Merkel, Putin signal rapprochement at summit focusing on Ukraine

By Peter Spinella, dpa

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled rapprochement on Saturday at a summit in Germany focusing on the conflict in Ukraine, long a source of contention between the major European powers.

“We will speak about the possibility of establishing a UN mission to serve a role in the peace process” in Ukraine, Merkel said after welcoming Putin as Schloss Meseberg, the chancellery’s official guest house outside Berlin.

Germany is “ready to take responsibility,” Merkel told reporters.

It was the leaders’ first bilateral summit in Germany since Russia annexed neighbouring Ukraine’s Crimea region four years ago.

The meeting comes as the countries seek to complete the Nord Stream 2, an expansion of an existing natural gas pipeline between the two countries under the Baltic Sea.

Ukraine has staunchly criticized the project as undermining the European Union’s efforts to pressure Russia into returning Crimea to Ukraine and resolving a simmering pro-Russian rebellion in the county’s east.

Merkel sought to dispel concerns that the pipeline will disadvantage Ukraine, saying that the country should remain a supplier of Russian gas to Europe even after the expansion of the Nord Stream pipeline.

“Ukraine must continue to play a role in the transit of gas to Europe once Nord Stream 2 is in place,” Merkel said.

Putin indicated that a United Nations peacekeeping mission could help to restore peace to Ukraine’s war-torn eastern regions, which border Russia.

The Russian leader has previously represented pro-Russian rebel groups from eastern Ukraine during peace talks involving Merkel.

“We must acknowledge that we do not have a permanent ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine, Merkel told reporters, saying the two leaders intended to discuss the potential for a UN mission.

The meeting offered the leaders an opportunity to strengthen ties in the face of abrasive policies from US President Donald Trump, including US tariffs on EU imports and expanded US sanctions against Russia.

Trump said last month that Germany is “totally controlled by Russia” through commodity imports as exemplified by the expansion of the Nord Stream pipeline.

Merkel and Putin last met in the southern Russian city of Sochi four months ago for talks that focused on the Ukraine crisis as construction began for Nord Stream 2.

Saturday’s summit intended to cover the pipeline expansion, the Ukraine crisis and the Syrian civil war.

Speaking to reporters, Putin called for increased humanitarian assistance for Syria in an effort to facilitate the return of refugees to their homeland.

Putin described the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe as a potential “enormous burden.” Russia is the main military backer of the Syrian government in that country’s devastating, multi-sided civil war.

In recent months Russia has switched its focus in Syria from bombing raids to establishing civilian safe zones, with a view to enabling refugees to return home.

Merkel has faced political pressure for opening Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees three years ago. The decision led to the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Saturday was a busy day for Putin as he also endeavoured to strengthen ties with Austria after years of strained relations with the West over the Ukraine crisis.

Austria, unlike Germany and numerous other European countries, did not expel any Russian diplomats after Britain accused Russia of orchestrating a near-fatal chemical weapon attack on a former Russian double agent in England earlier this year.

Before travelling to Germany on Saturday, Putin attended the wedding of Austria’s top diplomat, Karin Kneissl, in the south-eastern Austrian countryside. Putin was photographed dancing with the bride.

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