STATESIDE: The history of Germany and Russia’s relationship


GERMAN President Frank-Walter Steinmeier pictured on Tuesday. Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP


FOUR months ago this morning, America was in solemn remembrance of an infamous, consequential day that would shape the nation’s history for decades. December 7, 2021, was the 80th anniversary of the surprise attack by Japanese military forces on the sprawling American naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.

But that day four months ago may well acquire a significance of its own as an important milestone in the reordering of world geopolitical alignments that is currently underway.

The Pearl Harbour attack, which rocked the US to its collective core and shattered its long-held sense of security and insulation from distant conflicts across wide oceans, forced America out of its increasingly uncomfortable “neutrality” and compelled it to join the Western Allies in declaring war against Nazi Germany, Japan, Italy and various other smaller affiliated nations. World War II had indeed become global.

After four years and tens of millions of lives lost in Europe and Asia, the so-called “Axis powers” were defeated. In the years that followed, the US ascended to a position of what felt like supreme world hegemony. And as it recovered economically with American assistance from the devastation of a comprehensive military and psychological defeat, Germany regained its footing and became an economic powerhouse.

The Germans also largely foreswore heavy military reconstruction. Germany was home base for significant numbers of the armed forces of the US, Britain, France and Russia from 1945 until the fall of the Soviet Union precipitated the reunification of Germany in 1990. The West German defense against the USSR lay largely with those three Western Allies.

Successive West German governments, while firmly rooted in the West as members of NATO and the European Union, only occasionally prioritised military spending. While the NATO charter mandated that member nations would allot at least two percent of their economic output to defense spending, the Germans rarely did so. Particularly under and since the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, US presidents began to criticise German governments for this insufficient attention to their own defense.

That brings us back to the morning of December 7, 2021. That was the last day of the 16-plus year tenure of Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany. Merkel, generally acknowledged as the most powerful woman in the world during her tenure, oversaw continued German political, social and economic advances as her conservative CDU party remained in power, sometimes via parliamentary coalitions with rival parties.

Merkel had spent her early years in what was then East Germany, a Communist state beholden to the Soviet Union for economic, political and military support. Among her academic distinctions was a working fluency in the Russian language. While her CDU party generally has espoused a hard line toward Moscow, Merkel as chancellor steered a careful diplomatic course between East and West.

Meanwhile, her Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had spent perhaps the most decorated years of his career in Soviet intelligence based in East Berlin. His German language skills are reportedly quite good. (He also reputedly speaks decent English, but insists on speaking in Russian when meeting Western counterparts).

History books may well record that the Merkel-Putin relationship, grounded in at least a rudimentary mutual understanding and enhanced by the language skills of each, was a pivotal factor in maintenance of overall peace in Europe during Merkel’s tenure as Chancellor. As future scholars look back at what is happening now in Europe, they may pinpoint last December 7 as a real turning point, since that was when she retired to private life.

Without the security of his relationship with the German chancellor, it may be that Putin has become somewhat unmoored. Unable to turn to any leader in the West for a trusting relationship grounded in shared experience, Putin has perhaps looked away from Europe toward Beijing and Chinese President Xi Jinping for a relationship based on some degree of trust.

It is routine now for American commentators to describe Putin as crazy, although they rarely use that word. He seems determined to exterminate Ukraine as a nation distinct from Russia no matter the cost. That cost to Russia has already totaled more military casualties than the US suffered in both the Iraq or Afghanistan wars – and far more than the Soviet Union itself suffered during its own misbegotten military occupation of Afghanistan.

It’s still anyone’s guess how this war we witness on television will reach a conclusion. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone outside Putin’s inner circle will conclude that whatever gains Russia achieves or claims from the conflict will justify its price.

Notwithstanding, the international political ramifications of the war are already significant and may endure for decades.

Something happened in Berlin on Tuesday that underscores the historical significance of this war.

Under the German system of government, the German president is more ceremonial, more like our Governor-General than our Prime Minister. The German president is similar to the head of state, not the head of government. The current German president is Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Steinmeier, a Social Democrat whose party’s view of Moscow has always been more sympathetic than that of the CDU, has long been an advocate for close commercial and political ties with Russia. Steinmeier served as Foreign Minister under Merkel in one of her coalition cabinets in Germany’s parliamentary system, and strongly supported the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project from Russia directly to Germany, among other bilateral collaborations.

On Tuesday, Steinmeier recanted. His remarks were startling both for their candor and their lack of ambiguity or evasiveness.

“My adherence to Nord Stream 2 was clearly a mistake,” he said. “We were sticking to a bridge in which Russia no longer believed and which other partners had warned us against. We failed to build a common European house. I did not believe Vladimir Putin would embrace his country’s complete economic, political and moral ruin for the sake of his imperial madness,” Steinmeier added.

“In this, I, like others, was mistaken.”

Furthermore, on February 27 new German chancellor Olaf Scholz said his government had decided to supply 100 billion euros for military investments from its 2022 budget. Germany’s entire defense budget was 47 billion euros in 2021.

Given the size of Germany’s 2022 estimated GDP, this pivotal nation has now committed to devoting more than two percent of its budget to defense. Reagan must be smiling.

Making this even more significant is the fact that Scholz is no anti-Russia hard-liner. He got his political start in the Social Democratic party by joining the International Union of Socialist Youth, often giving speeches denouncing the “aggressive imperialism of NATO”.

Such is the political transformation in Germany, still central to the European economy and pivotal in East-West relations. The supreme irony is that Putin seems fatally shackled to a vision that is already accelerating exactly the political and military developments he professes to most fear.


THIS NBA season is in its final week. Before the playoffs begin and threaten to derail their season, it seems appropriate to celebrate the Miami Heat. They have already won 51 of their 79 games and with just two left to play, the Heat lead surging Boston by two games. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and dangerous Philadelphia 76ers are close behind.

The Heat were not a popular choice to be in this position before the season began. After losing to LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers in the NBA finals two years ago, the Heat slumped during a COVID-shortened season last year. They finished in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and were wiped out 4-0 by the Bucks in the playoffs.

This year has been a different story. The Heat, stable in their ownership, general manager and head coach, have methodically advanced to and maintained their position at the top of the highly competitive Eastern Conference for much of the season and are very likely to enter the playoffs next week as the conference’s top seed.

While other teams, notably the 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, have garnered more headlines and notoriety with their bizarre stars and blockbuster trades, the Heat have been sure and steady. Respected handicappers fivethirtyeight.com, though, rate the Heat’s chances at the NBA Finals as only 16 percent, well behind Boston (45 percent) and Milwaukee (23 percent).


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