Putin, Iran and the German question

In the aftermath of WWII, the continent of Europe was divided between east and west. Seven decades later, the continent remains divided. As NATO has moved eastward, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has responded in a straightforward geopolitical manner. He has placed strict red lines on this dangerous encroachment by the US and its European allies, as key buffer states have been placed off-limits. For the Kremlin, these lines have become sacrosanct in its constant search for strategic depth in a country of feeble geographic defense either to its east or its west. Of course, Russia is not the only European country with poor geographic barriers for defense along the plains of Europe. Poland has been surrounded for centuries by nations with much stronger military prowess; Germany has also faced centuries of fragmentation and encirclement; France has had to fight its powerfully united German neighbor in three modern wars from 1870 until 1945.

What has been truly astonishing has been the lack of understanding by these European states of Israel’s precarious geopolitical position without the crucial geographic defense line that the Jordan River Valley provides. Given the fact that the Middle East has been in a state of turmoil for over three years, it staggers the imagination that Europeans could force Israel (through economics) to leave these vital strategic territories. They are guided by their US partners in the totally misguided view that now is somehow a “good time” to make “peace” between Israel and the Palestinians. If ever the idea of an independent West Bank state made sense (Rabin never felt it did), now is certainly not that time. Only when the future balance of power between the Persians and the Arabs has been firmly established can the messy triangle between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians begin to be sorted out.

Because the so-called two state solution is in reality a three-state solution (within a short range of forty-five miles), the viability of the West Bank will require a future Palestinian-Jordanian economic confederation. Hence the future of Jordan has become a vital component to any peace process. But the future of Jordan under a family of kings has also become a huge question mark. With Syria, Iraq and Lebanon all engaged in a regional proxy war sponsored by the Iranians and the Saudis, the monarchy in Jordan fears the Palestinians much in the same way they did in the early 1970’s. Only this time, because of Iran, they fear them far more so. It would be all so simple for an ascendant Iran to call for elections in Jordan in support of a Palestinian majority east of the river clamoring to hook up with their brothers on the West Bank. For Israel, the future of the “peace process” with the Palestinians must be secured on both banks of the river for it to be real. But Iranian hegemony in the Levant and Arabia must be stopped first. This can only be done within the context of an international agreement as to the future of the region.

Only then can the future of the vitally strategic West Bank, and the equally important buffer state to the east (Jordan), be decided.
From the start Russia has been a key player in the Middle East, especially in Syria and with Iran. Without Russian support, no international agreement over the future of Middle East hegemony can be possible. For the Russians, the Middle East has become an instrument of leverage on the European chess board. The division of Europe against Russia means their lack of cooperation with both the European buffer states and along the vitally strategic Persian Gulf Axis of the Levant and Arabian Peninsula. This also includes the enormously significant negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program and the future of the international sanctions regime. In other words, President Putin simply won’t be taken for granted by a Western establishment whose post-Cold-War history has only escalated tension and not engaged the Russians with a new European paradigm.

For Western Europe, it was all very well during the Cold War to solve the “German Question” (a powerful military and economic state which far exceeds its neighbors) within the context of the EU and NATO. But with the end of the Cold War, NATO and/or EU expansion has meant not only further European instability, but also inter-regional instability as well. Whatever grand hopes there had been for peace and its economic dividends, the end of the Cold War has had the opposite effect. Without a new security arrangement for Europe, the expansion of NATO has meant insecurity for Russia. While this Russian insecurity has led to a natural push-back in the buffer states of the Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Byelorussia, states like Poland and its Baltic neighbors, bordering these buffer states, have begun to wonder about their own security. When the division of Germany ended, the division of Europe did not. This crucial element had been missing in the hubris of victory. And since so much of the Cold War had been portrayed as ideological in nature, the geopolitical reality of European history remained under the radar, so to speak. The arrogance of victory sowed the seeds of potential future confrontation.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, history didn’t end; only a Russian empire built on the facade of Soviet-style communism ended. In fact, the origins of Russian empire had almost nothing to do with Soviet-style communism in the first place. The empire had long been in place because of a tragic Russian history of invasion upon invasion. Ideology had little to do with it. But after WWII, Russian security was achieved at the expense of many nations. This has been the tragic history of Europe. Security for one has usually meant insecurity and/or occupation of others. War has always been the driving force of international politics, and the fear of war remains the driving force of international politics today. Hence, since the so-called end of the Cold War, Europe has not been a continent at peace; on the contrary, Europe has become a continent whose balance of power has merely shifted once again. This time (as in others), the balance has gone against Russia.

At the heart of Russian security lies the Ukraine. The dramatic events over the weekend have once again brought out the indisputable echoes of the Cold War. However, it is the future of NATO that now must be decided. For if Europe is to ever be free of war, either a new balance must be found, or an entire new paradigm achieved. The current system has become simply unworkable. The magnet of the EU (for the buffer states) enhances Russian isolation. The more the buffer states become economically European, the more their potential military integration will be perceived as possible. The greater the Russian isolation, the greater becomes its instinct for self- preservation through security. As tension rises, the risk of war increases.

But a Europe without NATO means a Europe consumed by the question of Germany. Ironically, one hundred years after the start of WWI the old question remains: How does Europe create balance with an independent and militarized Germany? Is it even possible? Some of the experts talk of a Russian-German condominium to replace the current system. But that’s the arrangement that Hitler and Stalin achieved in 1940, and it is certainly doubtful either the US or any other European nation would buy into the concept. Simply put, the German question cannot be solved over the heads of France, Poland and the rest of Europe.

Other experts talk of expanding NATO to include Russia. But that would mean expanding NATO all the way to the Chinese border. Again, this idea simply won’t work because what now amounts to a European line would be extended eastward to encompass a new and dangerous Euro-Asian line. China would certainly feel encircled by US and Russian power, and the risk of WWIII would escalate.

So what might be the answer? In 1985, I wrote an essay for the Christian Science Monitor entitled “Peace 2010”. In this essay I anticipated the end of the Cold War, and I developed a structural military concept for Europe called defensive integration. In this concept, the offensive conventional capacity of all the states of Europe (from the Urals to the Atlantic) would be held in check through strict limitations on the number of troops allowed for offensive operations. Meanwhile air forces could be integrated into an all-European force, which would have the advantage of a continent-wide protection in case of an attack from outside the region. NATO would be disbanded and US ground troops sent home.

At the time of the Cold War, the integration of the relatively small Western European economy made a lot of sense from a geopolitical perspective. Now, in the aftermath of the crash of 2008, the future of the Euro and the vastly expanded EU has become a geopolitical liability. What once seemed to be the answer to Europe’s “German question” has not achieved the political union necessary for success. And it remains very doubtful that it ever will. However, without the integration of Russia into the defense system of Europe, the current instability crisis can only continue. True peace through a radical defensive military union might not be the kind of total unification that the academic economists had hoped for, but it might work as an answer for a broken and dangerous European security system. Without something new in Europe, the chances of US and Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran seem bleak. Until the “German question” is solved, the security of two regions (the Middle East and Europe) will remain in doubt.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).
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