What is our geopolitical situation?
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
It is possible for history to repeat itself, as many current developments show. Following the collapse of the Russian Empire, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia remained under the control of communists; Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland became independent. The newly liberated countries established highly democratic parliaments, elected by proportional representation. This system led to many fragmented parties in the parliaments and it was impossible to form stable, properly functioning governments. People were disappointed in democracy and wanted a more stable order. This resulted in those four countries falling under the rule of authoritarians: Jȯzef Piłsudski in Poland in 1926, Antanas Smetona in Lithuania (1929), and Kārlis Ulmanis in Latvia and Konstantin Päts in Estonia (both in 1934).1
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Boris Yeltsin began to democratise Russia. This lasted until Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000. Putin began to slowly reduce personal freedoms and freedom of speech. After his third re-election further restrictions on freedom were imposed and the levers of the economy were handed to the Kremlin’s loyal oligarchs. In Belarus the reign of dictator Alexander Lukashenko started in 1994. This year Ukraine elected a new president, Volodimir Zelensky, and we have no idea what direction the country will take from now on. The Baltic states are still democratic, but Poland is already drifting away from democracy.
After World War I the Soviet Union, one of the winners, and Germany from the losing side signed the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922. This included a secret clause, denied by both sides as its contents contravened the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded the comprehensive destruction of Germany’s heavy artillery and limited its army to 100,000 men. Under the terms of the secret clause, the Soviet Union allowed the German army to start training on its territory with heavy weaponry and its pilots using Fokker planes. In addition, German officers started training Russian military units. As a result of the secret clause a training centre for pilots was established in Lipetsk in 1924, and in 1929 one for land forces was opened in Kazan and a chemical weapons factory was built in Samara Oblast. The mutual military collaboration lasted until 1935, when Germany unilaterally revoked the Treaty of Versailles’ military restrictions, established compulsory military service and started rebuilding its military industry independently.2,3
Four years later, on 23 August 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was signed. On 1 September 1939, World War II began in Europe. Both parties invaded Poland and divided it up according to the borders laid down in a secret protocol to the pact. A new phase of military and economic collaboration began immediately. The Soviet Ministry of Defence Industry drafted a list of military equipment that it wished to purchase. Roughly a billion Reichsmarks—an astronomical amount at the time—was allocated for the purchase. General Gussev and a large group of experts visited all of Germany’s largest weapons factories, including Junkers, Messerschmitt, Focke-Wulf, Hensche, Bosch and Siemens. Aircraft and other purchased equipment started to arrive in the Soviet Union in April 1940. The German invasion of the country began on 22 June 1941.4
The reasons for the collaboration between the former enemies were geopolitical. The Soviet Union needed to rebuild its underdeveloped and collapsed economy and Germany needed raw materials, which the USSR had in abundance. Besides, both parties wanted to quickly restore their military strength. However, there has been a significant shift. Putin wants to make Russia a significant major military power again while Germany is endeavouring to become an economic superpower. German businessmen and banks see Russia as a great chance to establish long-lasting and mutually beneficial business relations. In 2006, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, suggested a so-called rapprochement policy that would mutually bind the two countries. This led to many interesting developments, of which a few are given here. Dr Burckhard Bergmann, the chairman of Ruhrgas, was elected as a director of Gazprom in 2006. Professor Klaus Mangold, a board member of Daimler AG, became the Russian honorary consul in Baden-Württemberg. The CEO of Nord Stream, Matthias Warnig, became the chairman of the board at Dresdner Bank in Moscow. (Warnig started his career not as a bank employee but as an officer in the Stasi, East Germany’s intelligence agency.)5 Although the sanctions imposed over events in Crimea since 2014, which led to a noticeable reduction in German-Russian commerce, are still in place, trade has started to develop again in recent years and more than 5,500 German businesses are now active in Russia.
Putin’s alleged personal friendships with leading socialists in Germany such as Schroeder and Steinmeier cannot go unmentioned. Schroeder was chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005 and leader of the Social Democratic Party from 1999 to 2004. Steinmeier was responsible for coordinating Germany’s intelligence services (1999–2005), Minister of Foreign Affairs (2005–9 and 2013–17) and since 2017 has been Germany’s president.
