Tuesday

21st Sep 2021

EUobserved

Did Merkel do a deal with Putin on Afghan refugees?

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin with German chancellor Angela Merkel last Friday (Photo: kremlin.ru)
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Ukraine claims Germany did a deal with Russia on Afghan refugees to snub its recent Crimea summit, but EU diplomats find it hard to believe.

"[Russian president Vladimir] Putin demanded of [German chancellor Angela] Merkel the withdrawal of [German foreign] minister [Heiko] Maas from the Crimea Platform and she abided by his wishes," a Ukrainian government source told EUobserver, referring to this week's Crimea summit and to a meeting between Putin and Merkel last Friday (20 August).

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  • German foreign minister Heiko Maas declined to go to Kyiv at the last minute (Photo: bundeskanzlerin.de)

"We have also heard that, in Moscow, Putin convinced Merkel of Russian influence with the Taliban, including when it comes to dynamics that will determine how large the flow of migrants is from Afghanistan to Europe, especially Germany," the source said.

"Ukraine and its territorial integrity are being used as a bargaining chip by Germany and Europe in their relations with the Kremlin," the Ukrainian source added.

The Ukrainian contact said he had proof of his allegations, but he declined to share it, referring to the sensitivity of the information and the need to protect sources.

He also cited circumstantial facts which, he said, indicated that Putin had been "emboldened" by his Merkel meeting.

Russia, the same day, also blacklisted Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, because of the Crimea summit, for instance.

"Sanctioning a foreign minister is extremely rare," in terms of international diplomacy, the Ukrainian source noted.

Germany's Maas had been due to attend the Crimea Platform in Kyiv on Monday and Tuesday to showcase EU resistance to Russia's occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula.

But Maas pulled out at the last minute, citing the need to focus on Afghanistan evacuations, with Germany sending its economy and energy minister, Peter Altmaier, instead.

The German foreign ministry did not reply to EUobserver's questions.

But a German source played down the last-minute change, saying Altmaier was a close ally of Merkel and an important figure in Germany's ruling coalition.

"I don't think minister Altmaier would see himself as a downgrade," the German contact said.

Meanwhile, France and Italy made similar downgrades to their Crimea Platform delegations, in what Ukraine saw as the major EU states following Germany's lead.

But an EU diplomat also poured cold water on Ukraine's claims of a Merkel-Putin deal.

"It sounds like a typical Ukrainian conspiracy theory," he told this website.

The fact Merkel went to see Russia before going to Ukraine and that she sent Altmaier still created bad optics in Kyiv, the EU diplomat noted, however.

"Ukraine's [other] allies sent presidents, prime ministers, foreign, or defence ministers [to the Crimea summit], because the occupation of Crimea is not a matter for energy ministers," he said.

Altmaier is also "associated in Europe with a pro-Russian agenda, not least because he is a big supporter of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which harms Ukraine by making its EU gas-transit system obsolete.

"It was senseless of Altmaier to go [to Kyiv] and it looked like a provocation," the EU source said.

"But Germany has had a 'Russia first' policy for over 30 years and nothing has really changed," he said.

For all that, the question remains whether Putin is able to leverage the Afghan crisis to frighten EU leaders into making deals.

Refugee politics

For the EU diplomat, Russia and Belarus had, together, tried to aggravate EU fears on immigration by recently pushing thousands of Arab and African asylum-seekers over the Belarusian border into Lithuania and Poland.

"This looks like a joint [Belarus-Russia] operation," he said.

But for one Belarusian opposition activist, who asked not to be named to protect his safety, even if Putin was telling Afghan scare stories to EU leaders, then he was bluffing.

The last thing Putin would want, politically speaking, would be to open a corridor for Afghan refugees to go through Russia en route to the EU, the Belarusian source said.

"German [federal] elections are in September, so Russia would have a very small window of opportunity for such operations," the source noted, referring to the threat that new arrivals of refugees might harm Merkel's party in the vote.

"Meanwhile, the [1980s-era] Afghanistan war is a bad memory for all Russians. Chechnya [a majority Muslim Russian region] and its terrorism have also left their mark. To play with all this before the parliamentary elections in Russia [in September]? Islamic refugees on Russian territory during tough elections? I'm not so sure," he said.

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