Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he supports the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, adding that Europe cannot afford another migration crisis.
Putin’s remark, made before his first bilateral meeting with Merkel in Germany since 2013, hinted at the tension between the two leaders, even as US President Donald Trump’s disruption of the global order pushes them into alliances of convenience after years of antagonism.
The invitation by Merkel, Putin’s most implacable critic since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, is a break in his isolation that also reaffirms the German leader’s pivotal role in Europe.
Yet while Putin dangled the vista of humanitarian aid paving the way for some Syrian refugees to return home, German officials said that it would be unrealistic for now.
“I remind you that there are a million refugees in Jordan and a million in Lebanon,” Putin on Saturday told reporters alongside Merkel, before they met at the chancellor’s Schloss Meseberg summer residence, north of Berlin. “There are 3 million refugees in Turkey. This is potentially a huge burden on Europe, so it is better to do everything possible so that they can return home.”
For all their differences, Merkel and Putin agreed that they want to preserve the Iran nuclear deal after Trump withdrew US support. They are also pushing ahead with the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, despite US objections.
Putin, alongside Merkel, cited the pipeline as a key economic bond.
“Nord Stream 2 is a purely economic project,” Putin said, adding that the Ukrainian transit route should be economically viable.
Merkel has said that a certain level of gas transit through Ukraine must be ensured.
Merkel opened her remarks by telling Putin that Russia has an elevated responsibility to solve global crises.
Merkel, who faces pressure from German industry to lift economic sanctions on Russia, said that the leaders would discuss a possible UN peacekeeping mission for the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
“We have a responsibility — Germany, but mainly Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council,” Merkel said. “So we should work on finding solutions.”
In Syria, Putin has used the military to tip the civil war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, and Russia has joined with Turkey and Iran in trying to engineer a settlement.
In the years since Putin’s previous bilateral visit to Germany, he and Merkel have met at international events including last year’s G20 summit in Hamburg. Merkel has also visited Putin in Russia several times, most recently in May.
She has advocated engagement, principally to deliver blunt messages rather than being a bridge between the EU and Russia.
The Kremlin views divisions between the US and Europe over trade and the Iranian nuclear deal as a chance for Russia to mend relations with Germany by presenting itself as a more reliable partner in negotiations.
Trump last month slammed Germany as “totally controlled by Russia” because of its dependence on Moscow for natural gas supplies. Work on Gazprom PJSC-backed Nord Stream 2, began in May amid a US threat of sanctions targeting the project.
Putin came to Schloss Meseberg after attending the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, at which he danced with the bride and brought along a Russian choir. Kneissl was appointed by the far-right Freedom Party, which has long-standing ties with Russia.
“It was very good trip and nice,” Putin said of the jaunt to Gamlitz, Austria, near the border with Slovenia. “It was a private visit.”
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