Germany’s Russia Problem — a tricky balancing act

Addressing the Bundestag on March 13 2014, Angela Merkel couldn’t have been clearer in her condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea a few days earlier. The redrawing of Ukraine’s borders by drive ran counter to the rules-based worldwide order that Germany held pricey. Europe was reliving a Nineteenth-century battle about spheres of affect, “a conflict we believed we had overcome”, Merkel advised parliamentarians.

Her clear denunciation of Russian aggression and assist for financial sanctions in opposition to Moscow marked the start of Germany’s emergence from what John Lough calls its state of “conscious denial” about Russia’s authoritarian and revisionist path.

For a lot of the previous twenty years, together with the majority of Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship, wishful desirous about the path of Russia and the flexibility to affect it by empty dialogue and pieties about partnership had clouded German international coverage pondering. To a diploma it nonetheless does. Merkel refused to acknowledge that the brand new Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gasoline to Germany, permitting it to scale down transit by Ukraine and thus intimidate Kyiv — was something apart from a “commercial project”.

Germany’s Russia Problem seeks to clarify why the core tenets of German coverage in direction of Moscow below chancellors Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Merkel (till 2014) didn’t change although Russia plainly did.


Through misguided pondering and a “stubborn quest for ‘strategic partnership’, Germany inadvertently ended up supporting the emergence of a Russian regime hostile to its interests and values”, writes Lough, an analyst and former Nato official. “It legitimised and reinforced a deeply corrupt and increasingly authoritarian and repressive Russian system, emboldening it to deploy force against its neighbours and to attack western institutions.”

Given Merkel’s departure from workplace, the arrival of a new coalition authorities and a renewed risk of Russian navy aggression in direction of Ukraine, this ebook is properly timed. It can also be nuanced and deeply researched. Lough’s start line is that Germany’s relationship with Russia is a very powerful hyperlink between the western world and the most important nation on the European continent. They have interacted intensely for hundreds of years, leaving Germans with a “complex psychological inheritance” that shapes their mind-set.

Both succumbed to radical ideologies and each dedicated crimes in opposition to humanity. Their struggle of annihilation created an unparalleled “bond of spilt blood”. War guilt continues to be a highly effective affect on German desirous about Russia, much less so about Ukraine, which suffered extra. Russian postwar forgiveness has created a sense of German “debt and obligation”, which Moscow nonetheless seeks to use.


Germans really feel higher outfitted to grasp Russians than others within the west

Lough additionally factors to the “mythology” nonetheless cultivated in Social Democratic occasion circles that Ostpolitik — the coverage of rapprochement and engagement launched by Willy Brandt — was a very powerful think about ending the chilly struggle. Meanwhile, there may be enduring gratitude for Moscow’s inexperienced mild for German reunification, although it was most likely the results of circumstance as a lot because the Kremlin’s benevolence.

Finally there may be the longstanding financial enchantment of a huge nation wealthy in assets — and the idea that commerce encourages partnership and political change.

The depth of interplay signifies that Russia “is inescapably present in the German consciousness”, writes Lough. Germans really feel higher outfitted to grasp Russians than others within the west. It has given rise to Russlandversteher, or “Russia understanders”, throughout the German institution with a sturdy affect on policymaking. “‘Understanding’ in this context is a synonym for ‘readiness to make allowances’.”


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Lough is surprisingly sympathetic in direction of Merkel, paying tribute to her management on EU sanctions and braveness in shifting German coverage on Russia to a extra practical place. But it’s “reasonable to ask” why it took her 15 years to “conclude that the criminalised state posed serious dangers to its citizens, its neighbours and Europe as a whole”.

Germany’s Russia Problem was accomplished earlier than September’s federal election. A postscript would observe the way more vital tone on Russia within the new coalition settlement between social democrats, greens and liberals. It will take greater than a few paragraphs to vary what he calls Germany’s “historical reflexes”.

Germany’s Russia Problem: The Struggle for Balance in Europe by John Lough Manchester University Press, £20/$29.95, 256 pages

Ben Hall is the FT’s Europe editor

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