, spokespeople for both leaders said. Germany and Russia have traditionally had deep economic ties and, among NATO and European leaders, Merkel has been a welcome guest in Moscow.

Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia in 2014 have, however, caused serious divisions between the countries that haven’t healed. But analyst Alexander Baunov, a political observer at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said “Ukraine has stopped being so toxic” for relations between Moscow and Berlin. He pointed to recent progress on resolving the Ukraine crisis under the new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as evidence of a political thaw.

Crowds, seen from above, accompany the coffins of Soleimani and others killed in Iraq by a US drone strike (picture-alliance/AP Photo/E. Noroozi)Huge crowds turned out in Teheran to mourn the death of general Soleimani

Divided by Ukraine, reunited by Trump

Merkel and Putin may have been pushed apart by the Ukraine crisis but they are being brought closer “by the one-sidedness and unpredictability of US actions,” Baunov told DW, pointing to US sanctions leveled at the Russian-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 last year, and US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.

The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned US actions against Soleimani as “reckless,” while German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Rainer Breul said Berlin has not been privy to “information that would allow us to see that the US attack was based on international law.”

Russian jet in Syria pictured alongside ammunition at the Russian Hemeimeem Air Base (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/V. Savitsky)Russia’s military campaign has largley turned the tide of the war in Syria in favor of government forces

Calming the conflict

Russian analysts have said that following US actions, Merkel and Putin now share the goal of preventing a further escalation of fighting in the Middle East.

“Russia is interested in making sure that what is happening in the Middle East doesn’t have wider, bloodier consequences,” Middle East expert Andrei Ontikov said, adding that Germany and the rest of Europe can play a positive role in de-escalating the situation in the Middle East. “So, of course, Russia needs to coordinate its policies, including with Europe.”

While Putin may look to use his meeting with Merkel to present a united front with Germany and to paint Russia as a mediator in the Middle East, Berlin has also been considering how to make the most of Putin’s leverage in the Middle East. Russia’s influence in the region has grown since it entered the war in Syria in 2015. Its forces have been fighting alongside Iran to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is seen in Moscow as a guarantor of continuing Russian influence in the Middle East. Putin has also coordinated closely with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus (Reuters/SANA)Ahead of talks with Merkel, Putin went on a rare visit to Syria to meet Assad

The German Green Party’s foreign policy speaker, Omid Nouripour, told DW: “Putin pretends he has influence [in Iran]. So I hope that the German Chancellor will push him to convince the Iranians not to take retaliatory measures,” which Nouripour says would lead to an escalation in violence in the region.

For its part, the Kremlin has been consistently trying to coax Germany, and Europe, towards closer ties by portraying the US as an unreliable partner, particularly following Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal last year. Both Germany and Russia have been pushing to save the deal ever since, even after Iran abandoned it on Sunday.

Berlin peace talks

Moscow and Berlin have also urged for an end the conflict in Libya. Fighting around the cities of Tripoli and Sirte has escalated recently, as the eastern-based Libyan National Army under ex-general Khalifa Haftar advance on forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Germany has warned the situation could become “a second Syria.”

Libyan protesters carry a poster of General Haftar during a demonstration against the Turkish parliament's decision to send forces to Libya (Reuters/E. O. Al-Fetori)Libya has been in a state of violent flux and civil war since 2011

Germany has offered to hold a peace conference for the conflicting sides. The so-called Berlin process may take place in the coming weeks, though no date has been set yet. If the conference actually takes place, Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy speaker in Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, said it would be a “great diplomatic success.” He said he hopes Merkel will put her weight behind the initiative at the meeting in Moscow, adding, “We still have a long way to go before we make progress.”

On Wednesday, Putin issued a joint statement with the Turkish President expressing support for the conference in Germany, though the leaders said results could only be achieved “with the involvement and commitment of Libyans and neighboring countries.”Putin and Erdogan also called for a ceasefire starting on Sunday. Moscow has never officially made its loyalties in the Libyan conflict clear, though there have been media reports that Russian mercenaries are fighting on the side of General Haftar. Turkey last week sent troops to support the UN-backed government.

For Germany, the Moscow meeting could show how much diplomatic clout Merkel actually has in Libya and the rest of the Middle East.

According to Fyodor Lukianov from the Russian International Affairs Council, Putin is clearly in the driving seat in negotiations on the region.

“Germany is a passive player here, an observer from the sidelines,” he told DW. “Russia, on the other hand, is a key player [in the Middle East].” 

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