The crisis in Ukraine and the Russian actions in Crimea and the east of the country, which continue these days, have evinced an extremely important characteristic of today’s Europe. How did the big traditional powers of the old continent position themselves?
We know that, after the initial surprise succeeded by Russia in Ukraine, England and France reacted by affirming the solidarity of alliance. Only the attitude of Germany in the context of the crisis was ambiguous, to use a soft word. Reticent and cautious. It was manifest through the slowness with which the German government joined the position expressed by the US and NATO toward the Russian aggression in Crimea, in the different opinions displayed by various ex-politicians of public influences or the business circles with strong ties with Russia. These diverse positions toward the official line – slow and reluctant, also determined by the recent post-war history of the big parties that form the ruling political coalition – included significant doses of understanding, but also of distancing from Russia’s action.
And this attitude was justified especially by the very close economic ties between Germany and Russia, whose interruption, even limited and temporary, would be damaging for the German economy or the West, in general.
How is explained this attitude of Germany, which is decisive for Europe’s future, given its geopolitical and economic weight on the old continent?
Experts from Germany and other western states noticed the ‘embarrassment’ of the German government when the Russian operations started in Ukraine and the coagulation – gradual, but rapid – of the firmness attitude of the West (led by USA and NATO) to give the legal, legitimate answer to it. For German experts, Ukraine and the crisis developing there for the last two months represented “a big clarifier” because they promptly and inevitably raised two decisive questions for the future of Europe: “First, predictably, will the United States remain a European power? Second, perhaps less obviously, can Germany be kept inside the Western family of nations? The battle for a Europe whole and free is a battle over German Westbindung”. (Jan Techau)
In fact, these two questions are raised in the context of these analyses, but also among the readers who commented on them, precisely from the exceptional situation of Germany today in Europe. It is worth mentioning that the present situation is, in itself, the result of a long historic evolution. The geographic situation in Central Europe, which accumulates based on the demographic potential and undisputable community qualities an impressive power reflected in the current performance, inheriting a historic resilience without par, Germany also has instincts that induced its modern and contemporary political turns. One of these was the – peaceful or violent – expansion to the East of Germanism, which placed it in conflict with the Slavic world, especially with Russia over the last century. In the geopolitical core of Europe, where it is situated, Germany equally has a predisposition of singularisation/distancing/isolation/domination toward East and/or West, which often determines its behaviour in the continental arena. This instinct and the devastating effects of its materialisation also were the motivation for which the other European powers opposed for a long time the unification of Germany, which was achieved late, in the second half of the 19th Century, and at the end of World War II, alongside the USA, they once again resorted to splitting it. A significant recent poll shows that 81 pc of Germans do not see Russia as a trustworthy partner, but 58 pc have the same opinion about the USA. And another opinion poll is even more illustrative: 49 pc want an equidistant attitude toward the West and Russia, while only 45 pc want to be integrated in the West. So, is Germany in the East, or the West? Or, can Germany be equidistant at the centre of Europe?
A German reader comments: Germans “are big enough to dream it, but never quite powerful enough to attain it. Just when they get really close through dominance in the EU, Russia plays at games to confuse Germany, and try to force a choice between Anglo-/Saxon/ world and Russian”. He surprises in his comment– we believe – only part of the tumultuous German history during the last century. Equally favoured and vulnerable geopolitically because of its central position, Germany considered itself powerful enough to yield to the impulse of dominating or, more recently, of remaining alone, alongside a European Union strengthened and organised through the will of Berlin, not having to make a choice between East and West. For Russia, Germany has a strong and long-time practised hate/love binomial or, in the words of a German novelist: “When it comes to the relations between the Germans and Russians, there is a tug-of-war between profound affection and total aversion”. Russia is the mysterious world of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, but also of the tenebrous history with Asian scent of Ivan the Terrible. Germany’s relations with the Slavic world, beginning with the Novgorod Russia, date back almost a millennium, and this ambivalence had time to sediment and consolidate. As for the West, to which the German world has traditionally historically belonged, although the Eastern impulses equally consumed huge energies, material and human resources, Germany discovered it especially after World War II.
Placing Germany in the West was the solution to avoid the fascination of isolationism, accompanied by dominating pulses – as it was seen two disastrous times in the last century – while also enjoying the geopolitical, demographic and economic benefits it has in Europe. These considerations do not mean that the analyses we refer to consider that Germany’s attitude toward Russia can be equated today to the position of Germany toward Europe. Because it is rather hard to accept that the Germans – whose evaluation of Russia was demonstrated by the result of the recent aforementioned polls – would accept geopolitical designs like those mentioned days ago by the Russian expert in international relations, Sergey Karaganov. Reiterating an older idea (6 March 2014) in which he pleaded for an effort aimed at reaching “the common goal of an Alliance of Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, in which people and trade would flow freely. We should merge the soft power of Europe with hard power and resources of Russia, as prominent Europeans and Mr Putin have often proposed.”
Karaganov recently came with explanations. He wrote, in an article published on 8 April 2014, that a Union of Europe would be beneficial for Russia, which would no longer stay aside from the European civilisation, and also for the European Union, which would thus acquire a new strategic target. This would lead to the creation of a big actor, formalising a planetary triangle alongside the USA and China. Although, presently, Moscow no longer wishes the integration in the West, Russia’s policy is not anti-European. But maintaining tensions like the Ukrainian crisis will reorient Russia even more to the East.