In the popular television series Breaking Bad, Walter White, a chemistry teacher recently diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, fears that his family will be unable to afford his treatment or to provide for themselves after he is gone. In despair, he starts to produce and sell drugs – beginning his descent into a spiral of crime ostensibly intended to sustain his business and protect those he loves. His noble cause eventually morphs into a criminal rampage that does more harm to his family than poverty and cancer ever could. To some observers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – known for her tough stance on Russia sanctions – may have begun a similar descent at a recent meeting in Meseberg with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For German Putinversteher – or Putin apologists – the meeting was a turning point towards re-engagement with Moscow and German-Russian rapprochement. Traditional transatlanticists have described the event the same way, but see this as a betrayal. They have been particularly critical of the new format on Syria diplomacy the leaders proposed in Meseberg – as it involves Germany, France, Russia, and Turkey but excludes the United States. Many European countries are especially worried that Merkel might have agreed to protect the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline against possible US sanctions (although these fears are based on Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s description of events, which one should take with a grain of salt). Meanwhile, Merkel and her staff have remained reticent about the meeting, fuelling speculation about its outcome and implications.
Judging by Merkel’s apparent emotional reaction when leaving the conference room, the meeting went poorly. Extrapolating from her previous meetings and negotiations with Russian interlocutors, one can sketch out the predicament she faced, and what was at stake for her country, in Meseberg.
Many European countries are especially worried that Merkel might have agreed to protect the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline against possible US sanctions
Germany has since 2015 negotiated the implementation of the Minsk agreement on the Ukraine conflict, which calls for bilateral meetings between its sponsors. Putin and Merkel have long fundamentally disagreed over the way to implement this agreement; there is nothing to indicate that the meeting in Meseberg changed this. Indeed, as usual, Merkel called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to brief him on the results of the meeting. While there is little hope that she can change Russia’s overall policy on Ukraine, Merkel uses these discussions with Putin partly to address pressing humanitarian issues, such as the fate of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and prisoners of war, humanitarian access to conflict zones, and other unspectacular but deeply important concerns.
In Syria, Putin largely won the war for the Assad regime using the most brutal means available. Now, he wants to make Europe pay for the country’s reconstruction. He talks of “refugees returning” to Syria, knowing that this resonates with European electorates. Merkel does not believe a word of this. She has set conditions on European aid to Syria, including constitutional reform and free and fair elections. As such concessions will only come about through regime change in Damascus – the very thing Russia’s intervention in Syria sought to prevent – these conditions provide Merkel with a way to say “no” on her terms.
But events in Syria may soon take a dramatic turn that will affect her calculations. Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces may soon take Idlib province, the rebels’ last bastion outside Kurdish-controlled territory. Many opposition fighters and their families have fled to this province to escape persecution by the regime. If pro-government troops conquer Idlib in characteristically ruthless fashion, they will precipitate a new humanitarian disaster that could force millions to flee the country. Mired in an economic crisis, Turkey can hardly afford to accommodate another large influx of refugees. Mindful of the continuing fallout from its 2015 decision to admit one million refugees, Germany is determined to avoid another refugee crisis in Europe. For Putin, Idlib is a hostage at the mercy of Russian troops; Merkel must pay a ransom to Russia – or else.
Traditionally, a German chancellor in such a situation would turn to Washington for help. Germany lacks the military and diplomatic capacity to solve the crisis without giving in to Putin’s demands. Yet Berlin’s relations with Washington have deteriorated considerably in recent months, following US President Donald Trump’s absurd allegations against Merkel on defence, trade, and gas deals. Moreover, Trump has replaced H.R. McMaster – a trusted partner who European leaders could approach on difficult matters – with a far more truculent national security adviser, John Bolton.
Ankara is the only other party to the Syrian conflict that has influence on some rebel groups in Idlib and that has brought significant military might to bear in the country. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has manoeuvred Turkey into its current economic crisis with irrational policies he is unwilling to abandon, cultivated ties with Moscow, unleashed war on the Kurds, and used Europe as a scapegoat to boost his domestic political support. His erratic comments on Germany’s alleged “Nazi methods” and human rights violations have turned much of the German public against him. Still, Germany has no interest in Turkey collapsing, or in Turkey drifting further into the Kremlin’s diplomatic orbit. For Ankara to help Berlin, Berlin will need to help Ankara. But it seems impossible to predict whether Berlin will convince Ankara to do so, or whether Erdogan will be a more reliable partner than Putin. With Erdogan set to visit Berlin by the end of September, time will tell.
The only plausible rationale for the strange composition of the new diplomatic format on Syria seems to be that it might buy time and leave all options open. Of course, the format excludes not only the US but also Iran. As Tehran is likely to spoil any agreement reached over its head (to demonstrate its influence in Syria, if nothing else), the format seems doomed as a conflict-resolution mechanism. Nonetheless, it may prove useful in revealing the intent of various parties to the Syrian war.
Any comment on Germany’s intended goals might raise expectations that Merkel cannot fulfil or else generate public opposition
The Nord Stream 2 enigma further complicates matters. The project – whose supposed economic benefits are disputable – has not only created friction within the European Commission (its most powerful opponent) but also undermined Merkel’s leadership in Europe. Any ransom she has to pay to Russia would likely include her imprimatur for Nord Stream 2. On the other hand, Merkel wants to preserve Ukraine’s role as a transit country for Russian gas (Nord Stream 2 would give Moscow the opportunity to cease transits through Ukraine), as she wants to reach an agreement with the EU Commission on the project.
However, Merkel explored efforts to revive the Southern Gas Corridor when she visited Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan just days after her meeting with Putin. This proposed project would reduce European dependency on Moscow and could help stabilise Turkey, as the country would gain a more important role in the European energy supply chain.
Meanwhile, many Germans – including a range of influential figures – favour rapprochement with Russia, reject efforts to strengthen relations with Erdogan’s Turkey, and aim to secure national projects against US interference (be they in relation to Nord Stream 2 or sanctions). Although Germany’s strategic interests would seem to demand the opposite approach, decreasing trust and the unpredictable nature of Trump, Erdogan, and Putin cast doubt on whether Germany will pursue these interests.
Acting alone, Germany will be unable to settle its disputes with Russia, Turkey, or the US. Hence Merkel’s decision to stay silent: any comment on Germany’s intended goals might raise expectations that she cannot fulfil or else generate public opposition that fatally damages her plans.
Thus, Merkel risks becoming a kind of geopolitical Walter White – a tragic figure who strikes increasingly murky deals to protect those she loves, hoping that somehow things will work out. In an international order that is beginning to resemble a competition between rival cartels more than the rules-based system the West once envisioned, another well-meaning chemistry teacher faces a series of ever more dramatic predicaments.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.