After one of her first encounters with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2002, German Chancellor Angela Merkel joked to aides that she had passed the “KGB test” by staring straight into his eyes without averting her gaze.
Unlike Washington — former US president George W. Bush claimed to have gotten a glimpse of Putin’s soul and US President Barack Obama promised to “reset” relations with Russia — Merkel has never harbored any illusions about the former Soviet agent, nor hopes that she might change him.
It is this hard-nosed realism, born of Merkel’s own experience growing up in a Soviet garrison town in East Germany and reinforced over a turbulent 14-year relationship with Putin, that has earned respect for her from the Kremlin and thrust her into the potentially risky role of chief mediator in the Ukraine crisis.
When Merkel and Putin interact, it is a clash of polar opposite worldviews, aides to the chancellor say.
For Merkel, a physicist, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a godsend that launched her extraordinary career as a politician.
For Putin, who was living in the East German city of Dresden at the time, it was a calamity that led within two short years to the collapse of the Soviet Union — an event the Russian leader has described as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Despite different outlooks, Merkel and Putin, born less than two years apart, speak each other’s language — literally and figuratively.
Merkel, a fan of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, won a trip to Moscow as a teenager for her mastery of the Russian language.
Putin’s favorite subject in school was German, which he perfected during his half-decade as a KGB officer in Dresden, and later sent his daughters to a German school in Moscow.
On Merkel’s first trip to Moscow as chancellor, the two leaders conversed in their native tongues with translators present, but found themselves interjecting repeatedly to correct the interpreters. Aides say their conversations follow the same pattern to this day.
“They have been working together for over a decade,” said Alexander Rahr, head of the German-Russian forum in Berlin. “It hasn’t always been smooth, but Putin knows Merkel better and respects her more than the other leaders. He’s never had a good relationship with Obama.”
Since the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych last month and Putin’s decision to respond by tightening Russia’s grip on Crimea, the autonomous southern region of Ukraine, the two leaders have talked on the telephone about half a dozen times.
The conversations have not been easy, according to German sources.
Putin speaks a lot, sometimes endlessly. At times emotional and angry, he tries to bully with a mix of genuine and calculated outrage. The reserved Merkel waits patiently for the right time to make her points.
“It is always exhausting, always a battle — intense,” one senior German official said.
In his 2013 biography of Merkel, Stefan Kornelius likened the two to an old married couple who know all of each other’s tricks and can anticipate what they are going to say next.
Merkel has described her conversations with Putin as challenging tests for her own arguments. She feels that she cannot afford to show any weakness.
In a conversation with the White House on Sunday last week that followed a chat with Putin, she reportedly told Obama that the Russian leader appeared to be “in another world,” out of touch with reality.