BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to hold talks in Moscow on Friday amid the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan and as Russia's treatment of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and Ukraine remain a source of ongoing tension between the two leaders' countries.
Other challenging issues that are certain to play a role in the meeting are a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany opposed by the United States, the repression of dissent in Belarus, and allegations that the Belarusian government has channeled migrants into Latvia, Lithuania and Poland with the aim of destabilizing the European Union.
Merkel’s visit to Moscow comes as the chancellor is nearing the end of her almost 16-year-long leadership of Germany. She and Putin, who has served as Russia's president or prime minister since 2000, managed to maintain a line of communication over the years despite their many political differences.
However, the personal relationship between the two has deteriorated since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, and as a result of other authoritarian actions by Moscow.
Friday's talks in Moscow will “surely be about the big outstanding international questions,” Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin earlier this week. “Obviously Afghanistan. Furthermore, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, for the solution and settlement of which Russia could do much more."
"Belarus, a country, a dictator, who goes against his own people in the worst kind of way and on whom the Russian leadership has influence as we believe,” Seibert added as he listed possible talking points.
Merkel is heading to Russia on the anniversary of Navalny falling gravely ill while on a plane flying over Siberia on Aug. 20, 2020. At his wife's insistence, the opposition leader was transferred for medical treatment to Germany, where officials said tests revealed he had been poisoned with a Soviet-developed nerve agent.
Navalny, who is Putin’s most outspoken critic, spent five months in Germany recovering and blamed the poisoning on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
Upon his return to Russia in January, Navalny was immediately arrested and jailed. A month later, he was ordered to serve 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of a suspended sentence from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he dismissed as politically motivated.
“This still unsolved case is putting a very severe burden on the relationship to Russia,” Seibert said. “Mr. Navalny is wrongfully imprisoned.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a lengthy statement Wednesday about “the Navalny case," charging that actions by “Germany and its allies” over the past 12 months indicated “a planned provocation aimed at discrediting Russia in the eyes of the global community and at damaging its national interests.”
The ministry accused Berlin of failing to provide evidence that would support their “brazen allegations” that Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent. It said Germany left legal requests from Russian law enforcement without any “meaningful answers” and instead played “bureaucratic ping-pong” with Moscow.
Merkel, 67, who grew up in communist East Germany and is fluent in Russian, has always stressed that relations with Russia can only improve through dialogue. Her visit to Moscow will be one of her last trips abroad as chancellor since she is not running in Germany's national election next month.
Putin, 68, who has been in power for more than 20 years, is Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Under communism in the 1980s, he worked for the Soviet's intelligence service KGB in East Germany.
Despite his and Merkel's years of experience as leaders and with each other, experts are skeptical Friday's meeting will improve the ties between Germany and Russia.
“Russia has become an authoritarian regime,” Stefan Meister, a political analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations told The Associated Press. “It is no longer interested in improving relations with the west.”
The deterioration of relations between the two countries is mirrored in the worsening of the personal relationship of their longtime leaders, Meister said.
“Mrs. Merkel, as an East German and with her background, right from the start understood better than her predecessors how Russia works and how Putin operates. There always was a matter-of-fact relationship…based on respect," Meister said, adding that all changed with the beginning of armed hostilities in eastern Ukraine.
“The big break was the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” Meister added.
Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine erupted after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and has left more than 14,000 dead.
Efforts to negotiate a political settlement under the 2015 Minsk agreements brokered by France and Germany have stalled, and the EU has imposed sanctions against Russia for failing to live up to its peace commitments in Ukraine.
Merkel plans to travel back to Berlin on Friday night and to head to Kyiv on Sunday to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Another topic of discussion with Putin will likely be the nearly finished Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany. The project has angered the United States and some European countries, but the U.S. and Germany announced a deal last month to allow its completion.
Critics say the pipeline threatens European energy security, heightens Russia’s influence and poses risks to Ukraine and Poland in bypassing both countries.
Regarding Belarus, Merkel earlier this week accused President Alexander Lukashenko of a “hybrid attack” against the EU by encouraging migrants to cross the borders into Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in retaliation to the EU’s sanctions against Belarus.
Merkel said she would raise the topic with Putin.
Belarus depends heavily on Russian energy supplies and Moscow has authorized loans to prop up the country’s beleaguered economy.