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“Real danger of a new division of Europe”

Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on the escalating situation in eastern Ukraine and the policy of the EU.

The city of Berlin is a symbol of the tide of change in Europe that swept away communism and ended the Cold War. Does Russia’s annexation of Crimea mean the past could make a come-back?

The danger of a new division of Europe is very real. Responsible diplomacy must do everything possible to prevent it. Whether we succeed doesn’t depend on us alone, it depends above all on Russia’s future plans. Moscow must now make clear whether it’s ready to abandon the course it’s been steering since the annexation of Crimea.

Is there any indication that Russia is prepared to change course?

Views differ as to whether Russian diplomacy is following a prepared script. My impression is rather that Russia is bent on testing the West. I see Russia proceeding in the light of the situation as it evolves, yet driven of course, too, by the jingoism it has whipped up at home. I hope its leaders know that growing Russian self-isolation can’t be good for the country’s future. Whether our weeks of talks aimed at establishing some kind of international crisis management format can be seen as indicating a change of course will become clear over the next few days.

Is the annexation of Crimea a precedent for how borders in Europe can be redrawn in future?

Seven decades after the end of World War II and 25 years after the end of the Cold War in Europe, we simply can’t now go back to redrawing borders to take account of ethnic, language or religious factors. Virtually not a single country in Europe has no minorities. So our priority should be, firstly, to ensure that minorities are not marginalised. They should be helped to feel they have a homeland, a real place and equal rights in the country in which they live. Where the situation is otherwise, we should use all available political means to improve matters. Secondly, however, such situations don’t give any neighbouring country the right as self-appointed protector to resort to military means and instigate secession.

To what extent is Russia internationally isolated as a result of its present course?

The idea of arbitrarily redrawing borders ought to be cause for great concern especially to a multi-ethnic country like Russia. It should have realised at the latest by the vote in the UN General Assembly that its present course is viewed also outside Europe with scepticism rather than approval. If countries now worry that their borders may be redrawn on the pretext cited by Russia of protecting minorities and a new interpretation of the right of national self-determination, that’s something we need to take seriously.

How do you see the situation in eastern Ukraine? Is the mood there clearly pro-Russian?

No, polls show that most people there don’t want to become part of Russia. However, what’s crucial now is that the Government in Kyiv makes clear that its policies serve not just some citizens of Ukraine but the whole nation. It must be actively present in eastern Ukraine and invite people there to join in building a common future for their country.

Do these latest escalations justify tougher sanctions in line with the EU’s phased sanctions plan?

Our discussions in the EU over possible sanctions against Russia have been lengthy and at times not entirely easy. The consensus we now have is firmly and unanimously backed by all 28 EU countries. The first two phases of the sanctions plan are now in operation. These include travel bans and asset freezes on individual Russian nationals and Crimean politicians. We’ve also stated clearly that any Russian attempt to take over parts of eastern or southern Ukraine will trigger also a decision on economic sanctions. That policy still stands.

But you don’t see any immediate need for action?

We’re working on measures to help stabilise Ukraine’s economy, a programme to support administrative reforms and the rapid deployment of a joint EU mission to support reforms in the police and justice sector. This is intended to help restore confidence in the rule of law in Ukraine.

You’ve pointed out that Ukraine shouldn’t be forced to choose between East and West.Does that mean you rule out Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO even as a long-term possibility?

What I’ve said is that our first priority should be to prevent Ukraine’s political and economic collapse. The EU and the IMF have offered concrete assistance here. What’s important now is for people in Ukraine to see the benefits of this assistance in their own lives. This means the Government in Kyiv must crack down on corruption and create the conditions required for good governance. We would be ill advised to link this process with pressure on Ukraine to decide on NATO or EU membership. As far as NATO is concerned, I share the view of the American President, who says he doesn’t see Ukraine heading for NATO membership.

Is Russia entitled to a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe more or less identical – apart from the Baltic states – with that of the former Soviet Union?

Since the end of the Cold War the world has become a very different place. For us Germans this has been a great boon, enabling us to regain our unity. No one has the right to turn the clock back and resurrect a vanished bipolar world in which geopolitical spaces belong either to the East or the West. And one reason that’s not going to happen is the entry of new players onto the international stage. There are countries in Asia and Latin America with growing economic clout which aspire also to greater political influence. This means that no country anywhere, including Russia, can expect old-style geopolitics to go unchallenged.

