The World From Berlin Courting the Russian Mammoth

Russia and the European Union have engaged in a diplomatic courting ritual this week as if between equal partners, trying to clear the way for a trade and energy summit on Friday. But who, exactly, needs who? German commentators whiff an elephant in the room.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ministers outside Moscow on Tuesday.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ministers outside Moscow on Tuesday.

A quick unscheduled trip to Moscow yesterday by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appeared to thaw relations between Russia and the European Union not at all -- which means a trade and energy summit between the EU and Moscow on Friday may amount to a lot of hot air. Steinmeier sounded positive ("It was worth coming to Moscow," he told reporters), but three hours of talks with Putin and his ministers yielded no breakthrough.

The obstacles to smooth relations between Russia and Europe seem to be rooted in history. Poland and Lithuania have both vowed to veto formal EU trade talks over what they see as post-Soviet muscle-flexing -- a Russian embargo of Polish meat products on the one hand, and Russia's shutdown of oil deliveries to Lithuania on the other. And when the Estonian government moved a Soviet-era war memorial from one part of Tallinn to another, in April, the Kremlin howled about ingratitude for Russian sacrifices against the Nazis. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, with no less awareness of the past, said, "We don't consider it necessary to hold deep discussions with the Russian authorities over the internal affairs of Estonia."

The American plan to build an anti-missile defense system close to Russia's borders -- with bases in Poland and the Czech Republic -- has also upset Russian President Vladimir Putin. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also in Moscow on a separate ruffled-feather-smoothing mission on Tuesday.

Putin told Steinmeier that friction with eastern EU states was just small change. "These are not conflicts between the EU and Russia," he reportedly said on Tuesday, "but only differences of opinion about how we can solve the problems," of trade and energy imbalances. But German papers on Wednesday smell an elephant in the room, and set out to call Russia's bluff.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The question of guilt in the increasingly icy relationship with Russia is relatively easy to answer: It lies with Moscow, where the president and his government have tried to provoke the EU at the negotiating table with ornery behavior against Lithuania and Estonia and with a purely politically-motivated blockade against Poland. One year before the end of his time in office, Vladimir Putin is showing off Russia's strengths, as he understands them."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Russia has systematically resisted the right of its Soviet-era satellites to act independently. It seizes every opportunity to separate them from the rest of the EU and play them against the western member states."

"If, for example, Austria had moved a similar war memorial, or Norway had offered help with a missile shield, or Denmark had trouble confirming the ultimate sources of its pork and beef, such problems would remain low on Russia's priority list."

"Let's make no mistake. This is not about … Russia's relationship to Estonia, Poland or the Czech Republic. This is a test of the European Union's strength, its political will, and above all its cohesion. If this Russian strategy betrays a power vacuum in Europe, then Europe should expect a rocky future."

The financial daily Handelsblatt argues:

"The notion of a two-sided dependency -- repeated so often lately in Berlin -- is a fairy tale. There are dependencies (in this relationship), but they are one-sided. Not even Germany would make it through the winter without Russian natural gas."

"Of course Russia is interested in good relations with its customers. But it has a choice of customers -- and if the Europeans act fresh (which they won't), oil and gas can be re-routed to other parts of Asia."

"There is no reason for the Kremlin to sign an energy treaty -- for the good of some vague contract with Europe -- that would only narrow Russia's freedom in its most important economic sector."

The left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Steinmeier's negotiating partners on this blitz-visit to Moscow will have found no reason to budge. The Russian course is a result of its experiences over the past two decades. Under its own cost-benefit analyses the Kremlin has decided that the resilience of the Yeltsin era and Putin's early solidarity in the war on terrorism have brought the country no advantages, only obligations."

"Russia has grown strong again and is in a position to push its interests aggressively. … The EU is surprised by this transformation, and so far has no strategy to counter it."

-- Michael Scott Moore, 12:30pm CET


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