The Russo-German relationship is essential for shaping the broader environment that European states inhabit.
Twice in the twentieth century conflicting interests, alliances, and entanglements between Russia and Germany brought about a world war. Today, Europe once again finds itself in a precarious position. In the short term, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has consolidated the transatlantic partnership by supplying military aid to Kyiv and imposing sanctions on Moscow, while giving new life to the European Union (EU) as it begins to reorient to a rapidly changing international system. However, as the Russo-Ukrainian War progresses, it is questionable how long Europeans can unconditionally support Ukraine amidst expanding domestic challenges. Alongside this transnational reorientation, the revolutionary reforms proposed by German chancellor Olaf Scholz to change Berlin’s security and defense spending policies have received significant attention.
The Europe that emerged after the Cold War is now a relic of the past. What will take its place will weigh heavily upon global affairs for decades to come. The potential for the continent to drift towards heightened military spending, increased armaments, and a fractured security environment akin to the decades preceding World War I should prompt a dramatic reassessment. In this environment, “managed competition” in Europe might be the most desired outcome if an equitable peace settlement should fail to take shape in Ukraine, granted it is ever genuinely pursued. For such a system to be successful, the relationship between Germany and Russia will be the most important. Their shared history provides some important lessons.
The Russo-German relationship is essential for shaping the broader environment that European states inhabit. The Russo-Prussian friendship originated in the 1813 Treaty of Kalish that was directed against the Grand Armée during the final years of the Napoleonic Wars which devastated the legitimacy of the previous European order. This proved to be an amicable arrangement that was built predominantly on shared interests and values and persisted in one form or another for the next seven decades. While the Congress of Vienna is rightly given most of the credit for preventing a continent-wide conflict after the Napoleonic Wars, the benefits of a strong relationship between Berlin and St. Petersburg are notable in their own right.
During the Crimean War (1853-1856), Prussia was the only great power that did not join the anti-Russia coalition. Likewise, Tsar Alexander II maintained a benevolent neutrality during Prussia’s wars against Austria and France which resulted in the creation of the German Empire. While the Russo-German alliance officially ended with Berlin’s refusal in 1890 to extend the secret Reinsurance Treaty with St. Petersburg, the friendship had stood as one of the most stable pillars of the nineteenth-century European order. As history went on to show, Russia would then be delivered into the arms of France who had been seeking friendship in the hopes of reclaiming the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from Germany’s grasp.
While the factors which contributed to the end of the Russo-German alliance may have seemed irreconcilable at the time, it is important to consider the results of their separation. Following the break between Germany and Russia, relations steadily deteriorated across Europe: arms production vastly increased alongside military spending; nationalist sentiments were increasingly aroused; and mass politics contributed to volatility within imperial states in central and eastern Europe. In the end, it would take less than twenty-five years for the entire European continent to be plunged into World War I—a ghastly conflict with origins in the brewing tensions between Germany and Russia in southeastern Europe. Indeed, World War II would also start in eastern Europe and involve even deadlier fighting between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, not least because of the Treaty of Versailles’ inability to produce a new stable order.
Writing about the Russian state, Baron R. R. Rosen, an astute diplomat from the imperial period, noted in his memoirs that “A nation, numbering some hundred and fifty million, and occupying almost one-seventh part of the surface of the inhabitable globe, represents too large a factor in the history of the world for its condition and destiny to be a matter of indifference to the rest of mankind.” These words still resonate strongly today. While it is popular in the West to make proclamations about the inevitable defeat of the Russian military in Ukraine, to support the prohibition of Russian cultural and social exports, and the incessant imposition of sanctions, the consequences of these decisions for European states are often ignored. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock recently even declared that Berlin will support Ukraine “no matter what German voters think.”
In the three decades since the reunification of Germany, Russians, Germans, and historians alike have understood the importance that amicable ties between the two powers held for the maintenance of peace and stability across the continent. Berlin’s relatively friendly attitude towards Moscow since the end of the Cold War was due to certain factors unique to Germany. Most importantly, these included feelings of guilt over the invasion of the Soviet Union and the losses and suffering that resulted on both sides. Additionally, Germans hold a great deal of gratitude to the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for his willingness to allow for peaceful reunification following four decades of division. To be sure, heavy German investment in Russia also contributed to this process. However, with the passing of time, the generation of Germans who remember World War II has vanished and younger generations seemingly take unity for granted. The consequences of such changes have yet to be fully realized but one can only hope that the lessons of history will not be forgotten so soon.
For Germans and other Europeans who have fostered close economic ties with Russia since the waning years of the Soviet Union, it is only natural that their governments and citizens should question how prolonging the war in Ukraine will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the fighting and restore stability throughout Europe. With a severe economic recession looming in Germany, spiraling energy prices across Europe, and inflation raising the cost of living, the potential for social unrest on the continent should not be taken lightly. While it is morally righteous to stand with Ukraine in its time of immense suffering, it is also wrong and strategically unsound to champion the continuation of a war that has killed tens of thousands of people and forced another 13 million to flee their homes with no clear strategy for an endgame.
Wars either end when one side is defeated or both sides agree to a negotiated settlement. While the present situation may seem like a tempting opportunity to “weaken” Russia, the risks of this strategy far outweigh the supposed benefits. For those hoping for the dissolution of Russia, its “de-colonization,” and even regime change, it is important to heed Baron Rosen’s warning issued well before the advent of nuclear weapons. “When the blind passions born of the World War shall have calmed down, it will be realized that the destruction and dismemberment of the Russian Empire, and the abandonment of the Russian nation to anarchy and civil war, means an unmitigated disaster for all Europe.” However, there is a way to end the tragedy in Ukraine and it is only through diplomacy that a lasting peace can be achieved.
Amicable historic ties between Germany and Russia have not always produced beneficial results, especially for the countries between them. Yet the calamities which befell Europe, and the entire world, when Berlin and Moscow were locked into a confrontational relationship should not be overlooked. Understanding the importance that friendly relations with Russia have had on the German economy and the power and prestige of the EU is essential. To achieve true security across Europe, an effectively managed relationship with Russia remains a prerequisite.
The strategy Germany has pursued toward Russia over the past three decades has essentially focused on economics while deferring to NATO, and thus the United States, on defense issues. The invasion of Ukraine has shown the ineffectiveness of this policy and it must be rectified for any future relationship with Moscow to be enduring. By continuing to rely on the United States, Germany and its European partners may find themselves in an untenable position if Washington decides to reduce its regional commitments to attend to developments in East Asia or elsewhere. A new strategy from Berlin that prioritizes both the strategic and economic relationship with Moscow will be essential for long-lasting stability and prosperity across Europe.
Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of the German Empire, declared that the secret to good politics was to make a treaty with Russia. While a potential agreement in the present circumstances will be far different from previous ones, the wisdom of Bismarck’s view still holds true today. How such an agreement will be formulated and implemented in an equitable and sustainable fashion is the responsibility of the leaders of our time.
Artin DerSimonian is the Russia and Europe Research Intern at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft while also completing his MSc in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow where his thesis focuses on: “The Decline of a pro-German Foreign Policy in Late Imperial Russia, 1878-1890.”