By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, would do almost anything to get and keep power. That, in the opinion of powerful German bankers, includes making herself look ready for war with Russia in order to make her political rival, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the coalition Foreign Minister and opposition leader in Berlin, look too weak to be electable when the German poll must be called by 2017. So, sources close to the Chancellery say, Merkel insulted President Vladimir Putin and all Russians to their faces last week. This week Victoria Nuland, the junior State Department official who told the chancellor to get fucked a year ago, was in Moscow, replacing Merkel with a settlement of the Ukraine conflict the Kremlin prefers.
“We are ready for this,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last Thursday after meeting Secretary of State John Kerry. Referring to Nuland, Lavrov added: “we were not those who had suspended relations. Those, who had done it, should reconsider their stance….But, as usual, the devil is in the details.” Lavrov meant not one, but two devils, who have sabotaged every move towards a settlement of the Ukraine conflict since the start of 2014 – Nuland and Merkel.
Merkel’s Kaput! moment came on May 10, when she went to Moscow to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Deutsche Welle, the state German press agency, called it Merkel’s “compromise after she stayed away from a Russian military parade the day before.”
At the following press conference with Putin, Merkel said: “We have sought more and more cooperation in recent years. The criminal and illegal annexation of Crimea and the military hostilities in eastern Ukraine has led to a serious setback for this cooperation.” German sources say the word Merkel said, “verbrecherische” has rarely been used by her before; it carries the connotation in colloquial German of gangsterism — and of Nazism. “Merkel doesn’t seem to care what she says any longer,” a high-level German source says. “She exhibits more and more emotion these days, more irritation, and less care for what she says, and where. Putin understood exactly what she meant, and on the occasion she said it. He acted with unusual generosity not to react.”
The Kremlin transcript omitted Merkel’s remarks altogether. The Moscow newspapers ignored Merkel’s word and emphasized the positive Putin ones. “Our country fought not against Germany,” Putin replied to Merkel, “but against Nazi Germany. We never fought Germany, which itself became the Nazi regime’s first victim. We always had many friends and supporters there.
US state radio followed with an attempt to endorse Merkel’s “verbrecherische”, and castigate the Kremlin for ignoring it. “An official interpreter at a Kremlin press conference has omitted a top Western leader’s stinging criticism of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on May 12.
Reporter Carl Schreck claimed he “is unclear whether the interpreter made a conscious call to soft-pedal Merkel’s rebuke, or simply missed the word…One person who certainly would have understood the German word for ‘criminal’ used by Merkel – ‘verbrecherisch’ — is Putin himself. The Russian leader, who was stationed in Dresden with the Soviet KGB in the 1980s, is a fluent German speaker and in the past has spoken with Merkel in her native language. Whether he heard the word might depend on what ear Putin was listening with. He sported an earpiece on his left ear, presumably to listen to the Russian-language interpreter. His right ear — the one closest to Merkel — was free of electronic accoutrements.”
Schreck – the word in German means fright or scare — was a reporter for the Moscow Times for several years before moving to Prague for the US government. On his own website he doesn’t explain his German background, or whether his Washington state upbringing included the German language. Compared to Putin, Schreck is a soft touch for the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. For him Schreck’s most sensitive question has been: “What do you look for in a woman?”
Verbrecherische isn’t the first instance of Merkel’s loose lips sinking her own ship. Last November she picked more aggressive German for impromptu remarks than were set down in the chancellery’s script. But that was in Australia, and Putin had already left the country. Merkel isn’t the only politician to say things in Australia which don’t count in the rest of the world.
The irony of Merkel’s May 10 attack on Putin is that Kremlin sources believe Putin has been the last of the officials on the Security Council to give Merkel the benefit of their strategic doubt. Yevgeny Primakov, Putin’s most experienced strategic advisor, has been telling him privately for months there is no prospect of salvaging the German-Russian entente while Merkel is chancellor, and no hope for the German opposition to break her grip in the short run.
October 29, 2014: Putin calls on Primakov at his home to celebrate the latter’s 85th birthday.
In public, on January 15, Primakov said: “External changes that would favor Russia should not be expected anytime soon. It is doubtful that the sanctions will be cancelled in the near future. Betting on some politicians and European businessmen who speak against the sanctions is not realistic.” Primakov omitted the adjective German out of politeness. He and the Russian intelligence services regard Merkel as Washington’s patsy.
Two days after Merkel’s trip to Moscow, on May 12, Kerry met with Putin and Lavrov in Sochi. The Kremlin communique was minimal, acknowledging that “special focus” had been given to the Ukraine conflict. “The Russian side gave its assessments of the reasons behind the Ukrainian crisis, stating the key points of Russia’s position. It was stressed during the meeting that Russia strives to implement the Minsk Agreements in full and will do its utmost to support this process.”
