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.
Germans find these accusations infuriating. In the past eight years, they say, Vladimir Putin, the judo-loving ex-KGB officer, has transformed Russia from a basket case to a great power: self-confident, wealthy, even belligerent. The cost has been political freedom, spiralling corruption and the erosion of the rule of law. But for many people inside and outside Russia, this is a price worth paying. Western policy towards Russia in the Boris Yeltsin era was triumphalist and clumsy, force-feeding Western-style democracy, and it didn't work. Now Russia is running its own affairs, with the broad assent of the vast majority of the population. Political developments are distressing, but they are surely only temporary. And there's not much we can do about it anyway - Russia is now too big and too rich to push around. So if we don't like it we can lump it.
Germans who argue along these lines feel that they are carrying out a vital role - helping Russia integrate economically with Europe. The worst way to deal with Putin's Russia, they say, would be the mixture of paranoia, posturing and provocation exemplified by Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili and his nutty East European and American neocon backers.
Setting up such straw men only to incinerate them is the usual, rather facile, German approach to criticism. Nobody is suggesting that we ignore Russia. Nor is anyone arguing for broad economic sanctions. And it is possible to support Georgia's desire for freedom and security without endorsing its reckless and ill-advised president. The truth about the Putin regime is that it has been startlingly incompetent, as well as aggressive abroad and repressive at home. The fall in the oil price is making that increasingly clear.
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