27th Jun 2022


Eastern Europe: Between hammer and anvil

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin with German chancellor Angela Merkel in August 2021 (Photo:
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Despite the many changes in eastern Europe in recent decades, Russia and Germany still fail to see the countries in between — Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine — as little more than geopolitical nuisances.

For Russia, Poles were and are an annoyance — as former president and prime minister Dmitri Medvedev recently made clear. Belarusians are a joke — as Russia's creeping annexation of their country suggests. And Ukrainians are delusional fascists with no right to exist — as Russian president Vladimir Putin has openly stated.

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Germany isn't quite as arrogant in its views of its eastern neighbours, but neither is it as welcoming as the open-hearted German self-image would suggest.

For Berlin, Poles are difficult — failing to appreciate that they need to follow Germany's sage example if they want to be fully European. The pejorative term "Polnische Wirtschaft" (meaning "Polish household") is no longer in use, but the sentiment remains.

Belarusians are a cypher ruled by a dictator, while Ukrainians are hopelessly corrupt and quarrelsome — or were, until Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February and unleashed a genocidal war.

Meanwhile, continued German reference to World War II as the "Russlandkrieg" (meaning "Russia War") nicely illustrates ongoing German attitudes.

Germany attacked, occupied, and destroyed huge swaths of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine. Belarus lost about a third of its population, Poland and Ukraine a little under a fifth, and Jews, who lived in all three countries, were subjected to almost complete annihilation in the Holocaust.

By that grim comparison, Russia actually remained largely untouched — a Russia War indeed.

The current war on Ukraine has only reinforced Russia's dismissive attitudes toward Poles, Belarusians, and Ukrainians.

For Moscow, the Poles are "chronic Russo-phobes," Belarusians are unreliable allies, and Ukrainians must be destroyed.

The war has also begun to change German perceptions, most notably with respect to Ukrainians. Berlin has condemned the Russian aggression, adopted severe sanctions, mothballed the Nord Stream II pipeline, and supplied Ukraine with arms.

But old habits die hard — former German chancellor Angela Merkel still refuses to admit that her policies toward Russia enabled Putin.

Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder remains an unrepentant Putin apologist and a tacit supporter of Putin's genocide in Ukraine.

Düsseldorf's ex-mayor, Thomas Geisel, a social democrat like Schröder, openly questions whether Russian atrocities in Ukraine are really as serious as Ukrainians say they are, while a group of left-wingers is calling on the German government to stop delivering arms to Ukraine.

According to German analyst Constanze Stelzenmueller: "Germany's self-serving Russia policy and its self-inflicted energy dependence — part wilfully naive, part deeply corrupt — found eager supporters across the political party spectrum. They emboldened the Kremlin, and they enabled Vladimir Putin's war."

The fact is that, just as Russia's distaste for its eastern neighbours includes pretty much the whole spectrum of relevant political elites, so, too, Germany's prioritising of Russia still remains the default position of its establishment.

So, when German finance minister Christian Lindner said on 23 April that "we must do everything in our power to help Ukraine win, but the limit of the ethical responsibility is endangering our own security and endangering the defence capability of Nato territory," one appreciates his concern for Ukraine, but one also notes that he all but openly says Germany's security is not dependent on Ukraine, while it is dependent on Russia.

Great power games

Why do Germany and Russia think so much alike about their neighbours in between?

The answer may lie in history and in geopolitics: both countries have been great powers since the mid-18th century and their "natural" field of contention and cooperation has been eastern Europe. It stands to reason that their mental maps of the region would be similar.

Unsurprisingly, eastern Europeans often view their relationship with Germany and Russia as similar to being trapped between a hammer and an anvil.

And with good reason — modern history is full of examples of Russo-German conflict and cooperation resulting in death and destruction for the countries in between.

Russia and Prussia (the forerunner of modern Germany) colluded in three partitions of Poland in the second half of the 18th century.

Wilhelmine Germany and Tsarist Russia were on opposing sides in World War I, and most of the warfare took place in today's Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.

In 1922, Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo, thereby recognising each other diplomatically and opening the door to economic and military cooperation that enabled Germany to rearm. The losers were, once again, the newly independent states of eastern Europe.

Russo-German relations temporarily worsened after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, but collaboration resumed after a Non-Aggression Treaty was signed in 1939, resulting in the fourth Polish partition and Russian aggression against the Baltic states.

Two years later, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and, as during the previous world war, the death and destruction were centred on the peoples of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Post-war Germany's policy of Ostpolitik led to a normalisation of relations with the Communist regimes of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany, but eastern European democratic dissidents paid the price.

Former German chancellor Willy Brandt urged the Solidarność trade union movement in Poland to stop striking in 1980, and then, in 1985, while on an official state visit, purposely refrained from meeting with Solidarność activists, clearly signalling who Bonn's preferred interlocutors were and where Germany's interests supposedly lay.

The revolutions of 1989, Germany's reunification in 1990, and the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 paved the way for the pro-Russian and pro-Putin policies that helped make Europe dependent on Russian gas, demonised Ukraine as irredeemably corrupt, and ignored the telltale signs of Putin's openly aggressive stance toward Russia's neighbours.

Germany's neglect of its eastern neighbours and Russia's hostility to them facilitated the ongoing genocidal war.

No more great powers

Inasmuch as eastern Europeans have suffered both when Germany and Russia have fought and when they have cooperated, the solution to this problem has to be geopolitical.

In the short run, that means Ukraine's victory over Russia.

In the long run, Germany must remain a middle power and Russia must be denied great-power status. De-Putinizing the regime will help, but the only durable solution for peace is for Russia to break apart.

Author bio

Alexander Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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