MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to talk with the West’s two most powerful leaders Tuesday, with a face-to-face meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, followed by a phone call with President Trump later in the day.
The talks, however, are unlikely to be the one-two punch of a unified message that a German and U.S. leader might have once delivered. Merkel and Trump have gotten off to a rocky start and disagree on a number of issues.
The conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, as well as the tensions on the Korean Peninsula are all on the agenda when Merkel meets with Putin at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi — her first trip to Russia in two years.
The visit will also lay the groundwork for the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, when Trump and Putin could hold their first face-to-face meeting. In the Tuesday phone call, White House officials said the two presidents will discuss the civil war in Syria, where Trump ordered an air strike last month in retaliation for what the United States and its allies called a sarin gas attack carried out by Syrian government forces.
Russia backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad and said the attack, which killed more than 80 people, was a provocation by rebel forces. Trump, who spent his election campaign expressing admiration for Putin, said after the attack that relations with Russia “may be at an all time low.”
It will be the third publicly announced conversation between Trump and Putin, who first spoke after Trump’s inauguration in January and then after an April 3 bombing in the St. Petersburg subway that has claimed 16 lives.
Merkel goes to Russia as internal pressure from German industry is mounting on the chancellor to lay the ground work for an improved economic relationship with Moscow — a relationship dampened by years by international sanctions tied to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its proxy war on behalf of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
German business interests — stung by European sanctions against Russia — expressed the hope that Merkel’s trip will contribute to the normalization of economic relations between the two countries. Germany is a major economic partner, but trade between the two countries, once at 80 billion euros in 2012, was down to 50 billion in 2016, according the Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
Merkel has been the leader of European negotiations to end the Ukraine conflict, but the peace process has bogged down, with both sides accusing the other of breaking ceasefire agreements.
The issue is a matter of national pride in Russia, where nightly reports on state-controlled news programs tell of atrocities by Ukrainian “fascists” while denying the involvement in the conflict of Russian armed forces.
In Ukraine, few support the stipulation in the so-called Minsk Agreements that would allow two separatist regions in eastern Ukraine broad autonomy, which Kiev considers a Kremlin ploy to prevent Ukraine from integration with Western European organizations.
At a press conference in Berlin on Friday, German spokesman Steffen Seibert did not rule out the possibility that Merkel might also press Putin on Russian treatment of political opponents. He conceded that tensions exist between Germany and Russia.
“Of course there are two issues in particular that put a strain on the relationship: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of international law and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, in which Russia plays an significant role.”
The chancellor last went to Russia in May 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, but has since met Putin on several occasions.
“In particular we are hoping that the trip will be the beginning of a more intensive dialogue,” Wolfgang Büchele, chairman of Germany’s Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, told the Handelsblatt daily. “An ongoing confrontation would be costly for us in Europe. Both sides need each other to solve fundamental European and international political questions.”
But Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, tweeted that Merkel’s meeting with Putin Tuesday “will serve to maintain contact, but little else.
A Western condition for the lifting of sanctions has been Russia’s return of Crimea, which Moscow has ruled out.
Alexei Pushkov, a senior Russian legislator, tweeted that neither “sanctions nor resolutions will change the fact of the unification of Russia and Crimea. They can kick themselves, but they can’t have it back.”
Another cause for tensions between German and Russia is the assertion from European political parties that Russia is meddling in their elections with hackers and fake news stories, the same accusations the U.S. intelligence community directed at Moscow following Trump’s election victory.
Russia backs the candidacy of right wing leader Marine Le Pen, who will face off against centrist Emmanuel Macron in France’s presidential runoff vote May 7.
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Rick Noack in London contributed to this report.