Speaking from too much ugly experience, the most astonishing thing about dysfunctional organizations isn't what goes on inside them - it's that those transgressions go unpunished by those in positions of responsibility for enforcing discipline and good behavior.
Yesterday, I posted some extended musings about some emerging trouble-points for 2009, with considerable emphasis on the growing difficulties posed by Russia. Wasting no time, this morning Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine.
However, these days when you try to wrap your brain around Russia, you end up noticing an elephant standing in the corner - Germany.
As most of you know, my work takes me to eastern Europe on a very regular basis. One no-surprise-given in eastern Europe is that both Russia and Germany are very unpopular; the only uncertainty from place-to-place is which is more unpopular.
In the Baltic countries, there is dislike of Russia that - though understandable - almost borders on the demented. Despite Russia's proximity, my advice has always been basically to "watch your back" and pay attention to Germany.
Over the past, oh, 300+ years, the biggest troubles in eastern Europe have been spawned by Russia and Germany cooperating. The last real go-round was from 1921 - 1941, when Russia secretly trained the supposedly-banned German military (particularly flyers) and provided raw materials for reviving German heavy industry; this culminated in the infamous August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement (between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union), in which eastern Europe was divided between the two giants - thus facilitating the start of the Second World War.
Well, here we go again. Germany is (mysteriously) becoming more-and-more Russia's pet poodle, acting almost like a Russian-interests section inside NATO and the EU.
Over at the Standpoint Magazine web site, there's an article by Edward Lucas entitled "Bearhugged by Uncle Vlad" on this topic. This is mostly a (deservedly negative) review of the new book Putin and the Rise of Russia by Michael Stuermer. The article is rather lengthy, but it's worth the time for a read.
Mr. Lucas is well-known for his concerns regarding Russian intentions, and the best parts of this article are his own comments and observations about the shocking rise in German Russophilia. To wit,
Germany's relationship with Vladimir Putin's Russia is the most puzzling and troubling feature of modern European politics. Not only is Germany Russia's biggest trading partner, it is also her biggest ally. It is Germany that has derailed Nato expansion. Germany reversed the EU's initially tough line on Russia after the invasion of Georgia. Germany prevents the Council of Europe scrutinising Russia's flawed elections. Germany forces the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to channel money to companies run by Kremlin cronies. Germany keeps Europe's energy market rigged in favour of Russian gas imports.
Provocative charges, but it's difficult to argue with those charges - other than to suggest that the results will be benign.
How Finlandized has Germany become? Consider Lucas' charges against Stuermer's glaring omissions:
Stuermer ignores the way in which the Kremlin has created a powerful lobby in European countries, including his own. The scandalous behaviour of Gerhard Schröder rates only a solitary mention (and that is in the context of a remark by Putin defending the German-Russian gas pipeline that the former German chancellor first blessed and now runs). It appears not to trouble him in the least that the EU's efforts to diversify away from gas, to diversify its sources of gas, and to reform its gas market to make it less vulnerable to Russian manipulation, are all blocked or delayed thanks to a Kremlin veto. He ignores the scandalous (and largely invisible) use of Russian money to influence opinion in Brussels, in the decision-making bodies of the EU.
And echoing my earlier-stated concern to my Baltic friends that they should worry at least as much about Germany as they do about Russia, Lucas notes something very troubling - something I've noticed first-hand about the bizarre convergence of thought between contemporary Russia and contemporary Germany:
The second big reason why Stuermer's approach is mistaken is that he creates the impression (I hope a wrong one) that he does not care two kopecks for the countries between Germany and Russia. Nato expansion to Poland is dismissed airily as a piece of domestic politicking by Bill Clinton. The expansion to the Baltic states is described mockingly as "a bad idea whose time has come". This is a huge and revealing gap in his argument. The former communist countries of the Soviet empire ("ex-captive nations", as I like, rather unfashionably, to describe them) are not passive onlookers in all this.
This is one of the appalling aspects of the reptilian version of big-power politics - that "big" players can independently parcel-up the lives and fortunes of small players without even bothering to consider or consult with them. Lest we think that this penchant for the reptilian is confined to Germany and Russia, recall that back in June, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) published a mind-boggling article in the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that "we" (U.S.) should re-recognize a Russian sphere of influence consistent with the one that the Soviet Union had in eastern and central Europe - in exchange for Russian "help" (?!) with problems such as terrorism and Iran. Not surprisingly, the mere decrepit suggestion of such a thing set off howls of protest all over eastern Europe. That kind of "diplomacy" is not only grossly unethical - as Lucas notes, it's also actually counter-productive:
Spheres of influence may look neat from the outside; for the countries concerned, they guarantee friction and conflict (as the origins of both world wars in the last century prove).
When I visit the Baltic countries and Poland - and particularly when I sit down to chat with my many friends there - a new feature of the recent landscape is fear. There is fear that Russian aggression is back, and - worse - that no one will be willing to help them in a pinch. As Lucas notes with regard to contemporary Germany on this count,
These countries feel scared, largely with good reason, and it is shameful that Germany does not take those fears into account.
That is bad for Russia, bad for Germany and terrifying for the countries in between.
As I've watched the opening of eastern Europe unfold, I've been forced to wonder what's going on in various minds. In particular, the expansion of NATO (security) and the EU (economic integration) seem to be good things. But as I've watched the behavior of German (and French) governments in recent years, I've had some more disquieting thoughts. Why would the "old Europe" core really want to add the eastern countries?
In many ways, this can be seen by them as a no-lose proposition.
If indeed the security and economic-integration aspects work out well, then that's just fine.
But there's a darker side.
If new trouble arises, particularly from Russia, then the eastern countries make very nice bargaining chips. "Acquired" for little-or-nothing, they can be traded back to Russia for "considerations" for the core of "old Europe."
There's a past history of reptilian convergences of German and Russian interests. We might be heading toward that situation again.
Like it or not, our friends in eastern Europe are looking to us (U.S.) to prevent their being sold down the river....