Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met last weekend at Meseberg, the guesthouse of the German federal government. Expectations for the meeting, on both sides, were rightfully low. But the meeting comes at a time when both the Germans and Russians are redefining their place in the international system, which for them also means redefining their own relationship. In the 20th century, shifts in the Russo-German relationship tended to have profound consequences for Europe. It’s worth considering what it could mean this time.
Contemporary Europe originates in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Maastricht Treaty creating the European Union went into effect. For the Germans, these two events meant that their primary interest was no longer the defense of Germany against the Soviet Union, and therefore their primary partner in said defense, the United States, was no longer central. Instead, Germany’s immediate problem was the reintegration of the former German Democratic Republic. Longer term, the focus was on turning the European Economic Community into more than a free trade zone and using the new tools of solidarity to ensure German economic interests. Given the paucity of strategic threats, Germany did not require a coherent security strategy beyond maintaining the EU, and its military capabilities, substantial during the Cold War, atrophied.
Germany’s relationship with Russia was primarily about access to Russian energy supplies. Since its founding, Germany has needed an industrial plant that was much larger than domestic consumption could support. Its industry allowed the German economy to surge and preserved social stability. Imperial Germany competed with the British Empire, selling to Russia, Austria-Hungary and southern Europe and buying natural resources from them. Nazi Germany attempted to create a similar structure, imposed by military force. Contemporary Germany remains dependent on imports of resources and exports of goods. The European Union is one leg of its strategy, and Russia has been another.
In the first decade after the Soviet collapse, Russia did not have a coherent strategy. It was, as a nation, in a state of shock, having freed itself from Soviet structures but having not yet built a new edifice. On the one hand, it needed economic relations with the rest of Europe. On the other hand, it needed to secure itself against foreign threats. The Russians, like the Soviets, pursued a strategy of strategic depth. They sought a neutral or pro-Russia buffer to the west – consisting of the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine – and to the south in the North Caucasus.
The encroachment of NATO into Russia’s western buffer and the South Caucasus created a strategic crisis for Russia. The development of a pro-Western government in Ukraine in 2014 was particularly alarming. To make matters worse, oil prices plummeted later in the year – a devastating development for Russia’s economy, which still relies on exports of raw materials. Russia’s strategic and economic position seemed to be unraveling.
The foundation of German national strategy has not quite unraveled, but it’s no longer as secure as it was. The EU is fragmenting along national and class lines. It remains Germany’s primary market for exports, but confidence that this will be permanent has been shaken. Now it is at odds with the United States, which is demanding more defense expenditure from Germany, along with the unstated demand that Germany take more risk alongside the United States. But the Germans have no interest in joining the U.S. in the Middle East, the South China Sea or North Korea.
Germany and Russia, then, both have problems with the global hegemon. These problems precede the Donald Trump administration and go deeper than politics and diplomacy. For Germany, the U.S. constantly wants to divert it from its primary interest (the EU) and creates regional friction – with Russia, for example. And for Russia, the Americans are extending their sphere of influence, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, with no visible motive except to threaten Russia’s security.
At the same time, Germany and Russia see potential benefits from cooperation. Germany’s economic and regional interests require oil and gas, which Russia has. Russia’s economic development requires foreign investment and technology, which Germany has. This is familiar ground. Germany and Russia explored cooperation between 1871 and 1914. Between the two world wars, Russia provided Germany with military assistance, allowing it to evade the Treaty of Versailles. From 1939 to 1941, they were bound by treaty and jointly participated in the invasion of Poland. Of course, both periods ended disastrously. In World War I, Imperial Germany devastated Imperial Russia. Similarly, despite the military assistance (the Treaty of Rapallo) and the 1939 Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Germany invaded Russia and brutalized it again during World War II. American power in West Germany helped avert similar bloodshed during the Cold War.
In short, the history of Russo-German relations since Germany’s unification in 1871 has consisted of tentative attempts at cooperation followed by catastrophic wars and near-wars. Neither country has forgotten that, but the temptation to try again, on the assumption that this time is different, is powerful. If history is consistent, then the U.S. is indispensable. It was U.S. lend-lease and the invasion on the western front that enabled the Soviets to defeat Germany in World War II. It was the U.S. that guaranteed West Germany’s security in the Cold War. Each has been, in a real sense, saved from the other by the Americans.
Of course, if this time really is different, then forming an understanding and pushing the U.S. out of the equation makes sense. But if it remains the case, as it was during the 20th century, that Russia needs buffers to its west, and Germany needs markets and resources under its control, then neither side really has a solid basis for cooperation. In that case, this looks like 1939, when the two sides signed a pact that they knew the other would betray, with the expectation that they would betray first, when the time was right. An alliance of those thinking themselves more clever than the other doesn’t usually end well.
But perhaps this time is different.
This piece originally appeared on Geopolitical Futures and is reproduced with permission.