Merkel 'not afraid' as she lands on Planet Putin

John Sparks, Moscow Correspondent

A few days after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Angela Merkel famously remarked that Vladimir Putin was, "living in another world."

Nonetheless, she has shown herself willing to engage with 'planet Putin' by flying to the Russian seaside town of Sochi for a summit with a man with whom she agrees on little.

There are plenty of issues on which the two countries are deeply split - like the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, Russia's support for Syrian leader Bashar al Assad and a host of human rights issues.

Perhaps that is why Chancellor Merkel's spokesman said they would be focusing "above all" on the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg in July - an innocuous rationale that has given the two sides a place to start.

At a joint news conference, which took place after the first of two planned sessions, both leaders emphasised shared interests and aspirations and it was Vladimir Putin in particular who sounded eager to improve ties.

"I wish we had more time to talk about economics, science and culture instead of international relations," he said somewhat wistfully.

Chancellor Merkel brought the affair back down to earth however when made a series of criticisms about the Russia's approach to human rights, highlighting the treatment of opposition politicians and members of the gay community in the Russian state of Chechnya.

"I pointed out how important the right to demonstrate is in a civil society, how important the role of NGOs are, and in particular that we are getting negative reports about how gay people are being treated in Chechnya. I asked President Vladimir Putin to use his influence to protect these minorities."

The big points of dispute here relate to ongoing war in eastern Ukraine and Russia's support of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad. Unsurprisingly, the pair agreed only on the need to keep talking. "You must carry on (talking)," said Ms Merkel, "because otherwise you fall into silence and there is less and less understanding."

On Ukraine, Putin attacked the pro-western Poroshenko administration in Kiev for "pushing away" the rebels in the east instead of "sitting down and talking with them."

Merkel countered by saying that Russia should use its "immense power" to make sure talks actually happened between legitimately elected representatives.

A couple of questions from of western journalists seemed to aggravate the increasingly stern-looking Russian president.

One query about Russia's alleged attempt to swing the American election brought about this response: "We never meddle into political processes of other countries. And we would like it very much for others to stop interfering with Russia's political life.

"Unfortunately what we have seen for a few years now is completely the opposite. There are constant attempts to influence the internal political processes in Russia. There are direct attempts as well as attempts done by various organisations.

"We can see how damaging and useless these efforts are. It never even entered our heads to try and meddle into political processes of other countries."

Interestingly, Angela Merkel was asked if she was worried about the Russians interfering in the upcoming German election in September.

Her response: "I am not afraid of Russia's hybrid approach to warfare but we will work with the German audience." It was a pretty extraordinary thing to say with an expressionless Mr Putin standing next to her.

The two leaders did their best to end the news conference on a positive note with Ms Merkel saying that each discussion "brought something new."

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