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Ben Judah: The ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin

How the Russian leader keeps his grip on power.

In the summer of 2012, Vladimir Putin returned as Russia’s president, after four years of playacting as a pliant prime minister. I spent time in St Petersburg trying to sift through his murky myth. Everyone who knew him, everyone who had worked with him – I wanted to track them down. My calls usually rang unanswered. When old voices picked up they abruptly hung up on hearing my requests.

It was like chasing a ghost. The old, hard-bitten police chief who worked with him in St Petersburg in the 1990s was still a little stunned by Putin’s rise. “I thought he was just an insignificant official at the time.” The city’s town-hall orator, another former colleague of Putin’s, also remained baffled. “When he became president I threw open my photo album to see us together. But he wasn’t in a single one. He’d slipped out of every frame. I sometimes wonder if he even has a reflection in the mirror.”

There was only one person I met who could still see something of Putin the man, and not the state. She was his old schoolteacher Vera Gurevich. She was nervous, but agreed to meet. We sat and talked on a park bench where nobody could hear us, far from the splendid palaces, all piecrust architecture and full of groups of elderly German tourists.

“I am so proud of him,” Gurevich gushed, her eyes milky with cataracts. “I am proud of him like a son.” The little boy she remembers was born in 1952 and grew up in a hungry, crumbling, postwar Leningrad: the “hero-city” of the Nazi blockade, where almost every adult had lived through the siege. Two elder brothers died from hunger and disease and his father limped from his wounds at the front.

The Putins were the opposite of a family of dissidents: they were Soviet conformists. His grandfather was a chef who served Stalin, Lenin and the tsar’s mad monk Rasputin. It was a job held by informants.

“His mother was not a very literate person,” Gurevich told me. “She was from the village. Putin’s mother didn’t want a child. The others had died. He was born when she was 42 years old.” Gurevich was a second mother to him, taking him with her to Crimea for long summer holidays. Without such a teacher, pushing him to read and to learn German, it seems unlikely that her little “Putka” would ever have made it into the KGB, let alone beyond.

Putin grew up in typical Soviet conditions: absolute poverty compared to the life of any western politician. His parents were little people – a factory foreman and a janitor – and distant. They ignored his homework. One of Putka’s childhood activities was chasing rats. “They gave me a lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered’,” he said as he ran for president in 2000. “I used to chase them around with sticks. I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me.”

In the sticky heat, I asked Gurevich about the essential element of Putin’s personality. What was it that made him? She cackled, squinted and grew suspicious. But what she said stuck in my head. “If people hurt him . . . he reacted immediately, like a cat . . . he would fight like a cat – suddenly – with his arms and legs and teeth.”

I remembered Vera as I read The New Tsar: the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, by the New York Times journalist Steven Lee Myers. This elegant book is the most concise and up-to-date chronicle of Putin’s career. If it were a novel, I would describe the plot as one of dimly sensed, then sharply building horror, punctuated by long pauses of wishful thinking. Unfortunately, its story of bitter and cynical middle-aged spies, flamboyant thieves and crushed youth is Russia’s recent history.

The book shows how the country was transformed from a chaotic and corrupt pseudo-democracy with a free press into a brittle, autocratic, neo-imperialist regime. Much of the drama comes from the mostly arrogant and occasionally innocent challengers to the Russian president’s growing power. Time and time again, they have found their political careers destroyed, by whatever means necessary, leaving them gawping in a state of shock.

Every time, Putin fights like a cat. His own generation misreads him for a weakling; younger foes for a man who will ultimately abide by some vague sense of decency and distaste for Soviet repression. On finishing The New Tsar you are nagged by one question: why did many powerful Russians, from spy chiefs to oligarchs, misjudge him?

***

Vladimir Putin was the president from nowhere. Myers deftly charts the unlikely luck of a KGB colonel, briefly stationed in Dresden, turned deputy mayor of St Petersburg, who became a Kremlin aide and ended up an intelligence chief, only to be anointed the successor to Boris Yeltsin as much as by mad chance and through the oligarchs’ hapless intrigue as anything else. It was a great surprise, not least to his family. When his then wife, Lyudmila, heard the news she burst into tears. “I knew I had lost my husband,” she said. In his first television interview as prime minister, in 1999, Putin looked like he was about to be sick.

