"The former KGB officer had done his homework. He knew Merkel was frightened of dogs" ©DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Moscow vs Merkiavelli

The relationship between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel is perhaps the most important in global politics. It's just as well that she knows his type...
October 12, 2016
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Both leaders sat down in the Russian President’s office at his Black Sea dacha for a press conference. The door had been left slightly ajar and it was soon clear why. From the corner of her eye Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, saw a black dog enter the room. Vladimir Putin, coming towards the end of his first stint as Russia’s President, was smirking in the armchair beside her. The former KGB officer had done his homework. He knew Merkel was frightened of dogs after one had bitten her during the 1995 federal elections. Now in 2007 and at their first formal bilateral meeting, Putin had decided to use this against her.

“She doesn’t bother you, does she?” said Putin with a gesture toward Koni, his black Labrador. Merkel looked anything but comfortable. Diplomacy at this level is a mind game, a struggle for psychological supremacy, and Putin considers himself a master. Back in 1975, when asked what he did for a living, the young Putin’s reply had been: “I am an expert in human relations.”

Here he was applying these skills to the German Kanzlerin. Putin smiled but his blue eyes were emotionless. “She’s a friendly dog and I’m sure will behave herself,” he said. Like a chess player after a decisive move he leaned back and kicked his legs out. Before the world’s press, Putin had showed he was in charge—that he could bully the leader of his most powerful neighbour.

Then something happened he had not expected. Though initially thrown, Merkel recovered her poise. She replied in her cultivated Russian tone (a contrast to Putin’s affected working-class St Petersburg accent)—“She doesn’t eat journalists, after all.” Her presence of mind shook Putin out of his conceit.

The relationship between the two is crucial—perhaps the most important in global politics. She’s the only one that Putin really takes seriously in Europe and her ability to deal with and influence him is vital if Russia is to be talked round on Ukraine, or indeed on Syria where the last few weeks have brought fresh reminders of the urgency of getting Moscow engaged.

Putin has of course deployed military forces in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, a regime which the west wants to usher from power. In September, the world’s bloodiest stalemate took yet another turn for the worse, as the United States charged Putin’s jets with destroying a United Nations aid convoy, and relations between the two countries collapsed.

Merkel’s personal interest in Syria is especially strong, as the ongoing war continues to drive immigrants across the Mediterranean towards Europe, and the open door she has established in Germany. The controversy surrounding the resulting influx is now dominating the Federal Republic’s domestic politics, fuelling the Chancellor’s recent local election losses to the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party. Her outbreak of the mid-term electoral blues was in sharp contrast to the latest results in Russia’s managed democracy—parliamentary elections, in which, Putin won with 54 per cent of the vote, and 343 of 450 seats, albeit on a record low of 47 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot.

But both leaders are firmly en poste. Even after her drubbing in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Merkel is regarded as a “strong leader” by 75 per cent of the voters, and still widely tipped to run in—and to win—next year’s general election. So this pair have no option but to deal with one another. For Merkel the political imperative is to bring Putin to the negotiating table over Syria. But she must do this while making clear that she continues to support the sanctions linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is a very fine balance. Fortunately, she is especially well-equipped to deal with Putin. The reason for that lies in their parallel back-stories. It boils down to the fact that, since childhood, she has been well-acquainted with his type: the bullying Soviet security officer.

Two children of a single system Merkel grew up in the nightmarish East German Überwachungsstaat—or surveillance state—the same German Democratic Republic (GDR) in which Putin served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB. He was, in other words, a cog in the machine that spied on ordinary Germans like her and, as such, the demure former physicist and the macho Russian were products of the same Soviet system. Although Merkel was never much involved with the struggle for democracy in East Germany, she did belong to small study groups that debated alternatives to Communism both as a student in Leipzig and later as a researcher in 1980s Berlin. The system never trusted her, and a Stasi secret police informant reported her every move. “I was not a civil rights campaigner but I developed an increasingly critical view of East Germany,” she later said.

