EU would ‘relax on Russia’ without UK’s influence – US feared

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Today, Angela Merkel travels to Russia for her “farewell visit”. The German leader, who has presided over the country for nearly 16 years as Chancellor, will step down this autumn. Her visit to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin will mark the end of one of Europe’s oldest and most complex political relationships.

Though deeply strained, the pair’s relationship has never snapped.

She and Emmanuel Macron, France’s President, have been pivotal in Europe’s keeping an open dialogue with Russia.

This is while much of the rest of the West has sought to isolate Mr Putin given his and his country’s actions on the international stage, including the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the alleged poisoning attack on the dissident Alexei Navalny and assassinations in Europe.

Now, allies of the Russian President believe Mrs Merkel may attempt a breakthrough in talks on Ukraine when she makes her diplomatic visit.

It is this willingness to continue communications that the US feared after the Brexit vote in 2016.

According to the Centre for European Reform (CEM), policy makers in Washington were, at the time, “horrified by the referendum result”.

This was because the US viewed the UK’s hand in Europe as a sobering one.

The organisation’s analysis read: “They saw the UK as a bridge between themselves and continental Europe.

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“And they knew that on foreign policy questions, the UK often helped to steer the EU towards relatively tough or US-friendly positions.

“The Americans now worry that, without British firmness supporting the hard line of Angela Merkel and other northern European leaders, the EU will be more likely to relax the sanctions on Russia that it imposed after the intervention in Ukraine.”

Little has changed in five years.

Mrs Merkel ploughed ahead with her plans for the gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, with Russia.

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Many feared it could make Germany, and by-extension other Western European countries, reliant on the natural resources supplied by Mr Putin, and effectively at his and Russia’s mercy politically.

The US was one of the loudest opposition voices on the pipeline.

Last month, the White House announced it had reached a deal with Germany to prevent Russia from using the pipeline as political leverage over Europe.

US official Victoria Nuland said it was “a bad pipeline”, but said the deal envisaged sanctions against Moscow if it tried to blackmail Ukraine.

Ukraine says the Nord Stream 2 pipeline threatens its security.

The country has been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east since 2014. Russia also annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

Kyiv fears a full-scale Russian invasion once Nord Stream 2 is fully operational.

It is near-complete, covering a distance of 764 mile under the Baltic Sea, and will follow the same path of its operational twin, Nord Stream.

Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron were humiliated in June after other EU leaders rejected their rhetoric and threatened new economic sanctions should Moscow persist in “malign, illegal and disruptive activity.”

The pair, who normally exert the most influence in discussion around the European Council table, floated the idea of “meetings at leaders level”.

But the council instead focused on setting expectations and demands for the Kremlin, which would be a prerequisite for new diplomatic engagement.

In their conclusions, the leaders wrote: “The European Council expects the Russian leadership to demonstrate a more constructive engagement and political commitment and stop actions against the EU and its Member States, as well as against third countries.”

They also demanded that Russia “fully assume its responsibility” in ensuring the implementation of the Minsk 2 peace agreement to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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