BERLIN — He was skinny in his trim, dark suit, an almost lupine figure, nervous and unexpectedly youthful for a president of Russia. Taking the lectern beneath the dome of the restored Reichstag, Vladimir V. Putin soon shifted to German, with a fluency that startled the German lawmakers and a pro-West message that reassured them. The Cold War seemed over.
It was 2001, just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mr. Putin pledged solidarity with America while also sketching a vision of Russia’s European destiny. He was the first Russian leader to address the German Parliament, and lawmakers jumped to their feet, applauding, as many deputies marveled that he could speak their language so well.
Except for Angela Merkel, then the relatively untested leader of the opposition. She joined the standing ovation but turned to say something to a lawmaker who had grown up in the formerly Communist East, as she had. She knew how Mr. Putin’s German had gotten so good.
“Thanks to the Stasi,” Ms. Merkel said, a reference to the East German secret police Mr. Putin had worked alongside when he was a young K.G.B. officer in Dresden.
Fast-forward more than 15 years, to a world where the Cold War seems resurgent, which has seen a procession of American and European leaders try and fail to engage Russia, and only Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin remain. Their relationship, and rivalry, is a microcosm of the sharply divergent visions clashing in Europe and beyond, a divide made more consequential by the uncertainty over President Trump’s policy toward Russia and whether he will redefine the traditional alliances of American foreign policy.
Ms. Merkel, 62, is now the undisputed leader of Europe, weary but resolute, the stolid defender of an embattled European Union and of Western liberal values. Mr. Putin, 64, is now the equivalent of a modern Russian czar, who wants to fracture Europe and the liberal Western order. He has outlasted George W. Bush and Barack Obama in America, and Tony Blair, David Cameron, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy in Europe. His state-sponsored hacking teams are accused of helping to derail Hillary Clinton’s predicted ride to the White House.
Now Europe’s fate is on the line, with coming elections in the Netherlands, France, possibly Italy and in Germany, where Ms. Merkel is seeking a fourth term as chancellor. If not on any ballot, Mr. Putin is a shadow figure in every race, inspiring angry European populists who embrace his nationalistic ethos, while Russia is also suspected of meddling through cyberhacking and spreading disinformation. Toppling Ms. Merkel would mean Mr. Putin had bested his last rival.
“Chancellor Merkel is the most steadfast custodian of the concept of the liberal West going back 70 years,” said Strobe Talbott, who was President Bill Clinton’s leading adviser on Russia, “and that makes her Putin’s No. 1 target.”
The new geopolitical dynamics will be on display on Tuesday, when Ms. Merkel visits the White House for her first meeting with Mr. Trump. Mr. Putin, in turn, on Thursday invited the German chancellor to visit Moscow in the near future. It is a poker game featuring two inscrutable players with a long history — and a new, inscrutable third participant.
Back in 2000, as the West struggled to size up the new Russian leader, the puzzlement was distilled in a panel question at the elite talkfest at Davos, Switzerland: “Who is Mr. Putin?” Years later, Mr. Putin remains an enigma, sometimes depicted as a cartoonish, shirtless macho man, or drawn as a master political strategist, a Slavic Machiavelli.
But equally apt is this question: “Who is Ms. Merkel?” Pragmatic, nonideological and cautious, Ms. Merkel, too, remains largely unknowable. Her status as Germany’s “Mutti,” or “Mother,” is mostly a reflection of the biases of the country’s male-dominated media and political class, still unsure how to categorize a powerful woman.
Between them, there have been dozens of meetings and scores of telephone calls over the years, if never a breakthrough moment nor a partnership of the sort that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain once forged with the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. If that pair helped the world out of the Cold War, Mr. Putin and Ms. Merkel’s relationship often seems trapped in it, shaped by their very different experiences in East Germany.
Never a friend nor an open foe, Ms. Merkel has always sought to nudge Mr. Putin and Russia toward a relationship rooted in rules rather than emotion, a comity built on clearly defined common interests, not personal chemistry. Mr. Putin, in turn, has longed for a transactional leader in Europe, someone who would strike a grand bargain and guarantee Russia a fixed, even privileged, place at the decision-making table.
Before Ms. Merkel took power, Mr. Putin had that rapport with her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. Now it is one of Mr. Schröder’s heirs, Martin Schulz, leading the center-left Social Democrats, who poses the biggest challenge to Ms. Merkel. Having the Social Democrats back in power, with their warmer embrace of Russia, would be a boon to Mr. Putin — just as he is hoping for friendlier leadership in France, and with Mr. Trump in the United States.
