Key ally Merkel visits Ukraine before leaving office

Kiev (AFP) –


German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Ukraine on Sunday, an ally she has supported in its conflict with pro-Russia separatists but has disappointed with her appetite for Russian gas.

She will meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky just two days after holding talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow ahead of her departure from office next month.

In power for 16 years, the German leader has been a key ally of Kiev since 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and pro-Russia separatists broke away from Ukraine in the east.

But she has also been unwavering in pushing across the finish line a controversial Russian gas pipeline to Europe despite fierce opposition from Ukraine, the United States and several European countries.

"You can call it a pragmatic approach," Zelensky said this week in an interview with several media outlets, adding that Merkel was conducting a "very delicate balancing act".

"In my opinion, this is too soft."

Despite disagreements over the pipeline, Germany is a key mediator in attempts to resolve the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Since the fighting broke out, Merkel has been one of the loudest voices accusing the Kremlin of backing the separatists, which Moscow denies.

And she played a crucial role in clinching the Minsk peace accords in 2015, which helped halt the fiercest clashes.

But for many in Ukraine, the deal, which assumes some autonomy for the breakaway parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, was unfavourable for Kiev and is difficult to fulfil.

"With Merkel's departure, the foundation of the Minsk agreements will become even more fragile," Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told AFP.

- 'Flirting with Russia' -

Merkel's visit comes as Ukraine prepares to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union on August 24.

Kiev is also set to host several European leaders on Monday for a summit looking at ways to have Crimea returned.

Merkel, however, has chosen not to participate in the summit, which Fesenko said shows the "ambivalence of German policy" in eastern Europe.

She has been criticised in particular over the soon-to-be-completed 10-billion-euro ($12-billion) Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is set to double Russian gas supplies to Germany, Europe's largest economy.

The pipeline bypasses Ukraine's gas infrastructure and will deprive the nation of badly needed transit fees. Kiev and its allies argue that the pipeline will increase energy dependence on Russia and Moscow's geopolitical clout.

The 10-billion-euro ($12-billion) Nord Stream 2 pipeline is set to double Russian gas supplies to Germany
The 10-billion-euro ($12-billion) Nord Stream 2 pipeline is set to double Russian gas supplies to Germany Odd ANDERSEN AFP/File

In his interview this week, Zelensky expressed hope that Merkel's talks with Putin would result in a guarantee that Russia will continue supplying "minimum volumes of gas" through his country.

The outgoing German leader is expected to emphasise that Ukraine will remain a transit route for natural gas even after the pipeline is finished.

After her talks with Putin Friday, Merkel said that Germany will continue discussions with Russia on extending its transit contract through Ukraine beyond when it expires in 2024.

"We, despite all the economic principles that must of course be taken into account, also feel responsible for this," she said at a joint press conference with Putin.

The Russian leader said that Moscow "is ready to transit gas through Ukraine even after 2024," though he said this will depend on how much gas European consumers would be ready to buy.

But Kiev's attitude to Berlin's backing of the pipeline may already be set in stone.

As analyst Fesenko put it, Nord Stream 2 is a "manifestation of Germany's economic selfishness and flirting with Russia".