By Stefan J. Bos
Putin and Merkel used their last talks in Moscow to speak about their differences over what Germany views as the Russian government's crackdown on dissent.
Alexei Navalny, one of the Kremlin's most prominent critics, was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in a failed attempt on his life one year ago on Friday.
After returning from Germany in January, the Russian dissident was sentenced to up to three and a half years in a penal colony. The sentencing came after a Moscow court found him guilty of disobeying the terms of his probation over the 2014 money laundering case.
But Chancellor Merkel urged the Russian leader to release Navalny, who is in prison on a conviction that the West believes is political.
"We, of course, also spoke about the distressing situation of Alexei Navalny. From our perspective, the sentencing to a penal colony based on an earlier verdict that the European Court of Human Rights has classified as manifestly disproportionate is unacceptable for us," she stressed. "And I have demanded once again from the president to release Navalny, and I have made it clear that we will remain on the case," Merkel explained.
President Putin rebuffed Chancellor Merkel's remarks while referring to Navalny as a subject or a person. "As to the person that you have mentioned, he was not sentenced for his political activities, but his criminal activities against foreign partners," Putin explained, a reference to the embezzlement case.
However, he added: "As far as political activities are concerned, no-one should hide behind political activities to carry out business projects while breaking the law."
Britain and the United States imposed new sanctions, including those allegedly related to the poisoning, a year ago, which was remembered in several newspapers.
Merkel and Putin also discussed the ongoing fighting between eastern Ukraine between Western-backed government forces and Russia-supported separatists, as well as Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
In addition, Putin warned the West not to interfere in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul, amid signs that Russia is increasing its footprint there and keeping its embassy open. Putin said Western nations must stop what he called "the irresponsible policy of imposing foreign values from abroad".
Though the Taliban is officially designated a terrorist group in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier there had been some "encouraging signs from the Taliban."
Despite the tensions over these and other issues, the Merkel-Putin summit began with a convivial air, as Putin delivered Merkel a bouquet in the Kremlin during what the German leader called "my farewell meeting … but also a working one".
Putin called Germany "one of the main partners for Russia in Europe and the world", in part because of their efforts over the past 16 years. While they have significant political differences, the two managed to keep trade going.
For example, US President Joe Biden halted the massive Keystone XL oil and gas pipeline that would have carried millions of gallons of oil from Canada to refineries in the US. But Russia and Germany continued with their pipeline.
The near-complete 1,230 kilometers (764 miles) Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea will double Russian gas exports to Germany.
Ukraine says the Nord Stream 2 pipeline threatens its security and stands to lose about $3 billion a year in gas transit fees.