After Schroeder left public service, he became the highly-paid (350,000 euros a year) chairman of the Nord Stream shareholders’ committee. Gazprom owns 51% percent of Nord Stream shares, which means that Putin has full control over the venture and Schroeder’s activities. Before Schroeder left his position as chancellor, he approved a billion-dollar loan to Gazprom, which created a lot of controversy in the German media.6
Steinmeier has become a committed supporter of Kremlin policy, but nevertheless helped Estonia during the Bronze Night crisis.7 During the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, for instance, he strongly opposed giving Ukraine and Georgia the opportunity to become candidate members. Following Russia’s attack on Georgia, he did not support the imposition of sanctions against Moscow. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2014, Steinmeier’s motto was that there should be negotiations with Moscow, but nothing more.8 However, he and US president Barack Obama were both against weapons being sent to Ukraine which could help to defend the country. Now, five years later, president Donald Trump has corrected this grave mistake, but at what cost to Ukraine?
The leaders of other German parties have also been Russia-oriented. For instance, the leader of the German Greens, the ultra-radical and anti-bourgeoisie Joschka Fischer, served as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1998–2005), and the leader of the Free Democratic Party, Guido Westerwelle, was foreign minister and vice chancellor of Germany from 2009–to 2011. In 2003, at Putin’s request, he supported a proposal to give Russian government officials, but not other Russians, visa-free access within the EU. This proposal was not accepted by the rest of the Union.9 In 2009, five months after Georgia had been attacked, Fischer suggested giving Russia a bigger role in NATO and eventually accepting Russia as a member. Die Linke (the successor to the East German Communist Party) promotes itself as Russia’s biggest and closest friend.10
The general attitude of many right-wing parties is to stress the values of domestic nationalism and to be against Atlanticism (i.e. the US). Moreover, their aim is to break Germany’s ties with Western principles and therefore distance themselves from NATO and the EU. The most radical right-wing party is Alternative for Germany (AfD). One of its political aims is to improve German-Russian relations based on historical events and agreements, the origins of empress Catherine the Great, and the pro-Russia agreements and policies of Otto von Bismarck (Prussian Ambassador in St. Petersburg 1859–62 and later German chancellor).11
Such high-level politicians have great power to influence their country’s policies and to use it on the international stage. Their statements affect the attitudes of other countries towards US and Russian proposals in international organisations. It’s no surprise that the leaders of the parties who constantly fight for power have to express their beliefs every time before elections to attract voters. From this it seems that Germany’s entire political landscape―from extreme left to extreme right―has gradually come to support Russia.
The analogy with the Treaty of Rapallo began during Yeltsin’s government. In 1993 the Russian and German ministers of defence signed an open agreement on defence force collaboration. In 2011 the public learned that Rheinmetall, the largest company in the German defence industry and known to Western defence forces for its Leopard tank, had concluded an agreement with the Russian minister of defence; Rheinmetall would build a new military training base for Russia which would be equipped with cutting-edge technology that enables realistic battlefield landscapes to be simulated for training purposes. It costs 280 million euros and can take 30,000 soldiers a year. In addition, it decreases the training time for soldiers and therefore costs.12 The same year, a memorandum on mutual military training for officers and non-commissioned officers was added to the agreement. This transaction would give the Russian army the best training in German (or even NATO?) army practice and techniques. American political analyst Jakub Grygiel called it the German-Russian military honeymoon. In 2012 the former chairman of the Rheinmetall board, Klaus Eberhardt, boasted that the company’s new armoured cars were already being tested in Russia.
What is happening right now is very similar to the military collaboration that took place after World War I. Back then collaboration was highly classified, and it later led to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Apart from the reports about Rheinmetall, the German press has not touched on this topic. Why is there no public discussion and debate about it?13 Several years ago, public debate and condemnation forced France to cancel the construction of aircraft carriers for the Russian navy.
