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Dhaka Tribune

Beyond the curtain and the wall

Are we witnessing the end of a historic partnership

Update : 01 Mar 2022, 10:54 AM

One question that rose immediately among foreign policy analysts during the full-scale military aggression of Russia against a major country like Ukraine was, why did Putin choose this moment to launch such an unexpected, unprecedented attack? One of the major non-conspiracy theories entertained by analysts is that Putin chose this moment because Angela Merkel is no longer in power, and Germany just inaugurated a new government. Germany is not only the de facto leader of the European Union, but Merkel had been often touted as the de facto leader of Western democracies during the Trump presidency. And of all the leaders of the West in the last two decades, Merkel was often described as the most immune to Putin’s personal persuasion or intimidation.

Germany has a unique role in Russian foreign policy-thinking because the two countries are heavily co-dependent. Germany is the biggest source of foreign investment in Russia by far and Russia provides 70% of Germany’s fuel and gas, in addition to other raw material. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Germany runs on Russian oil and gas.

Beyond economic ties, there is a unique historical, cultural bond between the German and Russian people and leaders, that often-frustrated outsider because of how it seemed to constrict German foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia. The legacy of the World Wars still weighs heavily in German minds and the German guilt feeling mostly being indebted to two populations in particular, Jews and Russians.

27 million citizens of Soviet Union died during WWII due to Nazi invasion and 4 million German soldiers died in the Eastern front. The unimaginable bloodbath in the East initiated by Germany makes the country especially wary of getting involved in the recent military matters of Russia. Russians will be Russians, that is usually the most common attitude.  

Even more than recent history, Germans and Russians feel a special connection between the two people. For a thousand years, German cities and states were Russia’s gateway to the West. Germans have been providing merchants, craftsmen, engineers, teachers, musicians, military instructors to Russia for many hundreds of years. From the eighteenth century onwards, nearly every Russian Tsar had German-born princesses either as mother or as wife, sometimes both. While the preferred language of Russian nobility was French, their estates and businesses were mostly run by people brought from Germany. 

The Germans feel the long historical connection between the two nations as well. It was only with the help of the great Russian army that Germans managed to defeat Napoleon and free Germany from French occupation. Without Russian help, the emergence of a unified German state in the 19th century might have been an impossibility. Busmark, the greatest German statesman of modern history, understood the critical importance of German-Russian relations very well. The fulcrum of his foreign policy was to maintain good relations with the Russian empire and isolate France in Europe. Under his leadership, Germany and Russia essentially carved out central and eastern Europe between them as separate spheres of political and economic domination. 

Bismark famously said that the most important fact in modern history was the successful British colonization of North America. This essentially made Anglo-America the leading civilization of the world. If different cultural civilizations like Germans and Russians want to avoid getting engulfed by the Anglo-American world and maintain their distinct civilizational space, they must cooperate. After Kaiser Wilhelm infamously dropped Bismark from the helm, this fulcrum of German policy disintegrated, resulting in the two World Wars and all the subsequent upheavals in Europe. The unchallenged domination of Anglo-America in global politics, economy, culture became a reality. 

Among many Germans, especially the older sections, there is a lot of sympathy for the Bismarkian vision of German-Russian relations. They empathize with Russians as a fellow defeated great power and dominated culture. Among older Germans in the East, there is a lot of nostalgia for the simpler life in the defunct East German Republic also. In Germany there is a term called Russ-verstehen, meaning empathetic understanding of Russia and its people. Analysts often point out this special understanding behind much of German reluctance to confront Putin’s adventurism in the last two decades. 

However, WWII, like the military invasion of Ukraine, seemed to have broken this special German understanding of Russia. Germans feel a special connection to Ukraine and its people as well. The cities in the news, Kharkov, Kyiv, Belgorod, Odessa were places where some of the biggest battles in WWII took place. Kyiv (or Kiev) is the place where the first large-scale massacre of Jews by Nazis took place, the infamous Babi Yar mass slaughter of 1941.

Ukraine is much closer to Germany than Chechnya or Georgia and the blitzkrieg-like attack on Ukraine seemed to have shattered the verstehen of Russia. Especially the younger Germans, who are incensed at Putin’s thuggish destruction of prevailing norms between nations in Europe.  

Germany has announced direct military aid to Ukraine, supported crippling economic and financial sanctions on Russia, cancelled the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and, most importantly, announced dramatic boosting of defense and military spending.

It is too early to comment definitively on fallouts from the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the events are unfolding. However, if Germany really gets off the fence in full support of Ukraine and rearms to defensively prepare for a throwback world of military conquests by great powers, it will be historic not just for Europe but for the world as well.

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.

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