War turned Mr Nobody From St Petersburg into a hero. At first, his poll ratings were terrible. In September 1999, less than 5 per cent of Russians said they were planning to vote for him to become president. A year later, four mysterious bombings ripped through Moscow and other Russian cities, killing more than 300 people and wounding 1,000. These became known as the apartment bombings – Russia’s equivalent of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

The nation rallied round Putin, triggering a war wave that he used to grab full hold of the reins of power. Without it there would have been no President Putin, let alone the Putin era. His poll ratings soared to 79 per cent by the end of 2000. When he promised to recapture Chechnya, Russian TV hosts and anchors were whipped into a state of hysteria, calling for Moscow to use “napalm” and for “carpet bombing” of Grozny. The frenzy for war made Putin. Back in St Petersburg, his dying father could not believe it. “My son is like a tsar!” he said.

But were the apartment bombings really the work of Chechen terrorists? A little over ten years later I met one of the few men now left alive who seriously investigated the attacks. Two members of a short-lived independent commission investigating the bombings were murdered. The commission’s lawyer was even jailed. Mikhail Trepashkin, that lawyer, was the man I met. He introduced himself also as a former FSB colonel and stood, limply, weak from spending time in jail on trumped-up charges, designed to stop his inquiries. “They’ll do it again to stay in power,” Trepashkin said, waving towards the Kremlin. There is a long train of occurrences to suggest the involvement of Russian intelligence in the bombings. Security agents were caught by vigilantes, stuffing bombs in basements. Deputies and generals warned that the security services were planning fake terrorists attacks to cement power. And in the months and years to come, most of the journalists, politicians or investigators searching for truth wound up dead or in prison.

We still don’t know what happened. Some see a cover-up of a horrific plot, others a cover-up of a humiliating cock-up. Both sides agree that the regime whipped up the terror-hysteria for all it was worth. To fantastic result.

Putin’s reign as president officially began on New Year’s Eve 1999. Trembling and blubbing, Boris Yeltsin asked Russia to forgive him. Then, at midnight, Putin spoke. Fifteen years later, he is still speaking at midnight to the Russian people.

Reading The New Tsar, one is struck by how few powerful Russians have ever appreciated over this time that it was becoming one-man rule. Looking back, it seems laughable there could have been a credible sense in Putin’s first decade as president that he was getting ready to enjoy a glitzy retirement. The four years in which he played prime minister, to his servant Dmitry Medvedev’s puppet presidency, should not have fooled anyone, but most observers fell for the charade. “I am a specialist in human relations,” is what Putin used to tell friends when he was in the KGB.

Nobody I tracked down, that summer in St Petersburg in 2012, anticipated his reign. Even his old business partners were stunned to see him in glory on national TV. Many years later, Sergey Kolesnikov would find himself not only handling secret offshore accounts for Putin’s benefit, but also charged with overseeing work on a baroque palace for him on the Black Sea. But in the early 1990s he never could have imagined such a thing. “He was an absolutely normal man,” Kolesnikov said. “His voice was normal . . . not tough, not high. He had a normal personality . . . normal intelligence, not especially high intelligence. You could go out the door and find thousands and thousands of people in Russia, all of them just like Putin . . . I was surprised when Putin became president. Of course I was surprised: everyone was surprised.”

But is this now the same Putin? The New Tsar chronicles how the regime has evolved, and with it the man. There is a pattern. Every time a challenger rises, Putin, now 63, not only destroys him, but grabs his source of power. His first tussle was with Boris Berezovsky, the manic, scheming oligarch who brought him to Yeltsin’s attention. Berezovsky was trying to push him around with his popular, formerly state-owned TV station Channel One in 2000. The last time he ever saw Putin, his former protégé smiled at him. “I want to control Channel One. I will manage it.” And then he left the room. Berezovsky told me it left him in a state of panic, exclaiming as Putin left the room: “What have we done? We have let the black colonels in.” Soon, he was exiled, and his channel under Kremlin control.

