The Germans themselves speak in hushed tone with a furtive glance of the eye when the topic of conversation grazes Chancellor Angela Merkel’s adult life in the German Democratic Republic (“East Germany”). The well-informed German would tell you that the files relating to the East German spy agency Stasi have been spirited away to the CIA’s vaults in Virginia no sooner than the Berlin Wall collapsed, and Merkel’s past association with the communist party organs lies buried there.
For argument’s sake, the only “third party” privy to the privileged information would probably be the Russian intelligence, which inherited the Soviet era KGB’s archives. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin had served in Dresden as a young KGB officer.
But, although the Germans have been eager to dig up Putin’s life and times in Dresden, they show little curiosity about Merkel’s. Now that may be about to change. The Russian official media organ Sputnik has just featured a sensational piece titled Is Merkel a CIA Asset?
Given Russia’s media culture, such a frank disclosure on a highly respected world leader by an official media agency in Moscow is unthinkable without state approval. The issue is not the veracity of the contents of the Sputnik’s feature article. Frankly, it may not even be earthshaking content, and the German leadership is neither the first to act as the CIA’s “asset” abroad nor is going to be the last. But what matters is the Kremlin’s imprimatur, despite whatever denials of plausible culpability.
The Sputnik piece suggests that Moscow knows far more about Merkel than is good for her and it is willing to reveal. There seems to be some implied warning that Merkel might be crossing some “red line” and treading on Russia’s core interests.
What could it be? There is no dearth of combustible issues in which Russian-German relations are entangled today and are rapidly deteriorating — Ukraine, Russia’s helpline to Greece, European Union’s whiplash at Gazprom, U.S. and NATO deployments on Russia’s borders, Germany’s unhelpful stance on EU sanctions against Russia and so on.
However, there has been a carefully cultivated relationship with the German leadership that Moscow — and Putin in particular — has been keen to nurture. The narrative so far has been that Merkel has been a moderating influence on the Obama administration over the West arming Ukraine. That narrative is being unceremoniously dumped in the Moscow River and Sputnik swings to the other extreme to allege that she is actually an “asset” of the CIA. Clearly, neither Russia nor Germany can afford a collapse of their relations, but Kremlin doesn’t seem to mind burning bridges with the German leadership.
Are Russia’s tensions with the West tiptoeing to a flashpoint? Does Moscow think it can reach out to the wider German audience and isolate and pressure Merkel to do a course correction at this last hour in her unhelpful Russia policies? Least of all, is Moscow deliberately ratcheting up the rhetoric with a view to create space to charter a new line on Ukraine that requires the Normandy format to be put on the back burner — at least, for a while?
It stands to reason that Russia’s patience with Merkel’s masterly inactivity over Ukraine could be wearing thin. And in the best traditions of Cold War era dalliances, a moment comes when elaborate pretence of cordiality, which has no relation to ground realities, tend to become counter-rpoductive and the advantage may lie in acknowledging instead the frosty ties. This could be one such moment in Russia’s relations with Germany. The gloves are off.
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