The murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow has added another dimension to the German debate over relations with Russia. The stand-off between the opposition and Putin’s sympathizers has intensified— and it should. There is much at stake, and there is a need to maintain a firm grip on a compass.
Nemtsov’s killing follows a string of deaths among Putin critics. The assassination of a prominent political figure is another illustration of how Russia is in the hands of those who want to eliminate any perceived threats. They have created an atmosphere conducive to the paranoid style of political manipulation. The response of the state-controlled media following Nemtsov’s murder illustrates the well-known practice of witch-hunting at home and finger-pointing abroad to find the culprits trying to hurt mother Russia. Conversely, in Germany, media coverage has been transparent in its efforts to present the story and the questions looming around it. Those questions focus on the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Russia and the role it has played in generating animosity toward the United States and the West in general, along with a virulent wave of nationalism undergirding Putin himself.
Looking to History for Answers Today
For the most part, the German media coverage has been transparent in its efforts to present the story and the questions looming around it. Those questions focused on the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Russia and the role it has played in generating animosity toward the United States.
The debate in both countries over their relationship is influenced by more than individual events: it has always been influenced by history, particularly when millions of Soviets died in the catastrophe of the Second World War. The fact that those deaths were set in motion by Hitler’s monstrous regime is embedded in the postwar German narrative—a narrative that also recalls the Soviet army’s annihilation of the Wehrmacht’s attack and its ultimate triumphal over-occupation of Berlin in 1945. The upcoming seventieth anniversary of the war’s end can be expected to generate an emphatic celebration of that victory in Moscow in May. Russian patriotism will be on full display in Red Square, as it was in Soviet times. Meanwhile, one can also expect history to be tied to the current crisis in Ukraine. Putin will compare fighting German fascists with the modern-day versions he sees in Kiev.
As that happens, it will be important to follow not only the United States’ and Europe’s efforts to mark that anniversary by recalling their commitment to defeating Hitler and restoring a free and stable Europe, but also how Germans portray that narrative.
For the duration of the Cold War, and especially during the years after 1990, the narrative first in West Germany and then unified Germany was about both an alliance and the expansion of Europe and NATO. It was about creating a Europe whole and free. That goal became possible, if not inevitable, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A European—and transatlantic—community grew as countries sought to overcome a history of conflict. There are now countries knocking at both the EU and NATO’s doors, with many waiting in line.
The European Dream and Russian Nightmare
It was thought, at some point, that Russia might join that waiting line and it emerged out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In spite of the mythology currently spun in Moscow, those opportunities were real and pursued in various formats—until they were portrayed as threats, encirclement, and dangers. After all, Putin had declared that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century.
The crisis in Ukraine and the evolution of Russia into an authoritarian oligarchy hell bent on restoring its national glory have now created a dilemma in Germany. With the invasion and annexation of Crimea and its efforts to destabilize Ukraine in order to rid itself of its own legacy of political corruption and affiliate itself with a European future, Putin’s regime has attempted to block any such Ukrainian efforts. He seeks to undermine the European Union by attempting to leverage his gas and oil supplies and intimidate those members on the Russian border with threats to help “protect” Russian minorities.
Germany is often cited as the main target of Russian propaganda and policies. Putin attempts to leverage that Russian-German legacy and play on German sympathies. He also uses anti-American sentiment to attempt to portray the United States as an outside influence and instigator interfering with real European interests.
Furthermore, Putin has helpers in Germany who buy into that message. It is not only those on the political left who use the old communist attacks on American capitalism. It also comes from the right wing, which has always harbored suspicion of American conspiracies to manipulate Germany. We witnessed this in the uproar over the NSA revelations. We see it in criticisms of alleged American preference for military solutions over diplomatic ones on problems such as the Ukraine conflict. In fact, there is a widespread sense of mistrust—if not outright cynicism—about American policy, whether it is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or confrontations with Russia, Iran, or the Middle East. During the past decade, the level of confidence in the United States has decreased in many ways. That has much to do with the Iraq war and its aftermath. But there has also been a decrease in confidence in U.S. domestic capacities given the gridlock in Washington and the language surrounding it. Some of that also came from a disappointment with President Obama for not living up to the unrealistic German images and expectations projected on him six years ago. After all, Guantanamo is still open.
A Tug-of-War Persists in Germany
Surrounding this development is an emerging trend—and a sense of déjà vu—that equates the United States and Russia as two similar powers vying for their own selfish influence and interests. That was a widespread attitude in the Cold War, and had significant traction during the debate in the early 1980s over the NATO deployment of U.S. missiles in West Germany as a response to Soviet missiles in East Germany. There was not much difference between the “two superpowers” and there was even a sense in West Germany that the Germans really had the high moral ground on preventing deployment, even though then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was the first to call for it.