Although born in Hamburg in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1954, Merkel was to live under the Soviet yoke from infancy. The daughter of a Lutheran pastor, her family had moved to East Germany the year she was born. The church had asked her father, Horst Kasner, to preach the gospel in the atheist and communist state. It was a challenging assignment. The Stasi kept a close eye on the clergyman and his family. Toeing the line without compromising your inner beliefs became the order of the day. “I never felt that the GDR was my home country,” Merkel said in 1991. “I have never allowed myself to be bitter. I always used the free room that the GDR allowed me... There was no shadow over my childhood. And later I acted in such a way that I would not have to live in constant conflict with the state.” Little Angela joined the Young Pioneers (the communist youth movement), and excelled in mathematics—and Russian. Outwardly she conformed to the model of the ideal communist student. “She was the best pupil by a considerable distance,” a former classmate later recalled.

In Grade Three, a teacher under pressure to identify sporting talent suggested that Angela might try the three-metre diving board. She always did as she was told and climbed up to the board and peered down. It was frightening. She turned back. But she didn’t go down. She walked up and down analysing the situation. The other children were amused and some started laughing. Finally, just as the bell rang to signal that class was over, she dived head first into the water. The other pupils didn’t laugh. None of them had jumped. But Angela had.

Today some critics complain about her indecisiveness. A new verb was coined, “merkeln”—“to Merkel,” meaning to procrastinate. Merkel says that her hesitancy is a virtue; that analysing every angle of the situation is a sign of strength and surefootedness. As she puts it, “I am quite brave when a decision has to be made. But I need a bit of a run-up and I like—if possible—to think before I jump.”

The same could not be said for Putin, who cultivates the image of an action man; the leader who acts without hesitation. When the 15-year-old Putin saw The Shield and The Sword, the film of Vadim Kozhevnikov’s wartime spy novel—a Soviet version of James Bond—he decided on the spot to join the KGB and went downtown to “the Big House,” their headquarters in central Leningrad (now St Petersburg). Unable at first to find the door, eventually a junior officer spoke to the would-be spy. Voldoya, as he was called, described his skill at judo, only to be told that the KGB needed lawyers, not martial arts experts.

The meeting changed Putin’s life. He decided to learn German, an astute career move. For an aspiring spy West Germany was the place to be—especially Berlin, where east and west stood eyeball to eyeball. Like Merkel, Putin would become a proficient linguist, but unlike her, his exam results were poor. The son of a factory worker, his grades were poor and he was often involved in fights. Though his grandfather had once been Lenin’s chef, the connection did not help him.

“Little Volodya” was short—Putin is 5’6”—and this was a source of insecurity. He took up martial arts to cope with the bullying. Though Pravda (and yes, it is still called that) recently published a story under the headline “When young, Putin enjoyed great popularity among girls,” that is not the recollection of many of his school friends. They say he stuck to his desk in his parents’ small apartment and had little time for—let alone success with—the opposite sex. Diligence made up for a deficiency of talent. He studied jurisprudence at Leningrad State University—one of the Soviet Union’s most prestigious law schools. On graduating, he immediately joined the KGB.

Divided by two common languages Just as the gold medal Merkel picked up for Russian at the 1970 “East German Olympiad” marked her out as a youngster who could go places, Putin’s fluent German now made him an asset. But his personality was a problem. His parents had always been protective—their two other children had died during the wartime siege of Leningrad—and tolerated his bad behaviour and occasional rages. Had they been stricter, perhaps he might have been able to control his temper. But he could not and there were to be consequences. After the KGB school in Leningrad, Putin was transferred to the First Main Directorate in Moscow to groom him for service abroad. But his posting was delayed. The KGB did not like sending bachelors to the west. The lure of women who could tempt spies to betray Mother Russia was a constant concern.

