Shortly before the end of the Second World War, historian A.J.P. Taylor began an essay with the sentence: “What is wrong with Germany is that there is too much of it.” Just as his generation had to deal with the problem of Germany overshadowing its neighbours, the coming decades in Europe are likely to be dominated by the fact of Russian preponderance.

The issue of Russian participation in Europe has been thrown into sharper relief this week by the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron to Moscow — and perhaps even more by the BBC’s revelation beforehand that no senior British officials had so much as spoken to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the previous four years.

It’s hard to imagine such a lack of contact with even a medium-sized European power. Yet in population and resources Russia is far and away the biggest country in Europe, with about 70% more people than its nearest rival, Germany. For now, the big four of the EU (Germany, France, Britain and Italy) all have larger economies, but after a long period of stagnation Russia is again starting to catch up.

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The shift is psychological as much as economic. Russia is confident and assertive, keen to be recognised as a great power and claim its place on the world stage. Its people and its rulers seem to be finally allowing themselves a degree of optimism.

No one much worries any more about the balance of power in the rest of Europe; its economies and political systems are too integrated for one state’s strength to be seen as a threat to another. But apprehension is still strong in eastern Europe, and even France and Britain might well worry about power in the continent shifting eastwards.

Fear of Russia, of course, is nothing new. That it played on much of the European imagination in the 19th century was a key factor in both world wars. Then through the decades of the Cold War, Russia was seen not as a partner to be accommodated, but as a looming external threat.

But as Germany’s had been before, Russia’s imperial domination of central Europe was ended (and mercifully at a much lesser cost).

Although there are still authoritarian habits to be found at the top, Russia has become, more than ever before, a “normal country”.

Mental habits, however, tend to lag behind the facts. The problem is not just superannuated cold warriors in America who behave as if communism had never fallen; even European leaders still seem to treat Russia as “other”, as an alien presence rather than a colleague. And the wariness is often reciprocated. Cameron may have established some personal warmth with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, but the relationship is still a difficult one.

Western capitals still debate the entry of Turkey into the EU; few even dare mention the idea of membership for Russia. Yet history surely suggests that the problems of integrating Russia pale in comparison to the risks of failing to do so.

It’s true that the EU has (putting it mildly) enough on its plate just at the moment to be going on with. But its time that European politicians started seriously talking about including Russia as a medium-term goal — not on the immediate agenda, but something that should be seen as a natural development down the track. Such a rhetorical move could do a lot to strengthen the Westernising forces in Russia.

The EU has shown the power of economic integration to promote growth and safeguard peace: there is no reason why what worked with Germany cannot also work with Russia. Much will have to change, on both sides, but in due course Russia may be integrated in the same way that has made war in western Europe unthinkable.

When that happens, it will peacefully succeed to Germany’s position as the leading power in Europe — the position it has today, not the one of 70 years ago.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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