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Putin Meets With Merkel, Will Hold Phone Call With Trump

RFE/RL May 02, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met in the Russian Black Sea port of Sochi for talks focusing on the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as on strained bilateral relations.

Both leaders told a press conference after the May 2 talks that it was essential for all parties to fulfill their commitments under the Minsk process to regulate the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

The meeting comes just hours before a scheduled phone conversation between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, the third such call since Trump took office in January and the first since the United States carried out a missile strike against a Syrian air base in retaliation for what Western countries believe was a chemical-weapons attack against civilians by Syrian government forces.

"Today we once again reiterated the necessity of the strict observation of the Minsk agreements by the parties to the conflict [in eastern Ukraine]," Putin told journalists.

Merkel said Moscow and Berlin "are of differing opinions about the cause of the conflict." She said it was essential for Kyiv to regain complete control of its border, including the portion between the separatist-controlled areas and Russia.

Putin and Merkel also discussed the six-year-old civil war in Syria. Putin repeated Russia's calls for an "impartial investigation" into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria's Idlib Province last month that left about 80 people dead.

Putin also said Russia was counting on the United States to help find "efficient solutions" to the conflict in Syria.

Merkel said she spoke to Putin about domestic developments in Russia, including the arrests of demonstrators at recent anticorruption rallies and media reports about the persecution of homosexual men in the Russian North Caucasus region of Chechnya.

"The possibility of the right to demonstrate is a part of civil society," Merkel said.

She also urged Putin to "use his influence" to put an end to the abuse of homosexuals in Chechnya.

Russia's Novaya Gazeta reported in April that at least 100 gay men had been abducted by security forces in Chechnya and at least three had been killed.

Putin defended the actions of Russian police, saying they acted within the framework of the law and showed "far more restraint than their colleagues in other European countries."

Putin also categorically rejected allegations that Moscow interfered in the U.S. presidential election in November or was playing any role in Germany's domestic politics.

The Russia leader said it was "unthinkable" that Russia would interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. He dismissed the reports of interference in the U.S. election as "rumors." Putin added that Moscow would not tolerate outside interference in its own domestic affairs.

In January, the U.S. intelligence community issued an assessment charging that Putin "ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election." Security agencies in Germany, France, and other countries have also alleged Russian efforts to influence their electoral processes.

For her part, Merkel said she was confident Germany could handle any disinformation campaigns and would take "decisive measures" in the event of interference. She also noted that "hybrid warfare plays a role in Russia's military doctrine."

The two leaders also discussed preparations for a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Hamburg on July 7-8. The G20 is now the chief format for Russia to meet the other world powers after its exclusion from the Group of Eight (G8), which is now the G7.

In addition to his talks with Merkel, Putin is scheduled to talk by telephone with U.S. President Donald Trump later on May 2.

Merkel's one-day trip is her second visit to Russia since Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.

Russia and Germany have scaled back ties and Merkel has strongly backed EU sanctions on Moscow for seizing Crimea and for its involvement in the war that has killed more than 9,900 people in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

A key mediator in the conflict, which pits Russia-backed separatists against Ukrainian government forces, Merkel is a major proponent of keeping the sanctions on Moscow in place until a stalled peace plan is fulfilled.

Merkel has attended several meetings with Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and France's Francois Hollande aimed at implementing the Minsk II agreement, which she and Hollande brokered in February 2015.

The most recent such meeting was held in October and the four leaders spoke by phone in April, agreeing to step up implementation of the peace deal.

Trump's phone call with Putin is to be held at about 1630 GMT/UTC.

White House officials said Trump and Putin were expected to discuss the war in Syria, where the United States supports rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Trump has spoken by telephone twice with Putin since taking office in January, with officials indicating that they focused largely on ways to combat Islamic State (IS) and other extremists groups.

But little of substance has emerged from those talks, and no date has been set for a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin, who are both planning to attend the G20 summit.

Trump voiced admiration for Putin and support for closer ties with Russia during the presidential campaign in 2016, but relations between the two countries remain severely strained.

The Trump administration has maintained sanctions on Russia over its armed interference in Ukraine, and senior administration officials have taken a tough stance toward the Kremlin.

Trump's national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, said on April 30 that Putin was "acting against the Russian people's interest" in Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan, where U.S. officials say Russia has provided arms to Taliban militants.

McMaster said the United States needed to see a "change in behavior" by the Russian president before relations could improve.

Russia's relations with Germany are also badly frayed, and no major breakthrough is expected on those ties or in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

The meeting between Merkel and Putin "will serve to maintain contact, but little else," analyst Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said on Twitter on May 1.

German-Russian relations are "broken" and "will stay that way for [a] long time yet," Trenin said.

With reporting by dpa, AP, TASS, and Reuters

Source: speak-by-phone-may-2-amid-rare-merkel-visit- russia-sochi-/28462956.html

Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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