Eastern Europe: Between a rock and a hard place

Despite the many changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe over the past decades, Russia and Germany still do not see the middle countries – Poland, Belarus and Ukraine – as mere geopolitical nuisances.

For Russia, the Poles were and are an annoyance – as former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made clear recently. Belarusians are a joke – as Russia’s creeping annexation of their country suggests. And the Ukrainians are delusional fascists who have no right to exist – as Russian President Vladimir Putin has openly declared.

Germany is not as arrogant in its view of its eastern neighbors, but neither is it as welcoming as the open-hearted German self-image suggests.

For Berlin, the Poles are difficult — not realizing that they must follow Germany’s wise example if they want to be fully European. The pejorative term “Polnische Wirtschaft” (meaning “Polish hearth”) is no longer used, but the sentiment remains.

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

Meanwhile, the continued German reference to World War II as “Russlandkrieg” (meaning “Russian war”) illustrates ongoing German attitudes well.

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

By this grim comparison, Russia has in fact remained largely untouched – a Russian war indeed.

The current war against Ukraine has only reinforced Russia’s dismissive attitudes towards Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians.

For Moscow, the Poles are “chronic russo-phobes”, the Belarusians are unreliable allies and the Ukrainians must be destroyed.

The war also began to change German perceptions, especially of Ukrainians. Berlin condemned the Russian aggression, adopted severe sanctions, mothballed the Nord Stream II gas pipeline and supplied arms to Ukraine.

But old habits die hard – former German Chancellor Angela Merkel still refuses to admit that her policy towards Russia empowered Putin.

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder remains an unrepentant apologist for Putin and a tacit supporter of Putin’s genocide in Ukraine.

Ex-Dusseldorf mayor Thomas Geisel, a social democrat like Schröder, openly questions whether Russian atrocities in Ukraine are really as bad as Ukrainians say, while left-wing group calls on German government to stop to deliver arms to Ukraine.

According to German analyst Constanze Stelzenmueller: “Germany’s selfish Russian policy and its self-inflicted energy dependence – partly willfully naïve, partly deeply corrupt – have found enthusiastic supporters in all political parties. They have emboldened the Kremlin and allowed Vladimir Putin’s war.”

The point is that just as Russia’s distaste for its eastern neighbors encompasses just about the entire spectrum of political elites involved, Germany’s prioritization of Russia also remains the default position of its establishment.

So when German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said on April 23 that “we must do everything in our power to help Ukraine win, but the limit of ethical responsibility endangers our own security and NATO’s territorial defense capability”, we appreciate his concern for Ukraine, but we also note that he says almost openly that Germany’s security does not depend on Ukraine, whereas it depends on Russia.

Great Power Games

Why do Germany and Russia think so much of their intermediate neighbors?

The answer may lie in history and geopolitics: the two countries have been great powers since the middle of the 18th century and their “natural” field of discord and cooperation is Eastern Europe. It stands to reason that their mental maps of the region would be similar.

Unsurprisingly, Eastern Europeans often view their relations with Germany and Russia as being caught between a rock and a hard place.

And for good reason – modern history is replete with examples of Russian-German conflicts and cooperation resulting in death and destruction for the countries in between.

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

Wilhelmine Germany and Tsarist Russia were at odds in World War I, and most of the wars took place in today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.

In 1922, Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo, thus recognizing itself diplomatically and opening the door to economic and military cooperation which enabled Germany to rearm itself. The losers were, once again, the newly independent states of Eastern Europe.

Russian-German relations temporarily deteriorated after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, but collaboration resumed after the signing of a non-aggression treaty in 1939, resulting in the fourth Polish partition and aggression Russia against the Baltic States.

Two years later, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and, as in the previous World War, death and destruction was centered on the peoples of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.

Germany’s post-war Ostpolitik policy led to a normalization of relations with the communist regimes of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany, but dissidents Eastern European democrats paid the price.

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt urged the Solidarność trade union movement in Poland to stop striking in 1980, then in 1985 during an official state visit deliberately refrained from meeting with Solidarność activists, clearly signaling who Bonn’s preferred interlocutors were and where Germany’s interests supposedly resided.

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

Germany’s neglect of its eastern neighbors and Russia’s hostility towards them facilitated the ongoing genocidal war.

More great powers

Since Eastern Europeans suffered both when Germany and Russia fought and when they cooperated, the solution to this problem must be geopolitical.

In the short term, this means Ukraine’s victory over Russia.

In the long term, Germany must remain a middle power and Russia must be denied great power status. Depoutinizing the regime will help, but the only lasting solution for peace is for Russia to separate.