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 atrophying 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 refusal 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.
Read the full piece in The National Interest.