Merkel, Putin tackle tough topics in meeting outside Berlin
Talks ranged from conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to Iran and a gas pipeline project
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met outside Berlin on Saturday for talks ranging from the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, to Iran and a gas pipeline project that has drawn U.S. ire.
Standing beside Putin, Merkel said both countries — but especially Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council — have a responsibility to tackle these problems.
She said she planned to raise human rights issues with Putin, and discuss bilateral relations, strained since Russia's annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014.
"I am of the opinion that controversial issues can only be addressed in dialogue and through dialogue," she said.
Both leaders raised concerns about Syria and the plight of the many refugees created by the seven-year-old war there.
Merkel said it was important to avert a humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Syria and the surrounding region, and said she and Putin had already discussed the issue of constitutional reforms and possible elections when they last met in Sochi in May.
Putin told reporters that everything must be done to help Syrian refugees to return to their country and that Syria needed assistance to rebuild. The two leaders took no questions.
On Ukraine, Merkel said she hoped fresh efforts could be undertaken at the beginning of the new school year to disentangle Ukrainian military forces and separatists on the front lines in the Donbass region.
On the planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany, Merkel said Ukraine should continue to have a role in gas transit to Europe. She said she welcomed the start of discussions among the European Union, Ukraine and Russia on that issue.
Putin told reporters that such a move had to make sense from a business perspective.
"I would like to stress that the main thing is that the Ukrainian transit — which is traditional for us — meets economic demands," he said. "Nord Stream 2 is exclusively an economic project."
The United States is pressing Germany to halt work on the pipeline, arguing that it will increase Germany's dependence on Russia for energy.
Ukraine fears the pipeline will allow Russia to cut it off from the gas transit business, while Germany's eastern European neighbours, nervous of Russian encroachment, have also raised concerns about the project.
Putin arrived in Germany on Saturday evening after a stop at an Austrian vineyard to attend Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl's wedding to entrepreneur Wolfgang Meilinger.
"We want to create new momentum in the Minsk [peace] process," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview to be published by Die Welt am Sonntag on Sunday.
Sanctions relief for Russia would only be negotiated if the Minsk accord was implemented, he added.
Maas said he had spoken with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin this week, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was due to visit Berlin again on Sept. 14 after a meeting with Merkel in the German capital last month.