In public, Merkel took care not to criticize Putin too loudly in the first weeks of the Ukraine crisis, fearing it would backfire and make the Russian leader harden his positions.
That changed on Sunday last week when an unusually tough statement from her office said she had accused Putin in a telephone call of breaching international law with his “unacceptable intervention” in Crimea.
On Thursday in Brussels, she said the EU would follow the US in introducing visa bans and asset freezes unless Putin moved quickly toward a negotiated settlement on Ukraine.
The new tone was a reminder of the different worldviews in a relationship that is based firmly on strategic interests rather than friendship.
In 2005, Merkel defeated the Russian’s close ally, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who had once referred to Putin as a “flawless democrat.” Within weeks of leaving office, Schroeder took a job as board chairman of Nord Stream, the pipeline majority owned by Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.
On her first visit to Moscow as chancellor, she made a point of inviting human rights campaigners and opposition figures to a reception at the German embassy, something Schroeder would never have done.
A year later, when Merkel paid a visit to the president’s Black Sea residence in Crimea, Putin infuriated the Germans by allowing his big black labrador Koni to bound into the room while cameras were running, ignoring warnings from protocol that the chancellor has a fear of dogs.
More recently, the two clashed at an exhibition at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which included German art seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II. In a tense exchange at the opening in June last year, Merkel demanded the works be returned to Germany, only to be rebuffed by Putin.
Amid the sparring, Merkel has also sided with Putin at key moments, bolstering her credibility in Moscow as an honest broker.
At a NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, Merkel refused to bow to pressure from Bush and other leaders to put Georgia and Ukraine on track for membership in the Western military alliance, a move the German leader knew would infuriate Putin.
However, she sided with Russia in abstaining from the 2011 UN vote authorizing intervention in Libya and pleased Putin with her sharp public criticism of the US last year following reports the US National Security Agency had monitored her mobile phone.
“What is important for Putin is what Merkel thinks, what China thinks and what the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries think,” a senior Russian security source said, dismissing the largely symbolic measures unveiled by Obama on Thursday as having zero impact on the Russian leader.
Still, even members of Merkel’s entourage believe that her ability to sway Putin is limited. In the Ukraine crisis, the Russian leader’s behavior has been driven primarily by domestic considerations, they say.
By embracing the role of mediator, Merkel is running a big risk. She has urged Western partners to give Putin more time before punishing Moscow with economic sanctions.
This stance reflects German fears of the geopolitical consequences of an isolated Russia as much as it does concern about its business interests and energy ties. Germany gets over a third of its oil and gas from Russia, and more than 6,000 German firms are active in the country.