Olaf Scholz earns praise for tackling Putin head-on – if from a distance
German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian president Vladimir Putin attend a press conference following their meeting over Ukraine security at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on Tuesday. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Before Olaf Scholz headed to Moscow for his first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin, taking place in the shadow of war, the chancellor studied piles of files, strategised with advisers and then dialled A for Angela.
Until she stood down last year, Angela Merkel was an uncontested political black belt in dealing with Russia’s judo-loving president. They speak each other’s language, they know each other’s weaknesses and each meeting was a battle of will and wits.
Her reported advice on the Russian president: be very blunt and counter – or at least block – every demand, claim or taunt.
Judging from the reviews on Wednesday, the new man in Berlin gave as good as he got with the Russian president.
The mind games began long before the two leaders sat down at a Kremlin banquet table, minus the banquet.
As with last week’s visit from Emmanuel Macron, the table was reportedly the host’s response to his latest visitor’s refusal – after three PCR tests before departure – to submit to a fourth on landing from a Russian doctor.
After nearly four hours of talks, even with the first unconfirmed reports of a Russian troop withdrawal from the Ukrainian border, the German leader warned that Europe remained on the brink of war – a war he said all leaders had a “damned duty” to prevent.
He told journalists he had presented compromises on Russia’s two main security concerns.
On Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, Scholz secured promises from Kyiv a day earlier that it will meet its obligation under the so-called Minsk protocol to legislate for the region.
Moscow’s other concern, that Nato was encroaching on its territory, was misplaced, added Scholz, because Ukraine’s membership was not on the agenda as long as he – or even Putin – would be in office.
Flashing his trademark “Smurf-like” grin, Scholz couldn’t resist some diplomatic trolling towards a man who has plans to stay on until 2036: “I don’t know how long the president intends to stay in office. I’ve got a feeling it will be a long time, but not forever.”
German ears pricked up as Scholz criticised a tit-for-tat row over NGOs and national broadcasters. The imprisonment of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny – in court again ahead the chancellor’s visit – was, he insisted, “not tenable”.
No stranger to trolling, Putin insisted the controversial Russian-owned Nord Stream 2 pipeline, ready to bring natural gas under the Baltic sea to Germany once it receives a permit, was a “purely commercial project without any political shadow”.
He was quoting, verbatim, Scholz’s own arguments – until Gerhard Schröder, an ex-chancellor turned Russian energy lobbyist, warned Ukraine to stop its “sabre-rattling” towards Russia.
When Putin praised Schröder – soon to join the board of Gazprom – as an “independent expert” and “decent person” – Scholz was forced to respond.
Schröder, his political mentor in Berlin two decades ago, “doesn’t speak for the federal government, just for himself” – leaving open whether he speaks for Moscow.
With tensions building in eastern Ukraine for months, Scholz has faced increasingly critical coverage at home for doing too little and travelling too late to Washington and Kyiv.
After his frosty Moscow visit, the best-selling Süddeutsche Zeitung had a sober assessment: Putin and Scholz remained, politically, as far apart as they did at the Kremlin banquet table – but at least they promised each other to remain in conversation. It concluded: “Scholz surprised many, perhaps even Putin, but how much he achieved remains unclear.”