German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on a rare visit to Russia, said that Berlin and Moscow had to keep talking despite their disagreements, but those same differences overshadowed her talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
At a news conference following a meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, diverging positions were aired over Syria, Ukraine, Russian respect for civil rights, and allegations Moscow is interfering in other countries’ elections.
Their body language suggested tensions: their facial expressions as they spoke to reporters were stern, and the two leaders barely looked at each other.
“I am always of the view that even if there are serious differences of opinion in some areas, talks must continue,” Merkel said. “You must carry on, because otherwise you fall into silence and there is less and less understanding.”
Merkel was making her first bilateral visit to Russia since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, a move that set off the worst confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Since Germany is holder of the rotating presidency of the G20 group of leading nations this year, Merkel has been meeting key members in preparation for a summit.
Asked by a reporter if she feared Germany could be subject to Russian attempts to interfere in its forthcoming parliamentary election by disseminating fake news, Merkel took a firm line.
“I am not an anxious person, I will fight the election on the basis of my convictions,” she said, adding Germans would deal decisively with any cases of false information.
But Putin, standing alongside her, bristled at the suggestion Russia had meddled in the U.S. presidential election and that it was planning more of the same in Europe.
Allegations about Russia trying to get Donald Trump elected as U.S. president were “rumors”, Putin said, generated as part of internal political battles in the United States.
“We never interfere in the political life and the political processes of other countries and we don’t want anybody interfering in our political life and foreign policy processes,” said Putin.
Trump, Putin Call Set Tuesday
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were scheduled to speak by phone Tuesday, their first known conversation since the U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base that sparked new tensions between Washington and Moscow.
The early afternoon discussion was expected to focus in part on Syria’s six-year conflict, which has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced millions more.
Despite having previously warned against U.S. intervention in Syria, Trump ordered the strikes against Syrian government targets in early April after accusing the regime of using chemical weapons in a deadly attack on civilians. The U.S. action was accompanied by a dramatic shift in the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward Russia, one of the Syrian government’s most important benefactors.
Trump, who spent months touting the prospect of warmer ties with Putin, declared after the strikes that the relationship between the U.S. and Russia “may be at an all-time low.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley also sharply condemned Moscow’s role in supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Yet Trump has continued to hold out the prospect of a stronger relationship with Russia, which was a cornerstone of his foreign policy platform as a presidential candidate. He took to Twitter days after the Syria strikes to say that “things will work out fine” between the U.S. and Russia and “everyone will come to their senses.”
Trump and Putin spoke one day before a new round of Russian-led talks on the Syria crisis begins in Kazakhstan. The State Department announced that a top official, Acting Assistant Secretary Stuart Jones, would participate in the talks, signaling “U.S. support for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis.”
The shifts in the Trump administration’s posture came amid a steady swirl of controversy surrounding possible ties between the president’s associates and Russia during last year’s election. The FBI and congressional committees are investigating whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia as it meddled in the election.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s vanquished Democratic opponent, said during a speaking appearance Tuesday that she was “on the way to winning” the election until “intervening events” in the campaign’s final days, including WikiLeaks’ release of hacked emails from one of her top advisers. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Russia was behind the hacking.
Putin, who met earlier Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, denied that Moscow ever interferes in other countries’ elections. He said accusations of Russian meddling aimed at helping Trump in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton were “simply rumors” being used as part of a political fight in Washington.
Trump has vigorously denied any nefarious ties to Moscow, calling the Russian investigations a “hoax.”
Trump and Putin have spoken twice since the U.S. president took office in January, including last month following an attack in St. Petersburg, Russia. The attack occurred days before the U.S. missile strike in Syria.