politics

Kremlin Sees Cracks in West’s Unity as France, Germany Keep Ties

  • Macron visit still on, ‘pragmatic’ Merkel praised on pipeline
  • Russia tries to limit fallout after expulsions over U.K. case

The Kremlin is sensing a crack in European unity as France and Germany seek to maintain ties, even after the West’s unprecedented expulsion of Russian diplomats over the nerve-agent attack in the U.K.

French President Emmanuel Macron still plans to visit a showcase economic forum in Russia in late May, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday, two days after Germany gave final approval for construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that bypasses other European states to deliver Russian gas.

Confirmation of Macron’s visit demonstrates France’s “constructive position” in seeking dialogue despite “sometimes quite serious” differences, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on a conference call Thursday. Approval of the pipeline shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel is “trying to limit the damage from this scandal,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the information policy committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, told state radio.

Russia has vowed retaliation after the U.S., NATO and 25 allies including Germany and France expelled nearly 130 Russian diplomats this week in support of the U.K., which kicked out 23 Kremlin envoys on March 14. While the scale of the coordinated action was unprecedented, the decision of Paris and Berlin to limit expulsions to four diplomats each, in contrast to the 60 ordered out by U.S. President Donald Trump, has stoked expectations in Russia that France and Germany still want to work with Putin.

“Transatlantic solidarity is shown just up to the point where it starts to hit them in the pocket and threaten future European-Russian ties,” said Oleg Morozov, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament.

Russia rejects U.K. accusations that it was responsible for the March 4 poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury, which prompted the wave of expulsions over the first offensive use of a chemical weapon since World War II.

“The fallout has turned out to be more or less digestible” even if U.S. “ties are plunging to rock-bottom,” Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin, said by phone.

While France agrees “there’s no other plausible explanation” than Russian responsibility for the attack, Russia is critical to major issues such as ending the civil war in Syria, Le Drian told RTL Radio. “We want to maintain a dialog with Russia that’s frank, without ambiguity, clear, and demanding,” he said. 

Macron’s visit to the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in Putin’s hometown “is still planned,” Le Drian said. European Union politicians have largely shunned Russia’s primary event for foreign investors since Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s support for separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Nord Stream

Meanwhile, the completion of German planning permission for the gas-pipeline project, which bypasses fellow EU member Poland as well as Ukraine, came less than two weeks after U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said she’d seek to discuss dependence on Russian energy as a security issue with other European states. Russia supplies a third of Europe’s gas.

Expansion of the Nord Stream pipeline can “only have negative consequences” for regional security and Germany should rethink the project in light of the U.K. attack, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Konrad Szymanski said last week.

While Germany, like France, isn’t an ally of Russia, “Merkel is showing she is a level-headed and pragmatic politician,” Pushkov, the Russian senator, said.

Foster Dialogue

The West must show “how we can foster constructive dialogue,” Gernot Erler, the German government’s coordinator for relations with Russia, said on radio Thursday. “We have to have a means of avoiding further escalation. Otherwise, it will get out of control and we don’t know where it will end.”

The EU’s response to the Skripal poisoning “exceeded expectations,” though it’s “unlikely” it’ll be followed by new sanctions against Russia, the New York-based Eurasia Group said in a March 26 research note.

Still, the attack blamed on Russia may have killed any lingering hopes in Moscow of an easing of the current package of punitive measures imposed over Ukraine -- which have contributed to a persistent economic malaise triggered by a fall in oil prices.

Russia must now make “maximum efforts” to restore ties with the EU, Igor Ivanov, who was foreign minister from 1998 to 2004, said in a commentary in government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

— With assistance by Stepan Kravchenko, and Iain Rogers

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