Book Review

As Germany’s new government settles into power, Lough’s book could hardly be more topical.

“Germany’s Russia Problem” by John Lough

Russia is Europe’s biggest security threat. But Germany’s inability to perceive that threat is the West’s greatest weakness. John Lough’s “Germany’s Russia Problem” is the first book in any language to examine the neuroses, wishful thinking, and greed that shape German thinking.

Lough, formerly a NATO official and now a consultant and think-tanker, is one of Britain’s top Russia-watchers. He knows both countries well. Though calmly written, the book’s message is incendiary. German irresponsibility and ignorance in the face of Russian strategic thinking has contributed to a policy that is not even ineffective. It is outright counterproductive. It makes the Putin regime stronger and imperils Europe.

The historical roots are deep. Close ties in the pre-Soviet era (exemplified by Catherine the Great), two world wars, and the Cold War have contributed to the “cultural biases, instincts and sensitivities” that condition German attitudes to Russia and Russians. Guilt for Nazi crimes is “ineradicable.” So too is gratitude for the Soviet departure from East Germany which made German reunification possible. History fuels a conscientious attempt to engage with and to understand Russia: Germany’s largest bilateral embassy and largest Goethe Institute are in Moscow, Lough notes. Germany cherishes good relations with Russia on principle. It is bemused by the contempt it receives in return from the Kremlin.

Lough outlines the contradictions in German stereotypes about Russia: barbaric on the one hand, innocent on the other. Both contribute to a romantic fixation that serves policymaking badly. A particular flaw is overestimating Russia’s importance as a source of raw materials and as an export market.

More sinister factors are at play too. Lough unpicks Kremlin mischief-making in German politics. Oddly, this includes the ex-communist Die Linke (Left) party as well as the hard-right Alternative for Germany.  The long-standing penetration of the German government and security by Russian spies is a simmering scandal too.

As Germany’s new government settles into power, Lough’s book could hardly be more topical, both as a guide to the mistakes of the past, and for its suggestions about a more constructive and successful approach to Russia in the future.

Perhaps the single most important lesson is to treat the other countries of the region seriously: Again and again, decision-makers in Berlin have (at best) overlooked Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states or (at worst) arm-twisted them. “Dialog statt Konfrontation” (Dialog instead of confrontation) they urge — the unofficial motto of Germany’s Russia policy. And thousands of Ukrainians are dead as a result.

“Germany’s Russia Problem” by John LoughManchester University Press, 2021, pp 304, $28

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Edward Lucas

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December 15, 2021

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.