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Immovable Object Unstoppable Force: Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and the New Politics of Containment

October 13, 2017

Monday, October 2nd, the Institute for European Studies held an event discussing the personal relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. Joyce Mushaben, who received her Ph. D. from Indiana University and is currently Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Comparative Politics & Gender Studies at the University of Missouri St. Louis, was the keynote speaker for this event, talking about her latest book, Becoming Madam Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Professor Mushaben compared and contrasted Putin and Merkel in order to give us an intuitive understanding of their relationship.putinmerkel1

Professor Mushaben begins the talk by examining the backgrounds of both characters, which shows clear similarities and stark differences. One of these comparisons is their similar rise to power; both leaders grew up under a common enemy and were political outsiders that were pushed into positions of power by their mentors. Before this, another similarity arises from their younger years when they both spent time living in the other’s country. In 1977 Merkel traveled across the Soviet Union as an exchange student and in the mid-1980s Putin was stationed in Dresden, Germany as a KGB agent. In 1989, with the fall of the wall, Merkel, being from East Germany, stated this shows “dreams come true” but for Putin it meant destroying as many secret police files as possible. Merkel had an inside understanding of the Soviet Union and therefore has a better understanding of Putin as well. While in Dresden, however, Putin did not see the dissatisfaction of the Soviet people because he was shut off from most news. Putin was also cut off from the enthusiasm for democratization in his country and only came back to see Gorbachev fall and the collapse of the Soviet Union which he considers to be “one of the greatest geo-political disaster of the century.” Therefore, Putin saw the invasion of Crimea as ‘reuniting’ Russia’s historically legitimate territory and he didn’t understand why Germany did not support his ‘reunification.”

In order to describe Putin and Merkel’s current relationship Professor Mushaben uses the ‘unstoppable force paradox’ as a metaphor. This paradox asks the question “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” She defines Putin as the unstoppable force and Merkel as the unmovable object. While Merkel looks at the bigger picture, Putin uses force and attacks weaker powers like in the Georgian, Ukrainian and Crimean conflicts.


  One way to explain the unstoppable force paradox is with the shield and spear story. A man was trying to sell a spear and a shield. When asked how good his spear was, he said that his spear could pierce any shield. Then, when asked how good his shield was, he said that it could defend from all spear attacks. Then one person asked him what would happen if he were to take his spear to strike his shield; the seller could not answer.

Professor Mushaben continued the talk by highlighting the contrasts between Merkel and Putin’s leadership styles. Merkel is data driven and deals with situations in a scientific way through trial and error, always learning from her mistakes. Meanwhile, Putin uses his machismo and intimidation. He stages photo ops to accompany this persona and his policies take this personality on as well. Putin has broken with the Soviet women’s ‘equality’ movement, barred foreign religion and is against homosexuality and outlawed propaganda of this sort. Putin’s use of intimidation can be seen in one of his meetings with Merkel. Angela Merkel is extremely afraid of dogs, and Putin, knowing this, brought his large dog to meet her. An additional complication in their relationship is that Putin does not understand that western leaders cannot rule the way he does. Putin has a patron client relationship with his people (if you do what I say you will get rewarded and if you do not you will be punished). Putin is, however, vulnerable when it comes to Russia’s economy and Merkel knows this is where she can rein him in with sanctions. Professor Mushaben even states that Obama understood their relationship and turned to Merkel to help handle Putin after the Crimean invasion.


Professor Mushaben further discussed the complexities of their relationship describing how Merkel and Putin are on a first name basis with each other and stressed the importance of them both being able to speak in each other’s native languages, in which they use the informal ‘you’. They usually speak to each other in German and Putin even corrects his German translators when talking to Merkel, perhaps another intimidation technique, to show nothing gets by him. Soon we will see how Russia and Germany’s relationship will evolve as Angela Merkel goes into her fourth term as Chancellor and Putin goes up for re-election in 2018. Recently, however, Putin say he is unsure if he will run for re-election at all, but if he did most polls show he would win in a landslide.


For more information on Dr. Mushaben’s new publication see:






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