Two weeks after Russia turned off oil supplies to Germany -- causing widespread alarm in the European Union -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin Sunday in an attempt to secure assurances that Russia would be a reliable energy supplier in the future.
And Putin seemed happy to provide them. The Russian leader promised his German counterpart that Russia would reduce its dependence on transit countries -- such as Belarus, with whom Russia currently has strained relations -- to guarantee smooth deliveries. He also said that Russia would play by the market rules, and that he was prepared to discuss energy issues with the EU.
"We are open to constructive work on the energy dialogue with the European Union," Putin told reporters. "From our point of view, we hope that our partners will observe the principle of equal rights and mutual respect for each other's interests."
The two leaders met Sunday at Putin's residence in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. Putin's black labrador Koni also put in an appearance, settling at Merkel's feet -- to the German leader's apparent discomfort.
Putin also said Russia was committed to building its energy relations on the basis of clear rules. "We always say ... we want to operate on the basis of a clear, market relationship," he said -- without actually going into detail about which rules Russia was prepared to commit itself to.
Putin sought to assuage EU concerns about risks of disruption to energy supplies by saying that Russia would speed up work on new export routes to western Europe, such as a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea to Germany. "We will in the most active way possible develop our transport network in order to have the opportunity to deliver our resources to our main consumers directly," the Russian leader said.
Merkel made it clear that she was not happy about Russia's decision to temporarily turn off the Druzhba oil pipeline earlier this month due to a dispute with Belarus. "There were irritations at the start of the year, and I made it clear from my side," she said. "I believe we agree here that communication in such situations must be improved to avoid such irritations." Of the total of 112 million tons of oil that are consumed in Germany each year, 20 percent travels through the Druzhba pipeline.
The German leader said she understood that Russia wanted to sell energy to ex-Soviet neighbors like Belarus at market prices, but stressed that Germany needed "reliability." There have been disputes with Ukraine and Belarus over Russia raising its energy prices. Russia claims that prices were previously "subsidized."
She also said that both Europe and Russia were dependent on each other as consumers and suppliers of energy "in a good sense."
Putin too emphasized that Russia wanted good relations with its neighbors. "We say to all: Partnership, cooperation and teamwork -- yes," said Putin. "We will be building relations with all our partners, both transit states and consumers of hydrocarbons, on an equal, understandable and transparent basis."
Moving on to other issues, Putin and Merkel stressed that a diplomatic solution must be found to the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear program. They also expressed hope that the upcoming meeting of the Middle East Quartet of the EU, Russia, the UN and the US, which will be held in February in Washington, will advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Discussing the issue of Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo, Putin said that a solution should "not be imposed from outside," saying that both sides in the conflict should be satisfied.
They also discussed Russian's current ban on Polish meat imports, which has complicated EU-Russian relations recently.
Although there was no announcement of a deal to get the ban lifted, Putin told reporters: "Let's agree -- we aren't against agreeing."
Merkel, who currently holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency, has met with Putin several times since she became chancellor in 2005, including a visit by Putin last October to the east German city of Dresden, where he had been stationed as a KGB officer. However their relationship does not seem to be as cordial as Putin's was with Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder -- despite Merkel's fluent Russian.