By Noah Barkin
Russia feels increasingly under threat from developments in the Middle East and appears to be serious about cooperating with western countries to resolve the war in Syria, Germany’s foreign minister said on Sunday.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose Social Democrats (SPD) are traditionally more friendly towards Moscow than Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, also raised the prospect of welcoming Russia back into the G8 group of countries if it addressed western demands in Ukraine and cooperated in Syria.
The conciliatory message came amid mounting calls from other western capitals to work more closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin in fighting Islamic State (IS) militants.
French President Francois Hollande, who called for a grand coalition of countries to fight IS following the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, is due to travel to Moscow on Thursday to hold talks with Putin.
“We should not underestimate how threatened Russia feels from developments in the Middle East, with its Muslim population of millions,” Steinmeier told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
“I believe that Russia has no interest in getting bogged down in Syria over many years and being pulled ever deeper into the war there. My impression is that Russia is looking for an exit from the Syrian catastrophe.”
Some German politicians, including Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the SPD and vice chancellor, have suggested that Europe consider easing sanctions imposed on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine in exchange for cooperation in Syria.
Merkel has rejected that approach and Steinmeier did not go that far either. But he did say the West could have no interest in excluding Russia from the G8 in the longer-term if it showed a readiness to cooperate in Ukraine and Syria.
Reuters reported on Saturday that despite signs of a thaw with Moscow, western leaders who met on the margins of a G20 meeting in Turkey last weekend had agreed to extend sanctions against Russia, which are due to expire in January, by six months until July of next year.
U.S. President Barack Obama, Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s David Cameron, Italy’s Matteo Renzi and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who represented Hollande at the summit, attended the meeting, a European diplomat said.
A German government spokesman said on Sunday that he could not comment on confidential talks but added: “The existing package of sanctions was agreed in the EU and can only be modified together with all EU partners.”
EU countries have said the sanctions will not be eased until all parties fully implement the Minsk peace deal, which aims to resolve the standoff between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The diplomat said leaders at the G20 meeting in Antalya had concluded that it was important to maintain pressure on Russia ahead of planned elections in eastern Ukraine.
“The elections in Ukraine are heavy lifting,” the diplomat said, requesting anonymity because the agreement was confidential. “We only have a chance to get what we want if we play the sanctions card. Financial sanctions need to stay in place until the bitter end.”
Merkel will dine with Hollande in Paris on Wednesday, the day before he flies to Moscow, and German officials have said she will urge him to remain firm on sanctions during the trip.