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Why Germans Ignored Putin’s True Nature for So Long

February 24, 2022
3 min read
Photo credit: Anton Veselov / Shutterstock.com
The writing was on the wall, but it was ignored for years.

Russia under Vladimir Putin had at least since 2014 turned into a dictatorship when he used military force to annex Crimea, invade Donbas, and destabilize neighboring Ukraine. This was followed by a brutal crackdown against domestic opposition and an increase in cyber warfare and disinformation operations against the West. Despite all this, so many in Germany continued to show understanding for Putin. 

But why? Anybody with eyes to see must have realized what was going on. From the incarceration of financial oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 to the attempt to kill opposition activist Aleksei Navalny in 2020, there was a consistent pattern of employing brute force to silence any critic. At the same time, billions of rubles were spent to modernize the Russian military and prepare it for action. Now, it seems, the moment has come for Putin to make use of all this. With the Russian media streamlined and Russian nationalism drummed up, the time was obviously right. 

Many Germans have a soft spot when it comes to Russia. The great bloodletting on both sides during World War II, an indistinct but permanently invoked affinity of souls, and a geographic proximity have created a mix that puts emotion first and reason second. In the past weeks, the tragic history between the two countries was even used as an argument to not deliver substantial military aid to Kyiv—as if Ukraine had not been one of the worst battlefields in the war. One could have argued the other way around just as well: that Ukraine deserves help to prevent it from becoming a war zone again. Of course, Germany should be careful to engage in military action given its history. But it at least should be honest about it and not hide behind selective historical narratives. 

Sympathies for Russia are prevalent more in the east of Germany than in the west. Probably because a significant number of people there have already forgotten about the hardships under communism, under Soviet rule. Even more, those decades are already in the process of being idealized. In the memory of many, it was a time of peace, equality, and predictability. The fact that this peace came with a huge price tag, that it came at the expense of personal freedoms and with oppression, takes a back seat as time goes by.

German politics, in particular Social Democrats but also Conservatives, have catered to historical narratives. In January, the chairman of the German-Russian Forum, Matthias Platzeck (SPD), sharply criticized the West’s dealings with its Russian neighbor. According to Platzeck, the world’s largest country has been saying for years that it wants talks at eye level and to be integrated into the security architecture of the West. So far, these appeals from the Russians have been in vain. “We in the West were negligent to the point of arrogance,” Platzeck said. Recently, Markus Söder, influential prime minister of the state of Bavaria and head of the conservative Christian Social Union, also showed some sympathy for Russia’s security concerns. He said that Russia is “not an enemy of Europe.”

This appeasement approach has been comfortable, allowing Germany to do business, secure energy deliveries, and neglect its military. But this politics of convenience overlooked the fact that Putin’s Russia was not necessarily a benign neighbor, and a proper cost-calculation should include the worst-case scenario.