So Russia has no veto over the future course of Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union?

No. But the fact remains, like it or not, that Ukraine is a large country situated between the EU’s eastern border and Russia’s western border with close political, economic and also person-to-person ties with Russia. We must do everything in our power to help Ukraine stay together and aid its political and economic recovery. Without Russia that will be hardly possible. Most Ukrainian companies are dependent on the Russian market. For that reason alone it’s important not to cut these links. So the attempt to engage Russia here doesn’t mean accommodating Russia or giving it some kind of gift. This is something that’s in Ukraine’s interests and in our own interests, too.

So you argue for a constructive dialogue with Russia?

The question implies that there are ample other good instruments available to us. That, I may point out, is not the case. Unless of course we assume that a policy of breaking off contacts and sanctions will somehow get rid of Russia’s restrictions on Ukrainian imports and ensure cheaper gas for Ukraine. Since I don’t share these hopes, I’m doing my utmost to get serious negotiations also between Russia and Ukraine going as soon as possible.

Did the three foreign ministers’ trip to Kyiv spur the end of the Yanukovych regime and so indirectly provoke the annexation of Crimea? In other words, was the EU partly responsible for the escalation?

We set off at a time when already 80 people in Kyiv had been killed. When we arrived, Ukrainians were shooting at each other. Stopping the killing and preventing a civil war was important enough, we felt. None of us three were under any illusion that this would already produce a solution. Of course further initiatives are now needed to help the country stay together and build a new political and economic future. This is something that can’t be done in six or eight months, it’s something that will take years of effort to achieve. Part of this effort must be to get Russia to participate in an international contact group, whose purpose would be to persuade Moscow that a Ukraine lurching into chaos right next door is not in its interests. Whether this work of persuasion will succeed I can’t say at this stage when the contact group has still not even been established.

One doesn’t have the impression that Russia is interested in dialogue at the moment. Who is still in contact with Moscow?

Federal Chancellor Merkel and I are trying to keep the dialogue with Moscow going. President Obama and US Secretary of State Kerry are doing the same. We’re striving hard to reach the point where an international contact group with Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU as members can get down to work. That’s not yet a solution, but it’s a first step. The present situation puts diplomacy in a classic dilemma. Once a crisis breaks out, expectations of an imminent solution are raised by a constant stream of news agency reports. That’s something one has to live with. I believe it’s still possible to bring Russia and Ukraine face to face in a contact group.

Recently you said that in future Germany must contribute earlier, more decisively and more substantially to resolving issues on the international agenda. Is Ukraine a test case for this new doctrine?

After reunification many people in Germany believed not perhaps in the end of history but certainly in the prospect of perpetual peace and a regular peace dividend that would be paid out every year. What’s happening right now in Ukraine has definitely brought us back down to earth.

Does Germany play a lead role in the EU where policy towards Russia is concerned?

A lead role in the EU is something that’s regularly called for, yet something that would never be accepted. And it’s easy to understand why. We’ve created institutions – in the realm of foreign affairs the High Representative – that help avoid any competition for leadership and domination. Of course I realise that at times more is expected of the bigger EU countries than others. And we can’t live up to these expectations if we stand on the sidelines, commenting on the state of play and allocating marks for good conduct.

When in late February the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland went to Ukraine and negotiated a deal with President Yanukovych, they were clearly claiming a lead role.

On 20 February over 80 people died on the streets of Kyiv, in the days previously the death toll was not much lower. We set off amid a host of warnings about the prevailing confusion in Kyiv, for none of us knew what might await us there and who our interlocutors would be. There was a real risk we’d end up with nothing to show for our efforts. But in situations like this you have to accept that diplomacy may fail. You mustn’t let the fear of failure stop you doing anything at all.

So diplomacy that avoids all risks is not true diplomacy?

Diplomacy must be prepared to use also unusual formats and unconventional constellations, for in gridlocked situations that’s how you open up new possibilities. It’s a risky business, yes! But the risks of doing nothing are definitely greater.

Published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 14 April 2014. Reproduced with the kind permission of the NZZ. The questions were put by Eric Gujer.

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