Written by Sarah Marsh and Madeline Chambers
MOSCOW/BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Olaf Schulz has been accused of poor leadership in the Ukraine crisis and tolerance of Russia. However, on his visit to the Kremlin on Tuesday, he not only stood up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, but appeared to be enjoying it.
Political critics questioned how the mild-mannered Schulz, who took office in December, would step into the “lion’s den”. Russian officials have been known to openly mock their visitors or seek to outdo them in a test of their power.
Putin invited his black Labrador to a meeting with former Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2007 despite her known fear of dogs.
But Shultz was unexpectedly combative in his joint press conference with Putin during a day trip to Moscow that was part of the frantic diplomacy to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine — even while maintaining his trademark calm and thoughtful brand.
When Putin criticized NATO, saying it launched war in Europe by bombing the former Yugoslavia in 1999, Schulz responded by saying this was done to prevent genocide, referring to the persecution of Albanians in Kosovo.
Putin responded by saying that Russia considers the treatment of Russians in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine genocide. And at a later one-on-one news conference, Schulz said Putin’s use of the word genocide was a mistake.
Schultz even mocked Putin’s concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion given that he was not on the agenda anytime soon and his long time at the helm of his country.
“I don’t know exactly how long the president intends to stay in office,” he said with a smile at Putin. “I have a feeling this might take a long time, but not forever.”
Some analysts praised him for also expressing his concerns about civil rights issues and his meeting with various activists.
When reporters later asked him about the duel with Putin, Schultz smiled, saying it gave a flavor to what had been the “intense” four-hour talks.
Some critics still complain that he has ceded too much to Russia by making Ukraine less likely to become a member of NATO.
But his tougher tone may go some way to restoring his credibility as one of Europe’s top political players. French President Emmanuel Macron recently took the lead on the Ukraine crisis in Europe with a visit to Moscow, albeit with mixed results.
And the French leader didn’t even attempt to appeal when Putin last week at a joint news conference questioned NATO’s claim that it was a purely defensive alliance, citing the bloc’s offensive campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Serbia.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin, Madeleine Chambers in Berlin and Mark Trevelyan in London; Editing by Sam Holmes)
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