The Merkel-Putin relationship is defined by wariness, mutual suspicion, if also mutual respect. Yet along the way, there have been missed opportunities and misjudgments, which are culminating now in a moment of reckoning, as Ms. Merkel tries for another term — and Mr. Putin’s Russia is accused of working to thwart her.
Shaped by East Germany
Shaped by East Germany
Ms. Merkel traces her first political memory to when she was 7, living in East Germany in the town of Templin, where her father was a Lutheran pastor. On Aug. 13, 1961, a Sunday, the news came that the Soviets had started constructing a wall to divide Berlin between East and West. As young Angela watched, many of her father’s parishioners wept openly in church that morning.
Her most fateful moment came in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The long years between those bookend events shaped the politician Ms. Merkel would become: cautious, calculating, yet also idealistic; deeply suspicious of Russia, if fascinated by it, having studied Russian literature and culture and attained enough of a fluency in the language to win a prize and travel around the Soviet Union as a student.
Growing up in East Germany, in what she would describe as a dictatorship, Ms. Merkel became accustomed to regurgitating nonsensical Soviet platitudes, or listening to the mind-numbing decrees broadcast daily on state radio. “We had to deal with this every day,” Ms. Merkel recalled in a 2009 interview with the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “It’s a miracle that we could even unlearn it.”
Not surprisingly, Ms. Merkel doesn’t get misty-eyed about the Russians, as do some of the Social Democrats who grew up in democratic West Germany and recall the reconciliation with the Soviets born of Ostpolitik, a policy of détente in the 1970s. In East Germany, the Stasi and the K.G.B. oversaw one of the Soviet bloc’s most extensive spy states. Mistrust and mediocrity were rife, yet, Ms. Merkel has noted, few really thought the system would collapse.
“And just when almost nobody believed it possible anymore,” she once recalled, “it happened.”
For Ms. Merkel, the lesson is that resolving some things, such as the conflict in Ukraine, takes a long time, and patience is essential. Yet for Mr. Putin, now eager to undermine the cohesion of the European Union, the lesson may be that seemingly impregnable political systems can be unexpectedly vulnerable.
Born in 1952, Mr. Putin grew up in a communal apartment in the tough back streets of what was then Leningrad, the city that had survived a Nazi siege and famine, which claimed the life of an older brother he never knew. Mr. Putin studied law in Leningrad, while Ms. Merkel chose science, a subject where, she said decades later, “you could change the facts less” than in something like history or law as taught by the Communists.
He joined the K.G.B. and in 1985 was stationed in Dresden, a backwater posting in East Germany. After the Berlin Wall fell, Germans rejoiced at the reunification of their country and the departure of Soviet troops, while Ms. Merkel soon plunged into the newly democratic politics of her new country.
By contrast, Mr. Putin has lamented that it all happened too fast, once describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
“We would have avoided a lot of problems if the Soviets had not made such a hasty exit from Eastern Europe,” he told three Russian journalists commissioned by the Kremlin to write a book about him in 2000.
Mr. Putin, the K.G.B. agent, watched in horror from Dresden. The local Stasi boss, with whom the K.G.B. worked closely, was detained and committed suicide by taking sedatives and lying down beside an oven belching gas. Mr. Putin later recalled how an angry crowd in “an aggressive mood” gathered outside the K.G.B. offices. Fearing mayhem, Mr. Putin asked for help from Soviet military forces stationed nearby but was told that the order must come from Moscow.
Moscow is silent,” he was told. The crowd finally dispersed, but the drama left Mr. Putin with “the feeling that the country no longer existed.”
Mr. Putin later described the lesson he learned: that power had to be asserted boldly, at home and abroad, if Russia was to avoid the same fate as the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union, he recalled, “had a terminal illness without a cure: a paralysis of power.”
On the Rise
If not accidental leaders, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Putin were unexpected ones.
Little known to the outside world or even to the Russian public, Mr. Putin became president after Boris N. Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999. Soon afterward, Ms. Merkel took charge of the center-right Christian Democratic Union by pushing aside her mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Underestimated as a female politician, Ms. Merkel proved the skeptics wrong when she became chancellor in 2005.
During Ms. Merkel’s first official visit to Moscow in early 2006, Mr. Putin demonstrated his style of gamesmanship, presenting her with a stuffed toy dog even though the Kremlin had been alerted that she was uneasy around dogs. During talks held a year later on the Black Sea, he let his large black Labrador into the room.
Toomas Ilves, Estonia’s president until last year, described the dog ploy as “classic K.G.B.” Mr. Ilves said Ms. Merkel “never had any illusions about Russia” and “was clearly one who understood” how Russia worked under Mr. Putin.
