It is not an accident that Germany has emerged as the key Western power in dealing with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. Germans have been dealing with Russians for over seven hundred years. Over two million Russians are living in Germany today, and Germany is the largest Western economic partner of Russia with over six thousand companies on the ground. In contrast, the United States, with an economic stake about one-fifth that of Germany's, has a small pro-Russia business lobby and a small Russian community.
History has left a number of legacies and images in the German consciousness. There is the legacy of geography. Russia is Germany's big Mexico, a large and often contentious neighbor which cannot be ignored. There is also the legacy of economic complementarity of a resource-rich and technology-poor Russia complementing the resourcepoor, technology-rich Germany. There is a legacy both of cooperation and destruction, from Peter the Great, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and World War II through the Cold War. This relationship has been one of cooperation and engagement since Gorbachev allowed the peaceful unification of Germany in 1990, but suddenly and quite surprisingly, Germans are now facing a confrontational Russia.
Stephen F. Szabo is the executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, a partnership between the German Marshall Fund and the Ebeliti and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Stiftung, the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
German views today of that complex and ever-changing country fluctuate, but a few constants seem to remain. Germans have highly ambivalent views about the Russian character and history. They view Russia today as a reemerging, potentially great power, rather than a declining one. They admire Russian culture, and many aspects of Russian history. They feel emotionally and, to some extent, culturally closer to Russians than they do to Americans. They also see Russia's untapped resources and vast market as a great opportunity for German industry and the German economy. A substantial segment of the German public believes that Russians are weak on organizational skills, tend to be highly emotional, and are undisciplined and in need of German leadership in technology.
While Russia seems big to Germans, it is also unruly and unreliable. Only about one-quarter of Germans say they like Russians. When asked what they associate with Russia and Russians, vodka, alcoholism, corruption, and criminality were...