Last week, on her way to Minsk with her ally Francois Hollande to reach a new cease-fire accord involving Russia and Ukraine, Angela Merkel made a rather striking statement about the past and the future. Citing the difficulty of resolving the situation satisfactorily, she remarked that she was a small child when the Berlin Wall went up, and that it took about three decades for it to come down. Similar patience, she implied, was needed to deal with Putin's ambitions and this crisis. I am afraid that Chancellor Merkel does not understand the age in which she is living and the differences between our world today and the one in which she, and I, grew up. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, understands it very well.
The Berlin Wall was not a turning point in the Cold War in Europe; indeed, it could not fairly be described as an offensive measure undertaken by the Soviet Union. When the US, Britain and the USSR drew up their occupation plans for Germany in the last year of the Second World War, they split the country into three (later four) zones of roughly equal size and population, but decided to put their headquarters in Berlin, well within the Soviet zone. (At least one American planner realized that this decision might cause problems and suggested putting the headquarters at the intersection of the three zones, but he was one of those singularly brilliant people to whom no one listens until it is too late.) That meant that the American, British and French garrisons in Berlin were stranded within Soviet-occupied territory. After 1949 they were stranded within the German Democratic Republic, which the western powers refused to recognize in deference to the government of the Federal Republic of Germany. Even before then, in 1948, the Soviets had taken advantage of the situation to cut off land access to West Berlin. The allies responded with an airlift and Stalin lifted the blockade after about a year. The blockade was an offensive measure that had failed.
The Berlin crisis reached its peak in 1958-61, when Soviet premier Khrushchev--the most adventurous Soviet foreign policy leader ever--repeatedly threatened to sign a peace treaty with East Germany and turn the control of access of Berlin over to the East Germans. If they denied access and the West tried to force its way through, general war would result. This was the prospect Khrushchev threatened John Kennedy with in Vienna in 1961. But meanwhile, the Berlin situation had created crisis for East Germany. Because Germans could move freely through all of Berlin--even using the subway--East Germans could escape to the West at will. The flow of refugees became a flood in the summer of 1961 and the East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, insisted that it must stop. According to summaries of recent scholarly studies (which I have not read in their entirety), the wall was Ulbricht's idea, not Khrushchev's. It did not change West Berlin's status, although it encircled West Berlin--it merely made it impossible for East Germans (like Merkel's family) to cross into West Germany. (I have no idea whether Merkel's family had entertained such ideas.)
In any event, by 1961, the situation in Europe had been stable for some time. NATO and the Warsaw Pact had both been formed and their armies faced one another along West Germany's borders. Thousands of American nuclear weapons were stockpiled in Europe to fight a war with the USSR, should one begin. Communist governments controlled all Eastern Europe, and revolts in East Germany (1953), Poland (1956) and Hungary (1956) had been crushed. Political means had kept Communist parties out of governments in the West since 1947. A decade after the Wall went up, Chancellor Willy Brandt, one of the forgotten heroes of the twentieth century, began stabilizing the situation still further, recognizing Germany's postwar borders and opening relations with East Germany. The rest of the West followed suit in the Helsinki agreements of 1975. They officially accepted the division of Europe, and it was 14 years after that that the Wall came down.
The problem American policy makers have dealing with the situation that has emerged over the last 25 years is their Hegelian obsession with the idea that American values have triumphed, once and for all, and that anyone who stands in their way may be safely ignored. Thus, breaking promises that James Baker made to Mikhail Gorbachev, the US in the 1990s extended NATO eastward to Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, and eventually, to include all the former members o fthe Warsaw Pact. In 1999 the US led NATO in the war against Yugoslavia, detaching Kosovo, over Russian opposition. We assumed that Ukraine would follow the western model as well, but it failed to produce an effective democratic government.
What distinguishes Putin from his western adversaries is his recognition that American unipolarity has failed to bring about stability, and that his western borders include a number of weak stakes with immature political systems that are open to foreign influence and intimidation. Hungary now has a semi-Fascist government quite comparable to Putin's, and its leader has acknowledged his kinship with the Russian leader. The Russians exert considerable influence in Bulgaria. And now, having already annexed Crimea, they have used armed force effectively to detach eastern portions of Ukraine. Here an analogy with Hitler in 1938 is relevant: the British and French let Hitler have the Sudetenland, the largely German-inhabited portion of Czechoslovakia, at Munich, on the assumption that he would go no further. Six months later he broke up what remained of Czechoslovakia and occupied what is now the Czech Republic. Putin may simply want the rest of Ukraine to remain weak and chaotic, or he may want to turn it into a satellite like Belarus instead. In any case, the situation on Russia's western borders and in Eastern Europe as a whole has nothing in common with the situation in 1961. It is dynamic,. not static, and Putin is using the instability and weakness in the region to enhance his power.
I cannot help wondering whether the generation of Merkel and Hollande have gotten too accustomed to deferring to superpowers. The Europe of the EU would not have been possible without American protection and support. For 24 years now--really, since the first Gulf War--the Middle East has replaced Europe as the most important focus of American foreign policy, and a new power has emerged in Russia. I would be very interested to read the appreciations that are coming out of the French and German foreign offices these days, but the heads of government of those countries seem to be resigned to letting Putin have what he wants, at least in Ukraine. How they will feel if he tries to extend his sphere into some of the new NATO nations is not clear, although they have signed on to NATO's new rapid deployment force.
In times of strong governments and alliances, status quo powers can more easily make their will felt--and in Europe, both the US and the USSR were status quo powers for most of the Cold War. But in times of weak governments with less legitimacy, a disruptive regime has far greater opportunities. Putin understands this. He also understands that the United States was first off the mark using the instability of the post-Cold War period for its own purposes, expanding NATO, making war on Yugoslavia, and invading Iraq. As he repeatedly makes clear in speeches, two can play this game. So far, no Asian nation has decided to do the same. But the long-term future of Europe is once again in doubt.