In the 1920s Rheinmetall helped the Soviet Union under the Treaty of Rapallo so it could violate the Treaty of Versailles, which the Russian government had earlier approved. Large German companies such as Krupp and Siemens were building a military base for Russia in the 1920s and are doing the same now. But what kind of activity are they involved in?
What does Germany’s general political distancing from the US and rapprochement with Russia mean for NATO—and, therefore, for our defence? Here are some defence data found on the internet.
- Russian forces: 1,013,000 men; 2,572,000 in reserve
- US forces: 1,358,000 men; 811,000 in reserve; 200,000 of the active forces are in Europe. Following the annexation of Crimea, the US sent an additional 200,000 men
- Total NATO forces: 1,931,000 men, of which 176,000 are German and 355,000 Turkish.
The size of the Baltic states’ defence forces is as follows: Estonia 6,600; Latvia 5,300; Lithuania 18,300.14
I specifically mention the German and Turkish contribution to NATO because political developments in both countries have started to undermine NATO’s defence capabilities; for example, Germany’s recent decision to reduce defence expenditure allocated to NATO in a couple of years’ time. This has never reached the 2% of GDP target established in NATO agreements. Reduced expenditure is not linked to economic hardship as the country’s budget has had a surplus for the past five years; in 2018 the surplus was 11.2 billion euros. This seemed a signal to Russia that Germany has taken the course of not following the US lead. The pro-Russian and anti-American attitudes spreading among voters support the government’s decision to reduce NATO’s defence capabilities.
Turkey decided to buy an S-400 missile defence system from Russia, which will enable the Russians to observe the defence and aiming techniques of US fighter aircraft, as these planes are the main weapons of the Turkish air force and are constantly in the air. This decision has strained US-Turkish relations. On 13 July the Wall Street Journal reported that the Russian missile defence system had arrived.15 A few days later the US announced that it would cancel the sale of new aircraft to Turkey. Now it seems that either Turkey will leave NATO of its own volition or it will be expelled. The impact of this policy on NATO is clearly shown by the military force comparison above. If NATO continues to exist and Turkey and Germany do not take part in some of its defence operations, the Alliance’s defensive capability will decrease by 27%.
At the annual Munich Security Conference in February 2019 US vice president Mike Pence stressed the need for all NATO members to increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP and condemned Nord Stream 2, which would make NATO countries directly dependent on Russia. Angela Merkel, by contrast, stressed the importance of multilateralism and Europe’s aspiration to find economic and political solutions.16 Merkel has been a strong advocate for NATO so far, but it is unclear if this can continue given the change in people’s attitudes towards it.
In April, NATO celebrated its 70th anniversary. For that occasion, a draft report by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s Political Committee was presented for discussion and finalising.17 The report summarised NATO’s contribution to the security and stability of the Transatlantic region. Two new external threats were highlighted―international terrorist groups, and a resurgent and assertive Russia―as well as internal challenges.
To combat international terrorism NATO acted under the auspices of the UN under the name International Security Assistance Force. Due to the Russian annexation of the Crimea and attack on Ukraine, NATO had to restore the principle of territorial protection. To achieve this, the regular NATO Response Force was improved and the Very High Readiness Joint Taskforce (VJTF) created. The VJTF includes 19 of the 29 NATO member states. This group now protects the Baltic airspace on a rotational basis.
In addition to external threats, beliefs in the societies of NATO member states have begun to change, which undermines the fundamental pillars of those countries―personal freedom, implementing democracy, protecting human rights and following legal norms. The main indicators of change in society are the populism and illiberalism that have emerged in many countries in recent years.
