Angela Merkel will spell out growing German concerns about the clampdown on civil society in Russia when she meets Vladimir Putin on Friday, signalling a sharp cooling of the traditionally close German-Russian partnership.The German chancellor, who is flying to Moscow for an inter-governmental summit, will be armed with a sweeping resolution passed by the Bundestag expressing alarm at recent political developments in Russia since the return of Mr Putin to the Kremlin.
Merkel’s trip is notable for another reason. Despite Russia’s immense size, its nuclear arsenal and its energy wealth, Germany is clearly the stronger power with more hopeful long-term prospects than Russia. The dust from the end of the Cold War has settled, leaving Germany once again the most important European power and leaving a frustrated Russia on the outside looking in.Few things are more obvious in geopolitics than the decline of Europe compared to other parts of the world. It’s one of the oldest and most marked trends in world affairs. In 1914 European powers ruled most of the world, and the past hundred years have seen a steady decline: the collapse of the great empires, the eclipse of Europe by the superpowers during the Cold War, and, since the Cold War, the rise of Asia and lately the euro crisis have all marked new stages in Europe’s decline.Within that broader story, however, is a story of German success relative to other European countries, if not necessarily to the world as a whole. Germany was the greatest land-based power in Europe at the time of World War I, but two disastrous defeats and a total political and moral meltdown under the Third Reich left Germany weak, broke, divided and surrounded by hostile neighbors. The brilliant economic management of Ludwig Erhardt and the diplomatic greatness of Konrad Adenauer (the greatest German statesman in 1000 years, sadly underappreciated in his native land today) transformed Germany’s situation. After unification twenty years ago, Germany quickly emerged as the strongest country in the European Union, much to the discomfiture of the others.Germany has made two terrible currency decisions since 1989: converting East German marks into West German money at the rate of one for one helped wreck the East German economy and cost taxpayers hundreds of billions, and then the euro, the fortunes of which we have all seen. But while it has not found a way to use its new power effectively to build a better or stronger Europe, it has continued to become more dominant in Europe as a whole.Russia’s story is a little different. It collapsed as a great power during World War I and tore itself to pieces during the brutal civil war that saw the Bolsheviks install the grimmest dictatorship history had ever seen. Stalin force-marched the old Russian Empire, renamed the USSR, into superpower status, and until 1989 his empire looked like an exception to the European pattern of decline.Since then, Russia first endured a catastrophic fall in power at the breakup of the Soviet Union and under the shambolic Yeltsin administration. President Putin attempted to pull Russia together, and for a time his efforts seemed to be bearing fruit. But as time has gone by, the corruption, inefficiency and failure of the rule of law in Russia combined with demographic decline to stifle Russia’s recovery and prevent the emergence of a genuinely healthy post-Soviet economy or society.One way to measure Russia’s precipitous decline in the past decade is to compare its global influence and profile to China’s. Despite a territorial and military presence in the Far East, Russia is a minor player in Asian geopolitics, and nobody sees Russia as playing in China’s league as a great power.Another way to measure its decline is to look at its place in German political thought. Ten years ago, under the pro-Russian Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, many Germans thought that a close relationship with Russia could balance and perhaps one day replace the trans-Atlantic relationship with the U.S. as Germany’s primary foreign policy alliance. Reaching out to Russia, even at the expense of good relations with nervous countries like Poland and the Baltic republics, seemed like the sensible and obvious move for Germany to make.Today, that is no longer the case. Poland is a more important trading partner for Germany than Russia. Rising public disgust with Russia’s drift toward reactionary and incompetent authoritarianism, combined with business revulsion at the wholesale corruption consuming what is left of the Russian economy, have reduced the attractiveness of the “Russia pole” for German foreign policy. Today we see something no one could have imagined even a decade ago: the chancellor of Germany is using tougher language with Russia than is the president of the United States.Even at a time when the EU is consumed by internal problems, Germany now feels free to lecture Russia on human rights and to proceed with its European tasks while holding Russia at arm’s length. Even as its energy policy makes it more dependent on imported energy, Germany feels capable of putting more pressure on the bilateral relationship with its giant neighbor to the east. Even as the German economy faces some tough times, with the European market for its exports in disarray and signs that China’s thirst for German capital goods may diminish, few in Germany see much potential in Russia for markets that could revive German industry.It’s likely that taking a strong line with Russia will help rather than hurt Chancellor Merkel in politics. Recent anti-Russian moves in the Bundestag won the support of the Greens as well as of the conservative parties who back her coalition. Not since Adenauer’s day has an anti-Russian line been so popular with German voters. The wind in central Europe has changed.The gradual decline of European powers in global politics is affecting some more than others. These days, Russia may be the European country where that decline is most keenly felt.