In Digest, Russia

In talks with Merkel, Putin calls for improving relations with Europe

By Neil MacFarquharmay, New York Times, Sunday, May 10, 2015

Note by New Cold editors: The following New York Times article reports on the significant visit to Moscow by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on May 10. The article refers to the “colossal official outpouring” on Red Square on May 9 marking Victory Day. But it does not mention what was the most “colossal” event of that day, which was the March of the Immortal Battalion in which hundreds of thousands of Moscow residents joined the official, citizen commemoration of Victory Day. Their march, joined by President Vladimir Putin, went through Red Square.

Altogether in Russia, several million people joined commemorations. Tens of thousands of people joined Victory Day commemorations around the world, including as many as 5,000 in Toronto, Canada. Further below are additional news reports, including the news that Vladimir Putin will meet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Sochi, Russia on May 12.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin used a visit on Sunday by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to call for a return to normal relations with Europe, brushing aside the widespread boycott by Western leaders of the huge Victory Day parade on Red Square a day earlier.

Vladmir Putin and Angela Merkel lay wreaths in Moscow on May 10 to commemorate the end of WW2 (Reuters)

Vladmir Putin and Angela Merkel lay wreaths in Moscow on May 10 to commemorate the end of WW2 (Reuters)

“We do face some problems today, but the sooner we can end their negative impact on our relations, the better it will be,” Mr. Putin told Ms. Merkel at the start of their talks, after both leaders laid large bouquets of red flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier along the Kremlin wall.

Ms. Merkel and other Western leaders avoided the colossal official outpouring marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. The parade included 16,000 soldiers marching through Red Square, along with the first new Russian tank in decades, the T-14 Armata, and three updated Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles. (An Armata stalled in the square during a practice run on Thursday, but all went smoothly during the real event.)

The guests of honor were Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Pranab Mukherjee of India. Their nations were among 10 countries with military contingents in the parade. Most of the others were former Soviet states. The presidents of Egypt, South Africa, Cuba and Venezuela were also among those attending.

Western leaders declined to take part because of the seizure [sic] by Russian forces of Crimea from Ukraine last year, which touched off a diplomatic crisis and led to sanctions. Of some 68 leaders invited, only 27 attended, with virtually every Western country represented by its ambassador at the event, the biggest military parade ever staged on Red Square. Wave after wave of Russian soldiers marched past for more than 30 minutes.

Yet Ms. Merkel said she felt obliged to mark the end of the war against Nazi Germany during which the Soviet Union lost more than 26 million people, far more than any other country. “It is important for me to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers,” Ms. Merkel said at a news conference. “We will always tell the Russian nation that we will remember the losses and the atrocities.”

Vladmir Putin and Angela Merkel in Moscow for meeting on May 10, 2015 (media pool photo by Maxim Shipenov)

Vladmir Putin and Angela Merkel in Moscow for meeting on May 10, 2015 (media pool photo by Maxim Shipenov)

Mr. Putin sought to use Ms. Merkel’s visit, as well as that of the other world leaders, to underscore that the Ukraine crisis had not left Russia isolated.

“Everyone we wanted to see was here,” he said at one point when asked on television about the boycott.

In his speech during the parade, Mr. Putin thanked the Western nations for the wartime alliance, saying, “We are grateful to the peoples of Great Britain, France and the United States of America for their contribution to the victory.”

He also obliquely castigated the United States, as he often does: “We saw attempts to establish a unipolar world,” he said. “We see the strong-arm bloc thinking, gaining momentum. All that undermines sustainable global development.”

On Sunday, Mr. Putin emphasized reconciliation. At the news conference after he and Ms. Merkel had met for a couple of hours, he emphasized that about 6,000 German businesses operated in Russia and that they would like to see the “obstacles removed” from trade.

For her part, Ms. Merkel made the kind of critical statement about the Ukraine conflict rarely heard in Moscow these days and one that made it clear that Germany, at least, was not quite ready for business as usual. “We have sought more and more cooperation in recent years,” Ms. Merkel said about German-Russian relations. “The criminal and illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have led to a serious setback to this cooperation.”

Both leaders expressed new support for the cease-fire agreement agreed upon in Minsk, Belarus, in February, although both suggested that the implementation was flawed.

Mr. Putin asserted that Kiev needed to enter a dialogue with the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk to work out their future relations, while Ms. Merkel noted that a complete cease-fire had not been achieved.

Diplomats said that behind the scenes senior Russian officials had been emphasizing the idea that the Ukrainian issue was basically a domestic dispute that Moscow and the European Union must shepherd toward a solution, while they themselves should concentrate on broader, more important issues.

Mr. Putin evidently hopes that differences among European Union nations might prevent an extension of financial, defense and energy sanctions at a European summit in June.

“He thinks that he can wait for a while until business as usual comes back,” said Nikolai Petrov, an independent political analyst. “He is waiting for them to maintain the rhetoric but make life easier in the banking and financial sector.”

Mr. Putin is feeling slightly more confident, analysts said, because the economic picture is not as bleak as it seemed a couple months ago despite still serious problems.

Russia has been aided by a rise in oil prices, and the ruble has stabilized at about 50 to the dollar — far higher than the roughly 34 rubles to the dollar last spring, but far less than at its most volatile five months ago.

The prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev, has said gross domestic product declined by about 2 percent in the first quarter of this year. It is somewhat less than anticipated, although the World Bank has said that it will contract by 3.8 percent for the year. Inflation was nearly 17 percent in March, the World Bank said.

“The main goal for Putin now is to attain not the cancellation of Western sanctions, but weakening sanctions,” said Kirill Rogov, an economic analyst. “I think he will use the combination of threats and peaceful statements to compel Western leaders to weaken restrictions in the financial sphere.”

Mr. Putin received support from some of his guests, including the longtime president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, 91. “You are fighting sanctions, like we are. It’s the reason why we should be together,” Mr. Mugabe said during a meeting Sunday.

Perhaps the biggest outpouring of support for the Russian government came from the estimated 500,000 people who turned out to march through Red Square for the “Immortal Regiment” parade on Saturday afternoon. Most carried pictures of their parents or grandparents who fought in the war.

Mr. Putin joined the march in Moscow carrying a picture of his father. Ironically for a government that has crushed all public demonstrations, this march was begun four years ago by an independent television station that has since been forced out of business.

The mood among ordinary Russians was either perplexed that Western leaders stayed away or defiance that Russia could go it alone. Russians have long felt that despite the differences between the Soviet Union and the West, marking the victory over Germany was the one time that they could set aside any differences.

One veteran, Stanislav Prokofievich, 86, leaning heavily on a cane, said he was part of the parade a decade ago when President George W. Bush attended. “Bush was sitting in the front row with the president. Why isn’t Obama here today?” Mr. Prokofievich said. “What happened? What is his problem?”

Fyodor Lukyanov, a political analyst who was out among the crowds on Saturday, said he noted a kind of good riddance mood toward the Western leaders.

“Many people were asking why did we invite them, it is our celebration and our victory, so why pay so much attention to who came and who did not,” he said, with some people noting that in Soviet times foreigners were not invited. “We are back to this tradition, back to the Soviet tradition.”

Read also:
Transcript of comments to media by Vladimir Putin following meeting with Angel Merkel on May 11, 2015

Vladimir Putin and John Kerry to meet in Sochi on May 12, Reuters, May 11, 2015


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