Putin was never going to let such things hold him back: he got married and had a daughter. But he was far from living the glamorous life. The hours were long, the work was boring—and he still wasn’t good at managing his frustrations. When a fellow subway passenger pushed him and ostensibly made a joke about his height. Putin did not think twice. He thumped him. Normally such an attack would have resulted in severe punishment. As a KGB officer, however, Putin was in a more fortunate position. No charges were brought. But discretion, calm and an ability not to get noticed are virtues in a spy. Putin had shown none of them. The KGB would no longer send him to West Germany as originally planned. Instead Captain Putin was dispatched to Dresden, a provincial backwater of East Germany. His temper and his vanity had cost him dearly.

In the same year, 1984, a young divorcée was celebrating her 30th birthday. Her life had also not quite gone to plan. Merkel was now living as a squatter in Berlin and after almost a decade, had still not completed her doctorate. As her father put it, “You haven’t made it very far, now have you, Angela?” After graduating with a first-class degree in physics, Angela had married fellow student Ulrich Merkel, but it was soon clear the marriage was loveless. Still, the two didn’t rush into a divorce; Merkel took her time. Her former husband later explained: “Suddenly one day she packed her bags and left the apartment we shared. She had weighed up all the consequences and analysed the pros and cons. We split up in a friendly manner. We were both financially independent. There weren’t too many things to be divided. She took the washing machine and I kept the furniture.” Merkel eventually finished her doctorate in quantum chemistry. Putin continued as a junior intelligence officer in Dresden. Work was far from exciting for either of them. In 1989, that all changed.

Up against the wall: 1989 Merkel played no role in the protests that ended in the fall of the Berlin Wall, and yet, immediately after its fall she joined a small political party—Demokratischer Aufbruch—Democratic Awakening. Relentless networking, grit and good luck fuelled an astounding ascent. Within five months of her first political meeting, she was deputy spokesperson for the first (and last) democratically elected East German government. During reunification negotiations in Moscow, her fluent Russian was again an advantage.

Meanwhile, Putin, his wife and his two daughters were crammed into his Lada Nova, retreating from the disintegrating borders of the communist empire and driving back to a Soviet Union that would soon crumble. Like Merkel after her divorce, Putin only kept one item from his stay in East Germany: a washing machine. 1989 placed both Merkel and Putin on parallel tracks towards the top in their two fast-changing countries. Earning their stripes in junior positions in central government in the early 1990s, both built reputations for reliability and application.

Merkel owed her rise to her close relations with three powerful men. Lothar de Maizière, the first and last Prime Minister of democratic East Germany, discovered her and made her a spokesperson. Günther Krause, the East German politician who negotiated the reunification treaty with West Germany, found her a safe parliamentary seat. And the last was Chancellor Helmut Kohl. “The Pear,” as the corpulent politician was known, needed a token woman in the first government of the reunified Germany, and appointed Merkel to a cabinet post only a year after she had attended her first political meeting.

Putin, too, rode on the coat-tails of influential men. He resigned from the KGB and became an adviser to Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically-elected mayor of St Petersburg. He accompanied Sobchak as a translator on his visits to John Major, then Prime Minister, and on a visit to Bonn to meet Chancellor Kohl in 1991. At the time, the relations between Germany and Russia were exceptionally cordial—perhaps the best they had ever been.

Later in the 1990s Putin became a trusted aide to the Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who in 1998 made him head of the FSB—the successor of the KGB. Putin stood out as incorruptible in the early days of Russian casino-capitalism. The oligarch Boris Berezovsky described Putin as “the first bureaucrat who did not take bribes.” And Putin was loyal. He was willing to use his influence to help even those who had fallen from grace. When Sobchak was indicted for corruption, and in danger of being arrested, Putin organised his escape and reportedly paid his medical bills. Merkel was less sentimental.

When de Maizière was exposed as a Stasi informer, Merkel remained silent. When Krause had to resign after a row with Kohl, Merkel left him hanging and took over his position as the leading politician from East Germany. And she only became leader of the CDU after writing a newspaper article that implicated Kohl and his successor as CDU chairman, Wolfgang Schäuble, in irregular party donations. To the wider world, Merkel appears a reserved, homely image. Those who have been on the wrong side of her, by contrast, often refer to her as Merkiavelli.

