Russian President Vladimir Putin returned yesterday to the German city where he once spied for the KGB to hold talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel about Iran and Russia's expanding ties with Europe's biggest economy.
Putin has said little publicly about exactly what he did during his stint in Dresden in former East Germany -- where he worked from 1985 to 1990 -- other than personal reminiscing about friendships, raising his two daughters and gaining weight on German beer.
His tour ended with East Germany's collapse and a crowd of resentful citizens besieging the KGB headquarters.
But his experience in Germany, including a good knowledge of the language, helped lay the groundwork for today's deepening economic ties between Putin's Kremlin and Germany, which depends on Russia for a third of its natural gas.
Putin will cultivate those ties with Merkel during their meeting at the Petersburg Dialogue Forum, set up by Putin and previous Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2001 to bring Russian and German societies closer together.
It is their fifth meeting so far this year, emphasizing the importance of the relationship, as Germany prepares to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in January and picks up chairmanship of the G8 from Russia as well.
That will give Berlin a leading role in shaping EU policy toward Russia, currently an uneasy balance between eagerness for secure gas supplies and concern about Russia's shaky progress on issues such as democracy and human rights.
Merkel has promised a less personalized relationship than the warm camaraderie displayed by Schroeder and Putin, and she has been more willing than Schroeder to politely raise issues such as human rights.
But analysts say she realizes she cannot alienate her country's biggest natural gas supplier with fierce criticism, and her government says it is committed to more integration and cooperation. Major German companies are also eager to deal, and Russia is a key partner on security issues such as Iran and North Korea.
"Putin needs Germany as his major ally in Europe, and Germany -- at least the German elite -- is willing to play the role of Russia's advocate in the West,'' said Alexander Rahr, a Russia specialists at the German Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the forum's steering committee.
"Merkel was at first quite cool on Russia but now she understands that she can play a mediating role between the [US] and Russia on questions like Iran and the Middle East," he said.
Russia and Germany have deepened their energy ties -- as exemplified by a planned Russia-led gas pipeline that will pass under the Baltic Sea to Germany -- bypassing Poland and other traditional transit nations for Russian gas.
Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly and Germany's BASF struck an asset swap deal in April that raised Gazprom's stake in BASF marketing subsidiaries in exchange for increasing the German company's share in a giant Siberian gas field.