Only a few years later, all of that was forgotten as German unification suddenly became possible. The Americans were again the “good guys” for supporting unification over the massive objections of France and the United Kingdom. Indeed, 1990 was the high point for German-American relations.
Then came a period when Europe was expanding and feeling good about itself in the 1990s, even though the war on its own doorstep in the imploding Yugoslavia needed American help to stop the bloodshed and slaughter. The new century then saw a decade of post 9/11 responses in Washington, during which the United States, the lone superpower, acted according to its sense of self-preservation threats as the only superpower and set out to end evil through a war on terror been visited on .
That was then accompanied by the Great Recession, which exposed weaknesses in the U.S. economy.
Meanwhile, Putin was engaged in restoring national pride and influence in Russia by conducting massive attacks on Chechnya and Georgia. He finally set his sights on Ukraine when it became clear that the former Soviet country wanted to change course toward the West. He was also seen cracking down on political dissent and other forms of protests by referencing the “plague” of homosexuals and other “deviants” and exploiting the traditional Orthodox Church as a beacon of values against the decadent Western influences.
In Germany, some people chose to identify with this conservative backlash and also turned blamed the United States for these dangers. One sees traces of that now in the PEGIDA demonstrations.
What is emerging in some circles is a trace of German equi-distance to the United States and Russia, while in other circles there is a more explicit anti-American sentiment with regard to what is perceived as American interference in European affairs. This has arisen recently in commentaries at the very top of the European Union leadership, which had stressed the greater value of European negotiations with Moscow on Ukraine versus talk from Washington of arming Kiev. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, has been particularly eloquent.
Choosing Important Battles: Ukraine and Nemtsov
Within this argument is the sentiment that the United States has less understanding of and certainly less interest in Russia, that the Europeans need to live with Russia as a neighbor, and that Moscow has legitimate security interests to consider. With that argument comes a readiness to recognize Crimea as “lost” and to suggest that the government in Kiev is really made of oligarchs running what comes close to a failed or failing state. Underneath that is a sense that it is not worth confronting Russia, because no one is going to go to war over Ukraine. The notion that there is hope of sustaining a Ukraine worth defending seems limited.
Beyond that, there is a belief that negotiations are needed in principle before military options are considered—and preferably considered not at all, as it only escalates the speed toward war. By the way, that did not work in the Balkans.
The murder of Boris Nemtsov is another setback for Russians looking for an alternative path toward achieving a Russia that is not run by oligarchs manipulating the economy to enrich their bank accounts and using the justice system to rid people standing in their way. It is also a setback for Russians who do not believe in a zero-sum game between Russia and the West. Finally, it is a setback for Europeans who maintained hope that Russia can be part of Europe.
However, what will be equally important is the possible setback for the German debate on dealing with a Putin-ized Russia. The seductive narrative that Germany needs to be working with Russia to strengthen a non-U.S.-led Western alliance is not new, but it seems to be looming in the background. More mumbling among German business leaders about the sanctions is detectable. Those who promote the value of continued and sympathetic dialogue with Russia tend to dominate the unending German talk shows. Even though Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have labeled Putin and his actions for what they are—the worst transgression of international law since the end of World War II—there remains a public hesitation in Germany to ratchet up further pressure. This follows case after case since Putin revealed his real cards—giving weapons to the rebels in eastern Ukraine, who used them to shoot down a passenger plane; showing contempt for European Union and NATO members by flying jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons through and around European airspace; and watching one opposition figure after another eliminated without any clear evidence of how it happened. Perhaps the trial in London about the poisoning of one victim will lead to a trail of polonium in Moscow.
The Lasting Challenge Ahead
The chancellor and her government will have their hands full trying to sustain EU solidarity behind the sanctions. It will be even more difficult if there is a move to tighten them further. There is leakage in Hungary and Greece, as recent events have illustrated. But she also needs to maintain the case in Germany, which at this time seems to be strong. As the year progresses, it will be crucial for Germany to lead this effort both by sending economic signals as well as by deploying military measures to those who will need it along the Russian border. Nothing can be ruled out when it comes to Putin’s prerogatives.
It may last many years, as was the division of Germany itself, but the shots that killed Boris Nemtsov were not only aimed at him. They were another set of warning shots, along with those continuing in Ukraine. Like it or not, there may be more coming. If the European leadership, and Germany in particular, explores more ways in which it thinks it can show its ability to negotiate with Putin, it will need to keep a firm hand on its political compass, and a firm partner hat should be one that is shared across the Atlantic.