Continental shift A decade and a half later, Putin and Merkel are the two constants in the equation of international politics. Domestic politics could still change all that, and for Merkel they’ve certainly been getting trickier. But despite her recent election wobbles, even her foes struggle to imagine anybody filling her shoes. Julia Klöckner, a critic and potential rival within the CDU, conceded recently: “there is simply no one who could replace Merkel.”

Berlin’s preoccupation with Moscow predates her, but she has steadily and profoundly recalibrated the German approach. More than any other western state, reunified Germany was initially keen to reach out to the new Russia in the 1990s. The Germans were immediately successful in securing lucrative contracts and when the more assertive Putin replaced Yeltsin, the warm relations continued. The new Russian leader quickly formed a close relationship with the rowdy Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, who had replaced Kohl in 1998. The cigar-smoking Chancellor was not overburdened by political correctness and his macho style appealed to the Russian leader.

In 2005, when Merkel arrived in power, Putin was sorry to see Schröder go. He had been a soothing influence as strains between the west and the new Russia emerged. But with Russia’s involvement in the murder of Putin’s former KGB colleague Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, a deeper chasm between Moscow and the west opened up. Merkel initially continued Schröder’s role as the go-between. Schröder’s former Chief of Staff Frank-Walter Steinmeier had become Foreign Minister in Merkel’s new government, but Berlin’s attitude to Russia was changing: the new chancellor now regarded Russia as a rival, rather than a partner.

Merkel made it clear that she would defend the smaller Eastern European states from Russian domination. Germany also cultivated a special relationship with the US. Schröder would sometimes criticise the US and would unfailingly speak up on Russia’s behalf in European affairs. Merkel, by contrast, hugged America close. During the crash of 2008 and then the eurozone crisis, Merkel called upon Washington for support and talked favourably about deepening US involvement in Europe. All of this visibly annoyed Putin.
"Putin and Merkel are the two constants in the equation of international politics"
All this had to be managed with special care, because of German dependence on Russia’s gas pipelines. But above and beyond the ordinary international politics of economic interest, something else was lurking: the struggle between populist authoritarianism and consensus democracy, two political philosophies that now crystallised in the figures of Merkel and Putin. Individuals alone do not determine history. Policy advisers, international institutions, the markets and public opinion all play their part too. But sometimes—at rare moments—international politics can become a truly personal struggle. And this was the case over Ukraine.

Shortly after the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, soldiers appeared in the Ukrainian province of Crimea. It was soon clear that they were not locals but members of the Russian army’s elite unit, Spetsnaz. Putin had pounced when a divided west least expected it. Relations between the US and the EU in general and Germany in particular were strained, not least as it had just been revealed that the US had been bugging Merkel’s mobile phone.

As so often before, Putin seized his moment without deliberation. Just as he had lashed out on the subway as a young man, Putin the politician hit first and asked questions later. Along with the impulsiveness came a lack of foresight about the implications of annexing Crimea. Still, assertive posturing on the world stage was a distraction from growing dissatisfaction at home, all the muttered complaints about creeping authoritarianism which grew louder after irregularities in the 2011 elections. In weeks, Crimea had “voted” to join Russia after a dubious referendum and Russian militias in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk had declared independence with the help of undercover Russian troops. Putin’s choreographed aggression restored some popularity.

Merkel did not react immediately. Her foreign minister Steinmeier condemned the action but did not do so harshly. Once again Merkel was taking her time. Like the 10-year-old on the diving board, Merkel was analysing the situation before acting. Putin felt vindicated. He knew that Merkel had opposed Nato’s decision to regard Ukraine and Georgia as aspirant members. Further, his seemingly successful annexation of Crimea seemed to show that military supremacy still trumped economic strength.

