Robert Harneis –TDO- (FRANCE) German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has made a significant diplomatic move, visiting Russia’s President Putin, just as Chancellor Merkel tackles the difficult task of building a new coalition government.

Relations between the two governments are difficult since the coup d’état in 2014 in Kiev brought to power a government virulently hostile to both Russia and the millions of citizens of Russian origin amongst the Ukrainian population. The reaction of the Russian government in accepting reunification with Crimea and in supporting the breakaway regions in the Donbass has poisoned relations with EU and Germany.

The overthrow of the elected Ukrainian government was openly encouraged by the United States and its close ally Poland but the EU was not far behind with Angela Merkel’s Germany closely involved.

Since then the EU was bullied by the United States into enacting sanctions against Russia and strengthening them after the MH17 passenger plane was shot down in controversial circumstances.

There is growing realization in Germany that this series of events suited the United States policy of keeping Europe and Russian apart, but is not obviously in German interests. Sanctions have cost the thousands of German companies that do business in Russia a great deal. It has cost the United States little or nothing.

The point was underlined when, earlier this year, President Trump signed into law new anti-Russian sanctions legislation that could threaten the building of the new gas pipeline Nordstream 2. The pipeline is of great importance to Germany. Unusually the German government publicly contested the American move.

The chaotic state of US diplomacy since President Trump entered office has given the German government a desire to act more independently and at the same time made it easier. Chancellor Merkel notably commented in May this year, ‘The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out,’ she told a crowd at an election rally in Munich. ‘I’ve experienced that in the last few days.’ She continued ‘we must fight for our own future and our fate ourselves as Europeans.’ ‘We must really take our destiny into our own hands,’ she continued.

The visit by President Steinmeier is particularly significant because he is not only a former Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of Germany but a member of the left of center SPD, formerly a coalition ally of Merkel and since the latest German elections now in opposition. Steinmeier has long called for engaging Russia diplomatically. He is close to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, now Chairman of Russian oil giant Rosneft, who is well known for promoting closer ties with Russia.

‘We both believe that the current state of affairs cannot satisfy us and should not satisfy us,’ he said following talks with Putin. ‘We are far from having normal ties, open wounds are still out there, there are unresolved issues, first and foremost it concerns the takeover of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which are a burden and continue to be a burden for our relations.’

Putin for his part said Moscow was ready to develop ties with Germany, adding that German businesses were interested in expanding their footprint in Russia. ‘Despite certain political difficulties Russian-German ties are not at a standstill,’ he added.

Earlier Steinmeier said he had spoken with former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, 86, soliciting his advice on how to improve ties between the two countries. ‘He told me: 'The only thing that helps is to keep talking - even about difficult issues',’ Steinmeier told journalists after the hour-long meeting. ‘I come during times in which German-Russian relations have become difficult,’ Steinmeier said. ‘I see it as my responsibility to contribute to make sure that this doesn't stay this way forever.’

Steinmeier also visited Russia's top rights group Memorial and attended a ceremony for the Russian state's return of a cathedral building to the Protestant church. He praised the handover of the cathedral, which was seized by the Soviets in 1938, and said he hoped that the church would continue to serve as a ‘place of encounter’ between Orthodox and Lutheran Christians as well as Russians and Germans.

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