It appears that Steinmeier’s justification 13 years ago for rapprochement—that close relations and economic ties help to democratise Russia and turn it into a normal country—has failed, as did Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. The Soviet Union took advantage of the latter by intervening in Angola’s civil war (by buying off Cuban mercenaries) and occupying Afghanistan. As of today, Russia hasn’t become more liberal and democratic as Steinmeier hoped. Instead of becoming a normal country, the number of state-owned enterprises in Russia has grown and there have been more and more restrictions on human rights. According to the Freedom House report “Freedom in the World 2018”, Russia is considered “not free”, gaining a score of only 20 out of a hundred. For comparison, Finland scored 100, the UK 94, Estonia 94, Lithuania 91, Latvia 87, the US 86 and Poland 85; Ukraine scored 62 (“partly free”) and Belarus 21 (“not free”).18
In terms of foreign policy Russia has managed to position itself well in many parts of the world, such as Syria and Venezuela. It also sells around the world weapons built using German technology. German industrialists are, however, tied to Russia by large investments, bank loans and the need for oil, and cannot publicly protest against Putin’s violations of human rights and other restrictions. This mutual dependence could cause great harm to the German economy, as a dictator has the power to turn off the economic taps. The Soviet Union did this with Finland, keeping it neutral in the political battle between East and West.
After World War I the Soviet Union started to develop its military potential with the help of German industry. Putin is doing the same today. The results can clearly be seen. The USSR made a grave mistake when sending its forces into Afghanistan. But Putin has avoided making the Soviet Union’s mistakes. Instead he has taken over areas in several countries with a large Russian population that he considers his; Georgia lost two provinces and Ukraine lost Crimea and the Donbas region. Pressure from Western countries, particularly from the German chancellor Angela Merkel, led to the Minsk agreements, but even that hasn’t managed to bring the war to an end and save Ukraine’s integrity. Georgia and Ukraine were not members of NATO and due to Germany’s opposition never even became candidate members. What happens if Putin decides to expand his power in the Baltics, conquering areas where there is a large Russian population? Can we be sure that NATO’s Article 5, which is meant to protect us, will be invoked if necessary, given the changing beliefs in current NATO countries highlighted as an internal challenge in the Alliance’s 70th-anniversary report?
1 Heino Susi, “Rahvusriikidest ja demokraatiast – Vaba Eesti tähistel”. Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, 2000.
2 “Soviet-German Cooperation”, 2 March 2015, https://weaponsandwarfare.com/2015/03/02/soviet-german-cooperation.
3 C. Peter Chen, “Treaty of Rapallo”, World War II Database (last major update January 2010), https://ww2db.com/battle_spec.php?battle_id=237.
4 “German-Soviet Military Cooperation 1939–1941”, Axis History Forum, 8–15 December 2013, https://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?t=203918#p1838315.
5 Marcel H. van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine: Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 218–19.
6 Ibid., pp. 200–1.
7 According to Wikipedia, Steinmeier helped to resolve the Bronze Night crisis by suggesting to the Estonian Ambassador to Russia, Marina Kaljurand, that she take a two-week vacation and urging Russian foreign minister Lavrov to reduce demonstrations in front of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow and thus the pressure in the bilateral relationship.
8 van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine, p. 201.
9 Ibid., p. 234.
10 Ibid., p. 205.
11 Ibid., p. 210.
12 Josh Rogin, “Germany Helped Prep Russia for War, U.S. Sources Say”. Daily Beast, 12 July 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/germany-helped-prep-russia-for-war-us-sources-say.
13 van Herpen, Putin’s Propaganda Machine, pp. 227–8.
14 Source: Wikipedia, “List of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel”, citing The Military Balance 2018 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies), https:// en.wikipedia.org/list_of_countries_by_number_of_military_and_ paramilitary_personnel.
15 Abdus Sattar Ghazali, “Defying US threats Turkey receives Russian S-400 missile defense system”, The Wall Street Journal, 13 July 2019, https://countercurrents.org/2019/07/defying-us-threats-turkey-receives-russian-s-400-missile-defense-system.
16 Alexandra Brzozowski, “Munich Security Conference 2019—Day #3”, EURACTIV, https://www.euractiv.com/section/defence-and-security/news/munich-security-conference-2019-day-3/.
17 Political Committee, Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Relations, “NATO at 70: Why the Alliance Remains Indispensable”, Draft Report by Gerald E. Connolly (United States) Rapporteur, 085 PCTR 19 E, 17 April 2019. NATO Parliamentary Committee, https://www.nato-pa.int/document/2019-nato70-why-alliance-remains-indispensable-pctr-draft-report-connolly-085-pctr-19-e.
18 “Freedom in the World 2018: Democracy in Crisis”, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.