Now, even as Russia and Ukraine rumble towards a potentially terrifying conflict, just a little way down the line (each outbreak of peace between Moscow and Kiev in recent months has been more phoney than the last), there are curious signals that may hint, for the first time, at a European sea-change still to come. With Boris Yeltsin present as a special guest for the European Union summit in Corfu this weekend, the atmosphere will be all bonhomie. But the longer-term prospects are more confused.
Again and again in recent years, the West has sought to wrap itself in old certainties, closing its eyes to the enormity of changes in the world. A few weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, Douglas Hurd insisted that German unity was not on the agenda. Only months before the war in Yugoslavia began, George Bush said he would not 'permit' Yugoslavia to fall apart. Such statements sounded as foolish then as they do today. Politicians clung to a status quo, including the Soviet Union itself, that could not survive.
Thus it was, too, once the Soviet Union had collapsed. Western governments talked sympathetically of Russian claims in Russia's 'near abroad'. In a joint article for the Financial Times at the end of last year, Mr Hurd and the Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, talked of Russia's 'legitimate concerns' in former Soviet republics. More recently, in the Independent, Mr Hurd sought to avoid giving Moscow diplomatic carte blanche, and described the ex-Soviet republics as 'independent states'. But the Foreign Secretary continues to talk of Russia's justified 'interests, both economic and political, in other parts of the former Soviet Union'. Translated this means: 'It's your backyard; but please don't be too blatant, when you seek to call the shots.' The Baltic states are convinced that - if the going gets tough - the West will again be ready to throw them to the political wolves, for the sake of 'stability'.
The best prospects for a sane and sustainable long-term relationship between the West and Russia may, however, involve less coaxing and more of a velvet-fist approach. 'We are pleased to help you where we can. But if you start throwing your weight around in your former empire, then woe betide you.' A policy of just such toughness is in the making in Bonn, of all places. Germany, more than any other European country, was obsessed with giving cash, cash, and more cash, to keep Gorbachev's Soviet Union together, and, later, to prop up Yeltsin. Partly, this was a mixture of continued guilt (because of the Second World War) and gratitude (because of the Kremlin's assent to German unity). It also reflected acute German fears of instability, close to Germany's own borders. Even now, the almost-intimate relationship continues. When President Yeltsin visited Chancellor Kohl in Germany last month, there were hugs and smiles galore, with Germany apparently keen to be Russia's main partner in Europe.
One sign of the future direction of German foreign policy may, however, not just be the Kohl-Yeltsin camaraderie, but a discussion paper prepared recently by Karl Lamers, foreign affairs spokesman of the ruling Christian Democrats. The paper contains a much blunter message than the cute after-dinner speeches in Bonn. 'Where necessary, the West must be ready to show Russia the borders,' says Mr Lamers. 'We want Russia to be rooted in Europe, and we want to offer it a place which corresponds to its greatness. But belonging to the new Europe means definitively giving up any dominant role, and any claims to special rights, with regards to its neighbours.'
This is blunter than the tone heard in London, until now. Mr Hurd rightly quotes the phrase about Britain's shattered dreams - 'lost an empire, and hasn't found a role' - with reference to Russia. But London has still seemed to half-believe that the traditional Great Powers club should be maintained, and that Russia should not be pressed too hard.
Germany, by contrast, after emerging half a century ago from a regime of evil, is now a country whose policies are driven by a belief in morality. Mr Lamers applies to Russia the absolutism that Germany has applied to itself in past decades. Germany's defeat in 1945 is now seen by Germans as the cornerstone of their democratic and prosperous society today. Mr Lamers insists: 'Only when the majority of Russians recognise, with satisfaction, that there is a greater value in achieving good living conditions and stability than in striving for purported greatness - only then will Russia and the Russian people have found their identity. For the West and Russia's neighbours to accompany Russia along this road is in the interests of Russia itself.' There is no mistaking the echoes of what Germany itself went through.
In conversation this week, Mr Lamers acknowledged that Germany's own experience - when it was forced to confront and take responsibility for its totalitarian past - was an important influence, when he set out his proposals for helping Russia to gain political health. 'Our (German) advantage was our defeat - and that is enormously important. That's the background. Otherwise I wouldn't have formulated it like that.'
Next week, Germany takes over the presidency of the European Union. It is far from certain that the Lamers line will become the new gospel according to Bonn - though it is interesting to note that leading Social Democrats have privately welcomed the thrust of Mr Lamers' ideas. It is equally unclear whether this implicit toughness will be accepted elsewhere in Europe. It would, however, be dangerous to write off the proposals because of an alleged lack of 'pragmatism', as Britain's grandees may be inclined to do ('Trouble with Lamers is, he fails to take into account the fact that Andrei is very worried about the hardline backlash, if we push him and Yeltsin too far . . . .').
On every important issue in Russia and Eastern Europe in recent years, the self-proclaimed 'pragmatists' in the corridors of power have been wrong. 'Pragmatism' has become a synonym for 'dogmatism and myopia', allowing conflicts to be even worse than they would otherwise have been. It is a lesson that finally needs to be understood throughout Europe.Reuse content