The move towards autocracy was gradual. “This change started after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” Kolesnikov told me. The young oligarch made the same mistake as Berezovsky. After Khodorkovsky challenged Putin politically using Yukos, his energy empire, to fund anti-Kremlin political parties, he was jailed. He was so stunned that he refused to speak or eat for his first week in jail. Putin nationalised Khodorkovsky’s oilfields. “After that,” said Kolesnikov, “the words used to address Putin
started to change. At first it was ‘boss’ but then more and more would call him ‘tsar’. It began as a joke. But then it became serious.”

Activists also misread Putin. His first decade was buoyed by high oil prices and the rise of the middle class. This eventually turned against the Kremlin, as ever more internet-savvy, worldly and consumerist Russians began to push for less corruption and more open politics. In December 2011, Moscow filled with demonstrators calling for fair elections. Some people took bets that the regime would be out in a year.

But once again, Putin fought just like a cat. Protest leaders were jailed, dragged through Kafka-esque trials or, like the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, mysteriously shot. Putin filled an increasingly censored in­ternet with trolls, and sent thugs and factory workers to march through the streets. Recently I asked one opposition leader, now in exile, if he had ever thought it would come to this. “No,” he said. “I did not think it could.”

***

What makes Putin so ruthless? This is one of my favourite questions to ask the Russian dissidents, or Kremlin aides, or former power-brokers I have the chance to meet. Every time I hear an answer, I am struck by the unknowable aura that he retains – or maybe commands. Putin is still a grey blur. They know little about him. Mostly, I find two answers, or rather guesses. The pessimist believes Putin’s fits and starts of repression to be systematic, believing that he wants to restore as much as he can of Soviet power. The optimist sees the authoritarian lurches that have transformed Russia as ­chaotic – unscripted lashing-out when he feels cornered.

Among the optimists, the one closest to Putin whom I met was Mikhail Kasyanov, his first prime minister, who remembered a boss without a plan. “Putin’s authoritarianism was about eliminating risks to power,” he said. “Free TV became a risk: it was eliminated. When parliament became a risk, it was eliminated. This is all because Putin was frightened of genuine competition. It moved step by step – as each risk appeared he reacted forcefully to it. Putin was frightened of being exposed.”

After Ukraine, we can have no illusions about how far he will go to retain power. But are Putin’s wars, which now extend from Donbas to Damascus, the work of a man trying to re-create the Chechen war wave that first consolidated his power? Is he frightened that without this, mass protests might return to Moscow? Russian TV broadcasts have become relentless propaganda: not only is Russia fighting fascist legions of America in Ukraine, it is in a holy crusade against Islamic State, as even its weather forecasters point out good times for bombing Syria. Just like at the start of the Chechen war, the Kremlin is inciting a war wave to raise the president’s popularity.

Is there a Putin plan, or is it all reactive? Only time will tell. For now, the “theory of Putin” that most draws me is that of the KGB. His superiors always thought he was flawed. Personnel training for Soviet foreign intelligence was onerous, pursued with a rigour and exactitude second only to that given to the country’s cosmonauts. Agents were subjected to months of psychological tests, pulse measurements, head scans, role-plays and “western” life simulations. But mostly the KGB just wanted to catalogue agents’ weaknesses and flaws.

Putin acknowledges that the KGB evaluated him as a man with stunted emotions. His instructors concluded he was at risk, not of succumbing to the temptations of women or drink, but because of his pervasive “lowered sense of danger”. He was also classified as a man unhelpfully unsocial. To this day, he still only grudgingly half admits the agency’s character assessment. “I don’t think that I had a lowered sense of danger, but the psychologists came to this conclusion having followed my behaviour for a long time,” he told journalists back in 2000. This, I fear, is what makes him so ruthless.

Ben Judah is the author of “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out Love With Vladimir Putin” (Yale University Press)

“The New Tsar: the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin” by Steven Lee Myers is published by Simon & Schuster

Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Love With Vladimir Putin.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis