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Germany’s tough-talking top diplomat goes to Moscow

In a change of direction for Germany, Annalena Baerbock, the country's new top diplomat, is a member of the Greens party and she's talking tough about how to deal with Russia.

(CN) — Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock of the Greens, took her tough language to Moscow on Tuesday where she met with her Russian counterpart in a bid to kick-start negotiations in the conflict over eastern Ukraine.

Baerbock, a 41-year-old co-leader of Germany's Greens party, held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow and was mostly restrained in her criticism of the Kremlin and said diplomacy must prevail.

Her visit to Moscow comes after a week of inconclusive talks between American, European and Russian diplomats and launched another week of dialogue that will be capped by a meeting of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov on Friday in Geneva. Before then, Blinken will visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday, travel to Berlin to visit Baerbock and meet with other allies. 

In Moscow, Baerbock took some jabs at Russia as she struck a firm but cordial tone during a joint news conference with Lavrov, the 71-year-old veteran Russian diplomat. Baerbock drew applause in the West for mentioning imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the recent shutdown of the human rights group Memorial during the news conference.

This was Baerbock's entry onto the world stage as a top diplomat at the center of a major crisis that could spin out of control and spark a new war in Europe.

Baerbock brings a new – and more aggressive – face to German foreign policy, which has long been characterized by a soft attitude toward the former Soviet bloc and more recently toward the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China.

Formerly staunch pacifists in the 1980s, the Greens have become hawkish on foreign policy, arguing that military might is necessary to defend democracy and human rights. Baerbock, for example, has advocated that NATO push eastward to counter Russian aggression and that Germany should close a controversial gas pipeline that Russia has built across the Baltic Sea, the Nord Stream 2.

Visiting Moscow can be particularly tricky for Western European diplomats, as the European Union's chief foreign affairs representative, Josep Borrell Fontelles, discovered in February 2021 when he was humiliated by Lavrov. At the time, Navalny's arrest was causing an outcry in the EU and Borrell committed a major miscalculation in going to Moscow with the hope of convincing the Kremlin to change direction.

At the news conference on Tuesday, Baerbock and Lavrov agreed that more diplomacy is needed to end the conflict in Ukraine's Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces.

Talks under the so-called Normandy Format were meant to end the conflict but that process is at an impasse with both sides accusing the other of failing to live up to promises to de-escalate and find a political solution. The Normandy Format talks involve France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine.

About 14,000 people have been killed in the war and there are fears Russian President Vladimir Putin – fed up with NATO's growing presence in Ukraine – is planning a large-scale invasion. Russia is accused of amassing about 100,000 soldiers near the Ukraine border. The Kremlin denies it is planning an invasion but argues that Ukraine is planning to re-take Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 following the overthrow of a pro-Kremlin president in Kyiv during the Maidan uprising.

At the briefing, Baerbock said that the troop buildup had “no understandable reason” and that it was “hard not to take as threat,” according to Deutsche Welle, a German news broadcaster.

The United States and NATO say they will not send troops in the event of an invasion and instead would punish Russia harshly by excluding it from the international banking system, which is largely based on American institutions and the U.S. dollar. Still, a Russian invasion would encounter massive resistance from Ukrainian forces, which are being quickly armed by the U.S. and its allies.

On Monday, Baerbock traveled to Kyiv to show her support for Ukraine.

She became foreign minister following September federal elections that saw the Greens get enough votes to allow them a role in Germany's new coalition government led by the Social Democrats, which traditionally take a more favorable view of Russia. Germany's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is a Social Democrat and he may be inclined to rein in Baerbock's more aggressive approach.

At a news conference in Berlin, Scholz and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of the risk of a Russian invasion. Scholz urged Moscow to back off.

“It is clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine,” Scholz said, according to Deutsche Welle.

“The risk of a conflict is real,” Stoltenberg said. “NATO allies call on Russia to de-escalate.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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