This file photo taken on July 31, 1991, shows US president George Bush and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev during a press conference in Moscow concluding the two-day US-Soviet Summit dedicated to the disarmament. Bush died at age 94, his family announced late on  November 30, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mike Fisher
This file photo taken on July 31, 1991, shows US president George Bush and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev during a press conference in Moscow concluding the two-day US-Soviet Summit dedicated to disarmament. Photo: AFP / Mike Fisher

The following is the fifth installment of an extended report on one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century: the increasingly comprehensive alliance between China and Russia and its implications for Eurasian and regional powers across the planet. To follow the series, click here.

The germane seeds of German unification lay in Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika against the bigger backdrop of the globalization phenomenon in international life that had emerged on the horizon in the 1980s.

Gorbachev’s reform program sent shockwaves through Eastern Europe, which was already heaving with discontent, and a wave of political upheaval began sweeping across that region almost overnight that finally crashed on the granite walls of East Germany, which had remained obstinately impervious to change.

(At one point, East Germany’s Communist government began blocking Soviet state-run media materials of the perestroika and glasnost genre from being disseminated in the country and misled public opinion.) 

Nonetheless, on the frozen ground of a seemingly permanent state of a divided Germany, a ray of hope appeared for the first time that a unification of Germany was not necessarily a chimera so long as Gorbachev remained in power in Moscow and his reform program was continuing. Without doubt, the West lionized Gorbachev with a fair understanding of his susceptibility to flattery. (The vignettes of numerous such incidents lie scattered in the diary of Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev.) 

We tend to forget that when West Germany’s close NATO allies Britain and France began sensing the new stirrings of the “German Question,” they cautioned Gorbachev that he was going too fast for their liking. They pointed out that Europe was simply not ready yet for a unified German nation.

The British prime minister of that time, Margaret Thatcher, flew to Moscow for a tête-à-tête with Gorbachev. So did the French president, Francois Mitterrand. Thatcher, by the way, was the first Western leader to spot Gorbachev as a rising star in Soviet politics in the early 1980s with whom the West could “do business.”

But ironically, when it came to the German Question, Gorbachev disregarded the Anglo-French reservations. The point is, the Soviet Union – as indeed its present-day successor the Russian Federation – had already exorcised from its psyche any revenge mentality or atavistic fears about Germany over the horrific crimes it had perpetrated on the Russian people. (An estimated 25 million Soviet citizens perished in World War II after the Nazi invasion.) 

On the contrary, Britain and France still believed that a strong Germany was neither in their interests nor in the interests of Europe as a whole. They feared that it was a matter of time before a unified Germany would reassume its role as the top dog in Europe and dominate the continent’s politics, as had happened twice already in the 20th century.

The US took an ambivalent position, navigating its self-interests largely from the perspective of its trans-Atlantic leadership, making a tough condition that a unified Germany should still remain within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Basically, Lord Ismay’s famous dictum about NATO was still at play in the American calculus – that the Western alliance system was meant “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” 

Beggars cannot be choosers, and West Germany as the supplicant was willing to settle initially for a Hong Kong-style “one country, two systems” formula, if only Gorbachev would concede the idea of a confederation between West and East Germany.

To cut short a long story of “multipolar” diplomatic wrangling, Gorbachev overruled the hardliners within his own Politburo – who of course went on to plot a coup against him within the year that eventually brought the roof crashing down on the Soviet Union – and ignoring the protestations of East Germany, went ahead to strike a deal with West German chancellor Helmut Kohl (and US secretary of state James Baker) to wave the green flag for the unification of the two Germanys. 

Kohl was so thrilled after the fateful meeting with Gorbachev that according to some accounts, he spent the remaining night walking the streets of Moscow – he couldn’t sleep because of the unexpected gift from God.

Kohl was a pragmatist who accepted the tough conditions imposed by Germany’s Western allies for its unification. Thus, in lieu of the Allies relinquishing their post-World War II rights over Germany and withdrawing their militaries, Germany would accept the Oder-Neisse Line as its border with Poland and renounce all territorial claims beyond East German territory (in effective renouncing claims over most of Germany’s eastern provinces to Poland and the former Soviet Union). 

A unified Germany would cap the strength of its armed forces to 370,000 personnel, renounce for all time the manufacture, possession of, and control over nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and accept continued full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty forever.

It would deploy military forces abroad only in accordance with the UN Charter; give up any form of future territorial claims (with a separate treaty reaffirming the present common border with Poland, binding under international law, in effect relinquishing the old German territories such as the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast), and so on. 

Clearly, nothing was forgotten or forgiven as regards the potential return of German revanchism. But much has changed in the three decades since then. Many fault lines have appeared.

For a start, Germany successfully integrated the backward East German part, rebuilt itself with the characteristic German discipline and rigor, and has bounced back as the powerhouse of Europe (which now gets further accentuated with the UK’s exit from the European Union). Second, Poland too began surging as a regional power, and it has old scores to settle with Germany and Russia.

(Poland recently claimed war reparations from Germany and is competing with German leadership of the EU by forming the Vysegrad Group, aspiring to bring former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic states under its umbrella.)

To add to this, a right-wing nationalist government is in power in Warsaw that militates against the so-called liberal values that Germany espouses, and has eagerly sought the establishment of American military bases units on its soil. 

Meanwhile, German mentality has also changed with regard to Russia, with the departure of an entire generation of politicians at the leadership who were dedicated to “Ostpolitik,” first propounded by Willy Brandt, predicated on the belief that a strong relationship with Russia was fundamentally in German interest.

The transition from German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Angela Merkel marked the end of one era of Ostpolitik being the anchor sheet of German policies toward Russia and as a key template of German foreign policy as such.

Merkel’s eyes are cast on Germany’s tryst with the leadership of Europe. She began cherry-picking Germany’s rapprochement with Russia, which was meant to have been a cornerstone of the “2+4 Treaty” of 1990.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. It is the fifth article in a series. Part 6 will examine Russia’s response to NATO’s eastward expansion.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.