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Why Germany's giving Russia a bearhug

While much of Europe is wary of the bear to the east, Germany continues to pull Russia into European culture and business, although some recent bilateral deals have faltered.

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To many in Berlin's elite, Germany is destined to reform a lagging Russian "petrostate," modernize its industry, and be the broker of a revitalized Russia's entry into Europe. A key tenet of Germany's policy is that Russia has a "Weimar complex," proud but weak, and needs an ally that won't jump out the window when Russia flexes its bearlike muscles – in Georgia or elsewhere.

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Hubert Védrine, foreign minister of France from 1997 to 2002, says Berlin's strategic goals with Moscow are "not worrying, and are compatible with a common EU policy," provided that disagreements can be overcome between older states such as France and Italy, and newer states such as Poland and the Baltics.

He questions, however, Russia's desire to conform itself to European norms. "I don't think that Russia wants to enter Europe at all," Mr. Védrine says. "Russia wants its power to be recognized anew, and to use what is left of its nuisance power.... They don't want to enter a complex system in which decisions are voted by a majority. They want to reconstitute power."

Other analysts say Ger­many, whose eastward ties are quite old – and whose Ostpolitik supporters represent a generation that spent a lifetime seeking reconciliation after World War II – must reexamine its partner.

Germany, in this view, has steadily repented for the Nazi period. Russia, by contrast, has insisted it was victimized, and is championing Stalin and disparaging human rights.

"Are the Germans looking clearly at Russian policy? We aren't sure," said a senior Scandinavian diplomat in Berlin last fall. "Does German encouragement of petrostate reform, at the heart of German policy, objectively help, or prolong, that reform? We aren't sure yet."

Through it all, the two sides retain a strong shared view of the world and each other.

When German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle went to Moscow in December, he called for relations "without any 'ifs' or 'buts.' "

Moscow commentator Viktor Krestyaninov used the occasion to play up what he calls "GeRussia" – "Germany plus Russia." In a posting by Russian specialist Paul Goble, Mr. Krestyaninov argued that Moscow wants the tie to counter "three serious challenges" – American interest in "the economic weakening of Moscow," the growing power of China, and expanding Islamist activism in the south.

A significant new variable is President Obama's "reset" on Russia, taking the steam out of a confrontation that many Russian hard-liners could play on, and changing some of the dynamics in Berlin, where diplomats chafed at the former US approach.