Like most extraordinary circumstances, the Ukraine crisis is a big clarifier. Just as on an X-ray, the still-unfolding developments in Europe's Eastern backyard have made visible some often overlooked truths about the political situation in Europe.
Among those truths are two strategic questions that are key to the old world's stability and security. First, predictably, will the United States remain a European power? Second, perhaps less obviously, can Germany be kept inside the Western family of nations? The battle for a Europe whole and free is a battle over German Westbindung.
Why is the fate of the continent still dependent on a strategic issue that sounds like it belongs in the 1950s, not the early twenty-first century?
Because Germany, Europe's largest, strongest, and most centrally located nation, is not instinctively Western in its political traditions and leanings. The geographic and political key to the old world is still tormented by its own past, obsessively fearful of conflict with Russia, and doubt-ridden over the modern Western capitalist society that has given the country two generations of unprecedented stability and well-being.
Germans do not particularly like Russia-they never really have. Distrust vis-à-vis the Kremlin is high, and there are no illusions about the nature of the regime in Moscow, as a recent poll by Germany's leading news outlet has confirmed. Eighty-one percent of those asked believed that Russia is not a trustworthy partner.
But 58 percent thought the same about the United States. It comes as no surprise, then, that in another poll by the same outlet, 49 percent of Germans stated that their desired political position is equidistance between the West and Russia. Only 45 percent believed that Germany should be firmly embedded in the West.
None of this would matter much if it were the mindset of a smallish country on the fringes of Europe. But when it's the big fat thing in the middle of the continent that harbors these leanings, it becomes a geopolitical issue of some consequence.
Equidistance is precisely the position into which Soviet and then Russian leaders have tried to lure Germany since the 1950s. Attempts have ranged from Stalin's repeated offer to grant Germany neutrality in return for unification in 1952, to Leonid Brezhnev's long-term strategy to use energy dependence to bind Germany to Russian interests, to President Vladimir Putin's masterful psychological exploitation of German fears on issues such as missile defense or Ukraine. In all these instances, Moscow's aim was to de facto neutralize Germany despite its integration into the West.
These efforts have never been fully successful. But they have been successful enough to make Germany an often wobbly ally and to spread uncertainty and fear, especially among Central European countries, most notably Poland. The Kremlin knows full well that uncertainty and fear are the very ingredients that, if nurtured for long enough, will poison every relationship and even the strongest alliance.