So it came as a shock when, a month later, Merkel imposed sanctions on Russia. Germany had major interests in Russia: its pharmaceutical companies alone stood to lose an estimated €2.1bn in lost contracts. But Merkel—having consulted with industry and the EU—had reached her decision. Germany could afford it. And with the falling oil price, Russia would pay dearly for Putin’s military impetuosity.

Merkel also knew that nothing was more important to Putin than international prestige. In 1998 the old G7 was expanded to become the G8, a symbol of the new post-Soviet Russia being brought in from the cold. The next meeting of this club of the world’s biggest hitters was due to be held in post-Olympic Sochi in June 2014. It was not to be. Merkel told the Bundestag why not: “Russia is isolated in all international organisations, there will not be a G8 summit and there will be no G8 as such.” Russia’s standing took a knock, and Putin was humiliated.

The response did not settle the conflict or reverse the annexation of Crimea, but it did buy the Ukrainians time, allowing them to hold presidential elections. In the autumn of 2014 fighting broke out and Russia once more threatened to overrun eastern Ukraine. The conflict was personal: Merkel spoke to Putin on 38 separate occasions between September and January.

In February 2015, the western powers agreed to enter peace talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk. Putin had demanded that representatives from the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk were present, and the stage appeared set for a Russian diplomatic victory. Merkel and French president François Hollande accompanied Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, but it was soon clear that this was effectively a bilateral meeting between the two leaders present who spoke without the help of translators.

Putin had succeeded in getting his allies involved in the talks, in which his aim was to get the sanctions lifted in return for military concessions. Merkel, for her part, wanted a stable ceasefire and Russian recognition of the Ukrainian government. Her only weapon was a further tightening the sanctions, but the Americans were suggesting sending armaments to the Ukrainians, something Merkel was desperate to avoid, fearing escalation. She was determined to use diplomacy and economic muscle.

After 16 hours of negotiations, Putin reluctantly accepted a ceasefire and a plan for some regional autonomy for eastern Ukraine. His allies felt let down. Even the fawning Russian media found it difficult to explain why the President had been unable to get the sanctions lifted.

The Ukrainian crisis was still not solved. It still isn’t. But once again, Merkel had outsmarted her old adversary. Foreign Affairs summed up the consensus: “the well-co-ordinated western sanctions and Merkel’s patient diplomacy have so far produced the least worst outcome—one that no optimist could have dreamed of when Putin annexed Crimea.”

Resentment and refugees

Given the Kremlin’s black box model of decision-making, it is impossible to be sure how far the personal intrudes onto political decisions. Many motives drew Putin into making his dramatic intervention in Syria—the desire to protect Assad; the opportunity to exploit a vacuum after the US stepped back from intervening in 2013; determination, perhaps, to confront Islamic State.

Putin took a personal dislike to Merkel after Crimea. He will also certainly have noticed that Merkel’s extraordinary decision to open up her country to a million refugees fleeing conflicts, above all in Syria, has proved the greatest challenge of her career. Earlier this year General Phil Breedlove, Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, accused Putin of deliberately targeting civilian centres in Syria: “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are weaponising migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.” He might have added that the strength and resolve of Merkel faced a very particular test.

But throughout the Syrian crisis—as with every previous conflict since Chechnya—Putin continues to burnish his image as a resolute man of action. Merkel by contrast, despite that big move on the refugees, is still perceived as a cautious leader who prefers consensus to conflict.

And yet she is still not immune to stage management and mind games. There are no animals to intimidate visitors in the German Chancellery, and no photos of holidays or family members. Instead, a single picture stands on a shelf behind her desk. It is a portrait of Catherine the Great—the Prussian-born princess who rose to become the undisputed ruler of Russia.

Before the 2013 elections, Merkel’s spokesman commented on the picture in the Chancellor’s office, “she loved to play with power and made use of men—all with the aim of expanding her authority.” It was not clear whether he was talking about the 18th-century Tsarina or the 21st-century Chancellor.