Actually, they wanted to talk about the world crises, but then they got stuck in their own relationships. When Heiko Maas arrives at the guest house of the Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday evening, Sergei Lavrov immediately gets down to business.
What about the freedom of the press? Three weeks ago, a correspondent of Deutsche Welle was arrested by the Moscow police in reporting on demonstrations, later released. The Russian Foreign Ministry then accused Deutsche Welle journalists of having "actively participated in unlawful acts". Since then, Berlin and Moscow are arguing about the case. Also Maas and Lavrov. "We have certain information about Deutsche Welle," whispers the Russian Foreign Minister. One must make sure that foreign journalists do not participate in "illegal meetings".
Maas had gained a certain amount of responsiveness in various encounters with Lavrov, a savvy connoisseur of half-truths. The German wave was "quality journalism," countered the German Foreign Minister, and the Federal Government could not understand why their employees were hindered and detained at work. Maas recalls that Berlin recently supported Russia's return to the Council of Europe. "That gives me rights and obligations," he said, and that included freedom of the press and assembly. Lavrov opposed the good old practice of whataboutism with which the Soviet-Russian diplomat called to the west, "And how is it with you?" He claimed that Russian correspondents have had accreditation problems in France and been beaten.
"And what about your crimes?"
Denwhataboutism knows Maas well from the negotiations on the occupied eastern Ukraine. Since Russian free-killers and Ukrainian separatists with Russian weapons took control of the region five years ago, Russia and Ukraine have been blamed for "what about your crimes?" The pattern runs through the Minsk negotiations. Every time the separatists break the truce or unlawfully arrest Russian troops of Ukrainian seamen, the Russians say, "And you?"
Maas spreads at present but a cautious optimism that one could come out of the spiral of allegations. This is mainly due to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Selenskyj has been in power there since the elections in the summer. He is much more relaxed and mobile in his dealings with Russia than his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko. Selenskyj does not complain to Angela Merkel every time the Russians get rough again. Selenskyj regulates this directly. He has already phoned several times with Vladimir Putin. In general, Ukrainians talk about the summer again more with the Russians.
For Maas, this is reason enough to recognize "a momentum for progress". Another issue was the visit of Vladimir Putin to Emmanuel Macron in southern France at the beginning of the week. Afterwards Macron spoke of a "real change" since the election of Selenski and suggested a summit in the coming weeks. Also known as Normandy format with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Putin also mumbled something about "cautious optimism". That's how he set the direction for Lavrov.
Always good for surprises
The Russian foreign minister said to Maas in Moscow, Russia had been in-depth conversation with Ukraine and even in detail, in "technical and legal aspects." Germans and French are now hoping that Russians and Ukrainians will soon agree on the release of Ukrainian sailors. And that they move forward in the old dispute whether the separatists must first get a special status or first have to carry out clean free elections. The question remains how far the Russians will move.
In any case, in bilateral relations they are always good for surprises. When the conversation rewound again to the Deutsche Welle correspondent, Lavrov said that in Germany, the Russian state broadcaster RT would be obstructed because he could not open any accounts. That was once again one of those sharp-witted half-truths. In fact, RT has an account with a German bank, but wanted to open a second one at another private institution. That rejected the second bank with reference to the first account.
Maasließ was not surprised and countered with a short replica. In Germany, Russian media would not be blocked or marginalized. "Otherwise they would not stand where I go."