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Moscow vs Merkiavelli

The relationship between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel is perhaps the most important in global politics. It’s just as well she that knows his type...

Both leaders sat down in the Russian President’s office at his Black Sea dacha for a press conference. The door had been left slightly ajar and it was soon clear why. From the corner of her eye Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, saw a black dog enter the room. Vladimir Putin, coming towards the end of his first stint as Russia’s President, was smirking in the armchair beside her. The former KGB officer had done his homework. He knew Merkel was frightened of dogs after one had bitten her during the 1995 federal elections. Now in 2007 and at their first formal bilateral meeting, Putin had decided to use this against her.

“She doesn’t bother you, does she?” said Putin with a gesture toward Koni, his black Labrador. Merkel looked anything but comfortable. Diplomacy at this level is a mind game, a struggle for psychological supremacy, and Putin considers himself a master. Back in 1975, when asked what he did for a living, the young Putin’s reply had been: “I am an expert in human relations.”

Here he was applying these skills to the German Kanzlerin. Putin smiled but his blue eyes were emotionless. “She’s a friendly dog and I’m sure will behave herself,” he said. Like a chess player after a decisive move he leaned back and kicked his legs out. Before the world’s press, Putin had showed he was in charge—that he could bully the leader of his most powerful neighbour.

Then something happened he had not expected. Though initially thrown, Merkel recovered her poise. She replied in her cultivated Russian tone (a contrast to Putin’s affected working-class St Petersburg accent)—“She doesn’t eat journalists, after all.” Her presence of mind shook Putin out of his conceit.

The relationship between the two is crucial—perhaps the most important in global politics. She’s the only one that Putin really takes seriously in Europe and her ability to deal with and influence him is vital if Russia is to be talked round on Ukraine, or indeed on Syria where the last few weeks have brought fresh reminders of the urgency of getting Moscow engaged.

Putin has of course deployed military forces in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, a regime which the west wants to usher from power. In September, the world’s bloodiest stalemate took yet another turn for the worse, as the United States charged Putin’s jets with destroying a United Nations aid convoy, and relations between the two countries collapsed.

Merkel’s personal interest in Syria is especially strong, as the ongoing war continues to drive immigrants across the Mediterranean towards Europe, and the open door she has established in Germany. The controversy surrounding the resulting influx is now dominating the Federal Republic’s domestic politics, fuelling the Chancellor’s recent local election losses to the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party. Her outbreak of the midterm electoral blues was in sharp contrast to the latest results in Russia’s managed democracy—parliamentary elections, in which, Putin won with 54 per cent of the vote, and 343 of 450 seats, albeit on a record low of 47 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues Donald Trump is a consequence of the American government ignoring the people—and they’ll have to deal with his impact whether he wins or loses the presidential election. Diane Roberts explores the rage eating America by looking at the people that government has failed. Switching the focus to the UK, David Marquand and a quartet of commentators assess Labour’s position—with varying conclusions. Also in this issue: Matthew Qvortrup looks at the relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, two of Europe’s most important politicians whose lives have long been intertwined. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for the mayor of Manchester, lays down the reasons why the northern powerhouse is so important and Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim reviews Zadie Smith’s latest novel.