Europe News

Berlin worries Trump's Russia problems hampering policy

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany welcomes signs the United States is engaging with Russia on Ukraine and Syria, but worries it will struggle to play a constructive role as long as its policy aims remain confused and the furor rages on over Moscow’s role in the U.S. election, a senior German official said.

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In an interview, Gernot Erler, a government coordinator for relations with Russia, central Asia and eastern Europe, expressed satisfaction that President Donald Trump had met Russia’s Vladimir Putin at a G20 summit in Hamburg last week.

He also applauded a U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire for southwestern Syria and the appointment of former NATO ambassador Kurt Volker as Washington’s envoy to Ukraine.

But Erler said it was unclear whether the Trump administration could tackle complex, intractable conflicts in Ukraine and Syria while sending contradictory signals about its Russia policy and grappling with a continuous trickle of leaks on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

“We are witnessing an indecisive back and forth in America’s policy toward Russia,” said Erler.

“There is no clear direction, and above all it has become hostage to the domestic debate in America. This situation is not going to end anytime soon.”

When Trump took office six months ago, one of the biggest worries in Berlin was that he would deliver on his campaign promise to cozy up to Putin, unilaterally lift sanctions against Russia and possibly even recognize its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But in recent months, the concerns have shifted 180 degrees: German officials have grown alarmed at the prospect of a breakdown in dialogue between Washington and Moscow at a time when U.S. diplomatic engagement is seen as crucial for Ukraine and Syria.

They were pleased therefore when Trump’s meeting with Putin in Hamburg went well and the ceasefire was announced.

“All of a sudden we had movement in this conflict. And it is not an exaggeration to say that it was a result of Trump’s meeting with Putin in Hamburg,” Erler said.

Hours later however, a series of confounding tweets by Trump about cyber-security cooperation with Russia and a New York Times report that his son had met with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on his father’s election rival Hillary Clinton, jolted the Germans and their European partners back to reality.

Erler welcomed Rex Tillerson’s post-G20 trip to Kiev, where the U.S. Secretary of State made clear that the United States expected Russia to make the first move in de-escalating the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

But he said Germany was still having trouble figuring out what, and whom, to believe in the new U.S. administration.

“The question lingers: what do we recognize as fact? Is it what Tillerson says, what the president says or what (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) Nikki Haley says?” Erler said. “We have so many voices and they all sound different.”

Reporting by Noah Barkin; Editing by Richard Balmforth