Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has a positive relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and the Ukraine crisis makes that more important. Putin is not Adolf Hitler, but the history of German-Russian relations is central to addressing the current challenge. Merkel, who speaks Russian, has telephoned Putin at least three times in recent days.
Focus on concrete national policy developments, sources of power, and leadership personalities characterizes traditional realism, which used to be the dominant approach to analysis of international relations. From this perspective, Americans and others interested in a stable Europe will find cause for some optimism. Alarmist international news media generally have not focused on German-Russian relations in discussing the Balkans.
On Angela Merkel’s desk is a portrait of Catherine the Great of Russia, reflecting the current importance of Moscow but also the profound influence of history, viewed long-term. Catherine was born in Prussia, a region of Germany rightly respected for extraordinary military expertise and skill.
In the era before modern nationalism, members of royal families and also professional military officers often accepted attractive employment offers from other countries. The practice is comparable to the way executives in multinational corporations change jobs today.
She ruled from 1762 to 1796, longer than any other female head of the country. During that time, national territory was expanded and economic modernization was promoted. Her tenure is known as the Golden Age of the Russian Empire, characterized by stability, progress and a pragmatic realistic approach to leadership.
Territories annexed during her rule include Crimea, now the focus of the crisis in Ukraine. Russia’s concern to have a buffer of stable friendly states on the western border is a traditional strategic priority.
In the 20th century, Germany and Russia became entangled in complex ways. German leaders engineered the Russian revolution of 1917, employing charismatic communist zealot Vladimir Lenin as catalyst. Berlin succeeded in knocking its eastern front adversary out of World War I.
Russia became the dominant region of the enormous new Soviet Union, which spanned Eastern Europe and Central Asia, while the pervasive brutality and murder of the new communist regime sparked extreme conservative reactions in parts of Europe. Intense fear of communism, combined with economic crises and bitter defeat in the war, in Germany opened the door to the Nazi nightmare.
Stark differences of personality and values separate Merkel and Putin, but both lived in communist East Germany. The future German chancellor was an academic. The future Russian president was an agent of the KGB, Moscow’s intelligence service. He and comrades worked closely with the Stasi, East Germany’s successor to the Nazi Gestapo.
United Germany today has led the European Union toward greater fiscal discipline, while aiding nations of Southern Europe laboring under heavy debt. Merkel has deftly restrained intense domestic political pressures to abandon this role.
Her nation effectively underwrites finances of governments many Germans view as profligate. In consequence, political stability has largely been maintained in Europe.
Germany and Russia have a major energy partnership, with the former a significant buyer of oil and natural gas supplied by the latter. This provides Berlin important leverage, given the structural weakness of the Russian economy.
The Obama administration must give priority to the German-American partnership. This includes no repetition of the NSA spying flap.
Understanding international policy patterns is far more important than focus on immediate headlines. Regarding Germany and Europe, consult realist Henry Kissinger’s important book "Diplomacy."