Merkel-Obama Ties Invigorated by Putin Over Ukraine

The threat of Ukraine’s breakup is bringing Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama closer together.

The German and U.S. leaders are finding common ground in confronting President Vladimir Putin over Russian interference in Ukraine, drawing them together after years of trans-Atlantic discord over the euro-area crisis and U.S. spying on its allies.

As Merkel makes her first visit to the White House in almost three years today, she has shown herself to be the key conduit to Putin for the U.S. and its European allies. She’s done so while struggling to hold together a united European response to the Ukraine conflict in concert with the U.S. and by facing down sections of corporate and public Germany that is more willing to engage with Russia than punish it.

That common purpose with Obama means the mood for the visit is different from just eight weeks ago, according to a Merkel aide who asked not to be named because the preparations for the trip are private. Friction caused by the U.S. National Security Agency’s alleged eavesdropping on the chancellor’s phone is now taking a back seat, the aide said.

“Ukraine has significantly reduced the pressures on Merkel and Obama stemming from the NSA affair, which helps both of them,” Stefan Meister, a Berlin-based analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a telephone interview. Even as Europe and the U.S. differ on the scope and speed of sanctions on Russia, the two leaders “will be looking for a signal of unity,” he said.

Phone Calls

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and its efforts to extend influence further into Ukraine are thrusting Merkel back into the pivotal role that she held during the debt crisis. Whereas then U.S. officials pressed her to do more to tackle the crisis, urging action early on to help Greece and later questioning her prescription of austerity, Germany and the U.S. are far closer on their response to the Ukraine standoff.

Merkel and Obama have been on the phone several times a week during crisis peaks, setting the stage for their meeting today. They are due to hold a joint press conference at 11:40 a.m. in Washington.

Obama, 52, and Merkel “have regularly read out to one another their discussions and their assessments of what Russia is doing,” U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said on April 26.

As leader of Europe’s biggest economy and Russia’s biggest European trading partner, Merkel, 59, is the key bridge to Putin, 61. She grew up under Communism in former East Germany and speaks Russian, while he speaks German from his time as a KGB officer in Dresden when the city was East German.

Talking German

Direct conversations between Merkel and Putin tend to be in her language because his German is better than her Russian, according to a second German official who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. The two leaders have phoned at least 10 times since Feb. 20, according to the German government. She called Putin yesterday to urge him to help secure the release of international observers in Ukraine.

Merkel will spend four hours at the White House, including lunch with Obama, and give a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that German officials say will include a pitch for the proposed trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union.

Accidental Timing

Obama invited Merkel, the longest-serving government leader of a Group of Seven country, after she won a third term in September elections. The trip was delayed when Merkel broke her pelvis in a ski accident, lifting Ukraine to the top of the agenda by a quirk of timing, according to the chancellery aide.

Even when they disagree on policy details, Merkel and Obama share a cerebral approach to politics that’s kept their relationship stable, the official said. They also share the goal of completing the U.S.-EU trade agreement they say will spur growth and strengthen trans-Atlantic ties amid the conflict with Russia.

The U.S. administration urged Merkel to make a push for the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership during her speech in Washington, according to a German official who briefed reporters on the trip. He asked not be named because the preparations are private.

In Germany, Merkel is caught between U.S. calls to punish Russia and pressure from business leaders and voters to avoid open conflict with Putin as symbolized by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s birthday bash in St. Petersburg this week. After she initially urged engagement to resolve the Ukraine standoff, Merkel has voiced growing exasperation with the Russian president.

Turning Point

A turning point came in mid-March as Crimea prepared to hold a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. Within the space of 24 hours, Merkel warned Putin that Russia risked “massive economic and political harm” if it didn’t change course, then told an audience of industry leaders in Munich that Germany could withstand the fallout of economic sanctions against Russia.

The 28-nation EU hasn’t agreed on that step, instead limiting itself to travel bans and asset freezes while the U.S. went further, targeting 17 companies linked to allies of Putin on April 28.

Ukraine’s crisis is “a make-or-break issue for the trans-Atlantic community,” Norbert Roettgen, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party who heads the German parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Popular Support

Merkel’s approach is popular with German voters, who polls suggest are wary of escalating conflict with Russia even though they distrust Putin’s intentions. Still, support is gaining for economic sanctions, with 50 percent of respondents to a monthly poll for ARD television released on April 30 saying they were in favor, up from 38 percent in March.

The chancellor’s approval rating rose two percentage points to 58 percent in a separate weekly Forsa poll published April 29, compared with 14 percent for her deputy, Social Democratic Party head Sigmar Gabriel.

That popularity looked at risk last year when news reports about NSA spying based on documents leaked by former contractor Edward Snowden set off a public uproar around the time Obama gave a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in June. A parliamentary inquiry merely highlighted the government’s failure to secure a U.S. pledge to refrain from snooping on Germans.

Ahead of the chancellor’s visit, the German government signaled it doesn’t expect results from Obama during this trip either. With both leaders occupied by the worst conflict with Russia since the end of the Cold War, the NSA won’t top the agenda for their talks, according to the chancellery aide.

“Merkel doesn’t have to take a tougher line in Washington and the Americans won’t be on the defensive,” said Meister, the foreign-policy analyst.

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