* Merkel takes on mediator role in Ukraine crisis
* German, Russian leaders have known each other for 14 years
* Conversations are said to be open, frank and intense
* Questions over Merkel's ability to sway former KGB agent
By Noah Barkin
BERLIN, March 7 After one of her first
encounters with Vladimir Putin in 2002, Angela Merkel joked to
aides that she had passed the "KGB test" by staring straight
into his eyes without averting her gaze.
Unlike presidents in Washington - George W. Bush claimed to
have gotten a glimpse of Putin's soul and Barack Obama promised
to "reset" relations with Russia - the German chancellor has
never harboured any illusions about the former Soviet agent, nor
hopes that she might change him.
It is this hard-nosed realism, born of Merkel's own
experience growing up in a Soviet garrison town in East Germany
and reinforced over a turbulent 14-year relationship with Putin,
that has earned her respect in the Kremlin and thrust her into
the potentially risky role of chief mediator in the Ukraine
When Merkel and Putin interact it is a clash of polar
opposite world views, aides to the chancellor say.
For Merkel, the physicist, the fall of the Berlin Wall in
1989 was a godsend that launched her extraordinary career as a
For Putin, who was living in the East German city of Dresden
at the time, it was a calamity that led within two short years
to the collapse of the Soviet Union - an event the Russian
leader has described as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of
the 20th century.
But despite different outlooks, Merkel and Putin, born less
than two years apart, speak each other's language - literally
Merkel, a fan of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, won a trip to
Moscow as a teenager for her mastery of the Russian language.
Putin's favourite subject in school was German, which he
perfected during his half decade as a KGB officer in Dresden,
later sending his daughters to the German school in Moscow.
On Merkel's first trip to Moscow as chancellor, the two
leaders conversed in their native tongues with translators
present, but found themselves interjecting repeatedly to correct
the interpreters. Aides say their conversations follow the same
pattern to this day.
"They have been working together for over a decade," said
Alexander Rahr, head of the German-Russian forum in Berlin. "It
hasn't always been smooth, but Putin knows Merkel better and
respects her more than the other leaders. He's never had a good
relationship with Obama."
"ALWAYS A BATTLE"
Since the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Russian President
Viktor Yanukovich last month and Putin's decision to respond by
tightening Russia's grip on Crimea, the autonomous southern
region of Ukraine, the two leaders have talked on the phone
roughly half a dozen times.
The conversations have not been easy, according to German
Putin speaks a lot, sometimes endlessly. At times emotional
and angry, he tries to bully with a mix of genuine and
calculated outrage. The reserved Merkel waits patiently for the
right time to make her points.
"It is always exhausting, always a battle - intense," one
senior German official told Reuters.
In his 2013 biography of Merkel, Stefan Kornelius likened
them to an old married couple who know all of each other's
tricks and can anticipate what they are going to say next.
Merkel has described her conversations with Putin as
challenging tests for her own arguments. She feels that she
cannot afford to show any weakness.
In a conversation with the White House on Sunday that
followed a chat with Putin, she reportedly told Obama that the
Russian leader appeared to be "in another world", out of touch
In public, Merkel took care not to criticise Putin too
loudly in the first weeks of the Ukraine crisis, fearing it
would backfire and make the Russian leader harden his positions.
That changed last weekend when an unusually tough statement
from her office said she had accused Putin in a phone call of
breaching international law with his "unacceptable intervention"
On Thursday in Brussels, she said the EU would follow the
United States in introducing visa bans and asset freezes unless
Putin moved quickly towards a negotiated settlement on Ukraine.
The new tone was a reminder of the different world views in
a relationship that is based firmly on strategic interests
rather than friendship.
In 2005, Merkel defeated the Russian's close ally Gerhard
Schroeder, who had once referred to Putin as a "flawless
democrat". Within weeks of leaving office, Schroeder took a job
as board chairman of Nord Stream, the pipeline majority-owned by
Russian gas monopoly Gazprom.
On her first visit to Moscow as chancellor she made a point
of inviting human rights campaigners and opposition figures to a
reception at the German embassy, something Schroeder would never
A year later, when Merkel paid a visit to the president's
Black Sea residence in Crimea, Putin infuriated the Germans by
allowing his big black labrador Koni to bound into the room
while cameras were running, ignoring warnings from protocol that
the chancellor has a fear of dogs.
More recently, the two clashed at an exhibition at the
Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, which included German art
seized by the Soviets at the end of World War Two. In a tense
exchange at the opening last June, Merkel demanded the works be
returned to Germany, only to be rebuffed by Putin.
Amid the sparring, Merkel has also sided with Putin at key
moments, bolstering her credibility in Moscow as an honest
At a NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, Merkel refused to bow
to pressure from Bush and other leaders to put Georgia and
Ukraine on track for membership in the western military
alliance, a move the German leader knew would infuriate Putin.
She also sided with Russia in abstaining from the 2011 U.N.
vote authorising intervention in Libya and pleased Putin with
her sharp public criticism of the United States last year
following reports the National Security Agency had monitored her
"What is important for Putin is what Merkel thinks, what
China thinks and what the CIS countries think," a senior Russian
security source told Reuters, dismissing the largely symbolic
measures unveiled by Obama on Thursday as having zero impact on
the Russian leader.
Still, even members of Merkel's entourage believe that her
ability to sway Putin is limited. In the Ukraine crisis, they
say, the Russian leader's behaviour has been driven primarily by
By embracing the role of mediator, Merkel is running a big
risk. She has urged western partners to give Putin more time
before punishing Moscow with really punitive economic sanctions.
This stance that reflects German fears of the geopolitical
consequences of an isolated Russia as much as it does concern
about its business interests and energy ties. Germany gets over
a third of its oil and gas from Russia and more than 6,000
German firms are active in the country.
But if Putin refuses to follow her advice on pursuing a
negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis and consolidates
Russian control of Crimea in the days ahead, she runs the risk
of looking soft and naive.
"Merkel's chances of influencing Putin are overstated," said
Stefan Meister of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"She has a relationship with him, there is a certain trust
and he listens to her, but there are limits to what impact that
might have," he said. "Putin has a very clear strategic goal in
Crimea and he is not going to be persuaded by Germany."