“She grew up in Stasiland,” he said, “so of course she had his number all along.”
Yet Ms. Merkel continued the German tradition of frequent meetings with Russian leaders, positioning herself as Europe’s main interlocutor to Russia, while maintaining the centuries-old business relationships between the two powers.
She chided him, too, standing up for democracy and human rights, meeting with Russian opposition figures and voicing outrage over the 2006 murder of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was strongly critical of the Kremlin.
Just days after the murder, Mr. Putin was again visiting Dresden. He and Ms. Merkel gave a rare joint interview to a local German public broadcaster in which Mr. Putin lost his cool after being asked about Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder. That exchange was deleted from the broadcast, but viewers did get to see Mr. Putin praise Ms. Merkel as a good listener, which he described as “a rare characteristic in women.”
Konstantin Eggert, a Russian journalist who has spoken privately with Ms. Merkel over the years, said the Kremlin never understood the chancellor, believing that, like Mr. Schröder, “she would be in thrall to German business and the traditional German faith to Ostpolitik.
“But she was not in thrall to anybody, or anything.”
Mr. Kohl bonded with Mr. Gorbachev in the sauna. Mr. Schröder appealed to Mr. Putin as a kindred manly spirit. Not Ms. Merkel. “What she always found distasteful was these man things,” said Stefan Kornelius, a Merkel biographer.
Instead, Ms. Merkel has impressed Mr. Putin with her grasp of detail, a quality he shares, and her knowledge of Russia and its culture and her readiness to stand up for her views — just as he does for his own. At a security conference attended by Ms. Merkel in Munich in February 2007, Mr. Putin made what is now considered a pivotal speech, signaling his turn against the West and lambasting American domination of world affairs.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was Ms. Merkel’s defense minister, recalled that while many in the audience, including American officials, were shocked and alarmed by Mr. Putin’s tone, Ms. Merkel “did not seem to be surprised. She already had an extremely cautious view about Mr. Putin’s wider strategy.”
On one notable occasion, Ms. Merkel’s resolve may have backfired. At a meeting of NATO leaders in Romania, in 2008, Ms. Merkel, backed by the president of France at the time, Mr. Sarkozy, successfully resisted pleas by Mr. Bush that Ukraine and Georgia be given a so-called Membership Action Plan, or MAP, a move that would have put the two countries on track to join the military alliance.
To let the White House save face, the chancellor took charge of drafting a communiqué that, while rebuffing a formal program toward membership, declared that Ukraine and Georgia would still, one day, join the alliance.
“Merkel was at the center of this negotiation about words, clearly enjoying it,” recalled Italy’s NATO envoy, Stefano Stefanini, who took part in the meeting. “That is what she feels she does well.”
But, in the end, Ms. Merkel may have miscalculated. Ukraine and Georgia were furious that they had been denied. Also furious was Mr. Putin, who took the vague pledge of ultimate membership for Ukraine and Georgia as evidence of NATO’s resolve to expand into former Soviet lands.
“For him, it was like a slap in the face, the sentence that said Ukraine and Georgia will be members of NATO,” Mr. Stefanini said. “At the same time, he felt emboldened” because Washington had not been strong enough to put the formal gears in motion toward NATO membership for the two former Soviet republics.
Four months later, Russia invaded Georgia, testing the West’s readiness to intervene — it didn’t — which, in turn, set a precedent that, in 2014, would encourage Mr. Putin to seize Crimea.
Ukraine would become the rupture. Accustomed to being Europe’s leading interlocutor to Moscow, Ms. Merkel was now thrust into a new role as the driving force behind economic sanctions.
Vladislav Belov, head of the German Studies Center at the Institute of Europe in Moscow, said Mr. Putin took Ms. Merkel’s leading role in sanctions as a personal affront. “Putin did not understand why Germany did not just accept Crimea being absorbed into Russia,” Mr. Belov said, noting that Mr. Putin equated German reunification in 1990 with Russia’s “reunification” with Crimea.
For now, Europe remains united behind the sanctions. But that solidarity is weakening and is dependent on Ms. Merkel’s resolve and political strength, which Mr. Putin hopes to undermine.
And if there is a symbol of how things have changed since Mr. Putin’s pro-West speech at the Reichstag in 2001, consider this: Last month, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced it would build a scale model of the Reichstag on the outskirts of Moscow. It is not a tribute or gesture of friendship. It will be used to train young Russian patriots on how to storm buildings in a time of war.
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