BERLIN: The release of Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky represents a resounding victory for German diplomacy just as the country is reassessing its complex ties with Russia, analysts said Monday.
Veteran top German diplomat Hans-Dietrich Genscher worked in secret for more than two years to win the release of Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man and a political threat to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With the explicit support of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Genscher, 86, who served as foreign minister for nearly two decades during the Cold War, managed to keep a lid on his dealings even as he held two separate personal meetings with Putin, in Berlin and Moscow, in 2012 and 2013.
Khodorkovsky himself, whisked to Berlin on a German businessman's private jet Friday upon his shock release after a decade behind bars, started a news conference Sunday by thanking Merkel and Genscher for their crucial help, indicating he had "no idea" of Germany's efforts while he was still in prison.
The Kremlin for its part remained tight-lipped about Berlin's part in the Khodorkovsky saga.
"Merkel will probably talk about her role herself, if there was any," presidential aide Yury Ushakov told Interfax Monday.
Merkel had on Friday hailed the success of Germany's "behind the scenes" negotiations, which German media noted were a low-risk, high-pay-off endeavour.
"Unofficial contacts, such as those of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton in North Korea or others in Iran or those of Hans-Dietrich Genscher in Russia can always be presented as non-committal talks where there can be an exchange of views but never failure because there is no official pedigree to them," Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel noted.
"And where there can be no failure, there can be no embarrassment."
Left-wing daily Tageszeitung was also effusive in its praise for the Christmas surprise Berlin helped pull off.
"It will take a long time, perhaps even decades, until all details of this masterpiece of secret diplomacy are released to the public," it said in an editorial.
Highlighting the probable role played by the upcoming Sochi Olympics in focusing minds in Moscow, conservative daily Die Welt nevertheless called the stunning developments "a true diplomatic coup".
"But it raises the question how things will proceed with Germany's Russia policy," it said.
Hans Kundnani, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said Berlin's shuttle diplomacy fit into an old German tradition going as far back as 19th century chancellor Otto von Bismarck: the idea of Germany as an "honest broker".
Kundnani told AFP German relations with Russia were clearly in flux, not only because Merkel had a new centre-left government with Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the foreign ministry.
During Steinmeier's last stint in the job in Merkel's first term 2005-9, he championed closer ties to promote political along with economic reforms in a strategy that failed to bear fruit.
"The German foreign policy establishment put all its faith in this idea of partnership for modernisation," Kundnani said.
"What's happened is that there's a lot of frustration particularly since the return of Putin and his increasing authoritarianism," he said.
Die Welt agreed that much had changed since Merkel's last "grand coalition" government.
"In the last four years, during Steinmeier's absence from the foreign ministry, much got worse in Russia -- the approach to opposition figures, gays and the media just to name a few," it said.
"Steinmeier is not someone to hide his head in the sand and that is why is he is backing away at the start of his second term... from the 'change through rapprochement' stance."
Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, has tried to strike a balance between standing up to Putin on human rights abuses while not jeopardising highly lucrative economic ties.
Last year Russia was Germany's 10th biggest trade partner with a total volume of 81 billion euros ($111 billion).
Khodorkovsky acknowledged to reporters Sunday how tricky the West's approach to Moscow would be in the coming years.
When asked how German politicians should calibrate their Russia policy, Khodorkovsky said he could not begin to advise "how they should behave toward someone who is as difficult as the president of my country".