By “reasons behind”, Putin and Lavrov meant Nuland and the Washington war party. Ahead of the Sochi meeting, the State Department spokesman had tried to play up Kerry, and downplay Nuland. “You can’t deal with diplomatic issues if you don’t do diplomacy,” the spokesman declared on May 11. On May 13, the spokesman was asked if “United States is ready to put pressure on Ukraine to fully implement Minsk II agreements”, and ducked the question.
On the next day, by the time Nuland was in Kiev meeting Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk and President Petro Poroshenko, the spokesman claimed the “United States’ full and unbreakable support for Ukraine’s government, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine and reiterate our deep commitment to a single Ukrainian nation, including Crimea, and all the other regions of Ukraine.”
Whatever devil can be read in these details, US Government statements indicate something new — there are now only two pairs of shoulders, Merkel’s having been shouldered aside. If there’s to be a settlement of the Ukraine conflict, it will be trilateral, according to the US, one between the US, Russia, and Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, it’s plain this means a deal between Russia and the US, with Nuland to keep the Ukrainian government in line.
Nuland has insisted that she was right beside Kerry in his meetings in Sochi. The press photographs have excluded her. The Kremlin, Lavrov and Kerry have spoken as if Nuland wasn’t there.
In Sochi Kerry also went to the trouble of showing Merkel how to behave in front of a memorial to the Russian dead in the war against Germany.
According to Kerry,“the war memorial here in Sochi [is] where more than 4,000 of the millions of courageous then-Soviets who died in World War II are buried. And it’s a very beautiful memorial and I was very moved by the young children who were there taking part in the ceremony. And I think Sergey and I both came away from this ceremony with a very powerful reminder of the sacrifices that we shared to bring about a safer world, and of what our nations can accomplish when our peoples are working together towards the same goal.”
Kerry also gave the regime in Kiev a warning of what not to interpret from anything Nuland may be saying. “If… President Poroshenko is advocating an engagement in a forceful effort at this time,” Kerry said in Sochi, “we would strongly urge him to think twice not to engage in that kind of activity, that that would put Minsk in serious jeopardy. And we would be very, very concerned about what the consequences of that kind of action at this time may be.”
Now that Nuland has been excluded from the decision-making of the big boys, her job was to go to Kiev to tell the smaller boys what the new US line is. Yatseniuk’s version of their talks – minus the customary photo opportunity – was that “the key topics of the talks were questions of overcoming Russian aggression and the implementation of the Minsk agreements, the implementation of economic reforms and the fight against corruption, as well as the assistance from the United States in these processes. Yatsenyuk and Nuland discussed the status of implementation of the program of cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, as well as the preparation for a free trade zone between Ukraine and the European Union from January 1, 2016.”
Poroshenko stuck to pledging allegiance: “coordination of our actions with the U.S. is vitally important,” is the only quote the presidential website posted from the meeting. Photo opportunities were also curtailed.
Nuland’s version, according to the US Embassy transcript, was to emphasize just how “eager [we are] to deepen our involvement in helping the parties achieve full implementation—everything from complete ceasefire and pullback on the line of control, to the political pieces, to the border pieces.” By “political pieces” Nuland meant the constitutional changes for eastern Ukraine Putin insists on and Kerry mentioned, while Nuland bit her tongue.
Nuland has also ignored Yatseniuk’s requests for more money because Washington will neither declare it’s in favour of a Ukrainian default on its US-held sovereign bonds at the end of this month, nor provide any money to stop it.
Instead, the US Treasury rolled out its former Secretary, Lawrence Summers, to announce that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “has done as much as can reasonably be asked”. Summers, on the receiving end of Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk’s treasury (right), is this week omitting to call for fresh European Union money or contributions from the Ukrainian oligarchs.
Summers says he is also opposed to an offer of new American taxpayer money. Instead, his US Treasury plan is that “Ukraine’s creditors — led by the investment firm Franklin Templeton, but also with the support of a number of major US fund managers, who are sufficiently embarrassed by their selfish and unconstructive position that they avoid public identification — are playing hardball and refusing any write-offs. Understandably, if there are a substantial group of such free riders, other debt holders including the Russians will not accept writedowns… The IMF and national authorities should call out the recalcitrant creditors on their irresponsible behaviour.”
In Kiev Nuland put Merkel in her place, relegating her and the French to a single mention in last place in the process to decide the outcome of the Ukraine settlement. The US, she said in Kiev, is “in lockstep with our European allies and partners”. Lockstep means chain-gang — Germany must follow where the US leads. The Merkel Kaput! has been followed by the Merkel kibosh!
Dictionary note: Kaput started in French, when it meant losing in cards, and passed into English via the German kaputt during World War 1. Kibosh, disposed of in English, is derived from the Irish caidhp bháis, meaning death cap — the hood put on someone before execution, or the black cap worn by English judges when pronouncing the death sentence.