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As NATO talks near, Merkel appears to lose patience with Putin

GROSSOSTHEIM, Germany — As Russia has expanded its military footprint in neighboring Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has held repeated consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so numerous that the German magazine Der Spiegel recently tried to count the phone calls between Berlin and Moscow since November. At least 25, it concluded. Or possibly 35.

As the only top Western leader who still talks frequently to Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has played a pivotal role in efforts to curb Russian aggression in Ukraine through sanctions while seeking to bridge a rift between NATO and Russia that threatens a new Cold War.

So far, the Russian leader hasn’t bent, and Merkel’s patience appears to be wearing thin. What more she and her Western colleagues can do is a frustrating question that Merkel and her allies must finally try to answer.

NATO leaders meet in Wales on Thursday with the alliance facing perhaps its greatest challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are expected to show a united front, imposing yet more sanctions on Moscow and approving a force that could rapidly deploy to Europe’s borders with Russia.

Merkel and her fellow Western leaders are angered by Russia’s actions in Ukraine, especially its seizure of Crimea, support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine and fresh military incursion. Moscow’s denial that it has any involvement in Ukraine’s blood conflict only irks them more.

The German chancellor has signaled a tougher stance toward Russia, spelling out her willingness to sacrifice German economic interests and further boost sanctions to send a strong message that Moscow’s actions are unacceptable.

"Being able to change borders in Europe without consequences, and attacking other countries with troops, is in my view a far greater danger than having to accept certain disadvantages for the economy," she said Monday after delivering an address to the German Parliament.

But with military support for Ukraine ruled out, and Germany firmly opposed to anything but a negotiated political solution, many worry that NATO’s actions will sting but not deter Russia from its military incursion in Ukraine. With both sides hardening their positions, their relations are in the deep freeze, and getting colder.

"She’s balancing all sides, with no real success, quite honestly," said analyst Stefan Kornelius, author of Merkel’s authorized biography. "She has not managed to move Putin one inch."

Merkel’s central role in maintaining a united European front faced with the Ukraine crisis — and her country’s influence with Putin — are partly a reflection of German economic power in Europe, analysts say. Germany has significant economic links with Russia: It imports nearly a third of its energy from and is the biggest European exporter to Russia.

Merkel has never had the cozy relationship that her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, cultivated with Putin. But she gets the Russian leader, his background and his geopolitical concerns in a way that eludes other Western leaders, according to analysts. Raised in East Germany, she speaks Russian; Putin, formerly stationed as a KGB officer in East Germany, is fluent in German.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Germany has been understanding of Russia’s prickly hypersensitivity over its loss of its superpower status. After NATO’s expansion to include Poland in 1999 and the Baltic states in 2004, Moscow viewed efforts to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance as a provocative threat to its interests. Merkel opposed the move, seeking to not antagonize Russia.

Putin has fostered the economic links with Germany and played on tension between NATO partners, hoping to divide Europe. Russia offered asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the extent of American Internet and cellphone surveillance, including his allegation that the United States tapped Merkel’s cellphone, a revelation that deeply angered the German leader.

But lately, Merkel has grown impatient with Putin’s denials of Russian support for eastern Ukraine’s separatists, even as NATO offers evidence of a growing Russian troop presence in the east.

"I think what’s interesting about Merkel is that she has overcome some initial caution on how to handle the crisis and her view is that sanctions are needed as part of the effort to dissuade Russia from its current course," said John Lough, associate fellow with London-based think tank Chatham House. "The German government placed a good deal of trust in Mr. Putin, and his government embarrassed Germany."

Kornelius, the biographer, said Merkel now sees Putin as an unreliable figure, out of touch with reality.

"Her basic view on Putin is we keep on talking, but he’s not to be trusted," Kornelius said in a telephone interview. "He can reverse everything he says within minutes, pretty much saying he’s a liar. She never expected too much, but he’s disappointed her so much. She’s given up hoping that he can be encamped somewhere within our system of democratic, law-based countries.

"Russia’s relations with the West have really unraveled fully. We can’t really think how to renew them. This fire has to blow out before you can assess the damage."

There are significant business interests and political forces in Germany opposed to tough action against Moscow, including leading members of the Social Democratic Party. But as Merkel’s position on Russia has changed, their influence has waned.

Merkel hardened her stance when Putin grabbed the Crimean peninsula in March, and more so after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July by separatists using a missile that Russia was accused of supplying.

"You have a huge faction of society which is sympathetic to Putin and Russia," said Kornelius, citing a public opinion poll in March in which most Germans supported a more neutral stance in the conflict. But "what Putin did reversed public opinion here" with the pro-Russia camp "losing influence every day."

On Monday, Merkel made it clear that she rejected Putin’s characterization of the Ukraine crisis as a civil war, calling it a conflict between Moscow and Kiev. But she strongly opposes military support or the supply of arms to Ukraine, insisting that the only solution is a negotiated political settlement.

The escalating sanctions aim to make it so expensive for Russia that Putin will quietly abandon the separatists. But they’ve had the opposite effect, according to some analysts, with Russia continuing its well-worn path of supporting the opposition in neighboring states to keep those countries weak and fearful.

Lough said Germany was "signaling to Russia that if you do this, a very bad situation is going to get worse, and it’s going to be worse for you than it is for us. So far the Russians haven’t heeded those warnings. We are getting into something of a downward spiral that it’s difficult to see a way out of."

Despite Merkel’s search for a political solution, so far there has been no final deal that would stabilize Ukraine, end Russian interference and allay Western concerns.

Putin has suggested Kiev offer the separatists some form of autonomy or independence, a proposal that seems to reward Russia’s intervention and give it indefinite leverage in eastern Ukraine. Putin has made it clear that he’s unwilling to give up Crimea.

"NATO is not prepared to fight a war with Russia over Ukraine, and he’s prepared to fight a war," said Kornelius. "Since no one is prepared to fight for Ukraine or deliver weapons to Ukraine, there’s not much for him to lose."

2014 Los Angeles Times

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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