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Ukraine: “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview with Der Spiegel on his joint mediation attempt with the French and Polish Foreign Ministers in Kyiv. Other issues: cooperation with Russia, Syria, prospects for German foreign policy, German military operations abroad, German‑American relations. Published on 23 February 2014

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Mr Steinmeier, you were involved in the political agreement between the Government and the Opposition in Ukraine. How viable do you think the compromise is?

We sat together and negotiated for more than 20 hours. When we arrived, black smoke was hanging over the Maidan, and we could hear shots being fired. We kept receiving news of more deaths. We all knew that our mediation attempts were without a doubt the last chance to find a political solution. I believe that made all parties more inclined to make the necessary compromises.

Both sides nonetheless sharply criticised the agreement.

Both the Government and the Opposition have had to bite the bullet. Our plan sets out a clear timetable which leaves little or no room for interpretation. Yet the plan is only as good as the desire of the signatories to implement it both in word and in spirit. Of course there are risks; we aren’t out of the woods yet. There will no doubt be attempts to thwart the plan. The President and the Opposition leaders must see it through even in the face of considerable opposition in their own ranks.

Can President Yanukovych be part of the solution?

That is for voters in Ukraine to decide. President Yanukovych has approved a solution which brings his term of office to an end this year. The presidential elections are due to be held before the end of 2014. He has agreed to this.

Has Russia attempted to thwart your efforts?

Our timetable is supported by Russia. On Thursday President Putin sent an emissary to Kyiv who then participated in negotiations through the night, making a very constructive contribution. The Russian representative helped to build bridges and at least initialled the text. Putting an end to the bloodshed is also in Russia’s interests.

The impression until now was that President Putin was supporting the conflict.

A week ago in Moscow I discussed the situation in Kyiv at length with Vladimir Putin. He agreed with me that the worst possible scenario for Ukraine would be for it to remain caught in the tug of war between east and west for the next ten years. Mrs Merkel has also stayed in contact. Anarchy and civil war in its direct neighbourhood is certainly not in Russia’s interests. And if it became a failed state, Ukraine would topple towards the east, thereby placing a burden on Russia.

Your party comrade Gerhard Schröder has said that the Europeans are unsuitable mediators in Ukraine because they are perceived as one of the parties. What prompted you to travel to Kyiv with your French and Polish colleagues?

The decision took shape over the past few days during talks with Laurent Fabius and Radek Sikorski. It was a journey into the unknown. We were aware of the risks; an agreement seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, we believed that we had an obligation to at least try from the outside to find a way out of the spiralling escalation. However, we could not foresee that the number of victims would increase further on the day of our arrival. 

With hindsight, was it right that, with the association agreement, the EU confronted Ukraine with a choice between Russia and Europe? Does European policy not bear some of the responsibility for the escalation?

It’s no use crying over spilt milk. But we mustn’t forget that it was Ukraine that wanted an association agreement with the European Union.

Opposition leaders such as Vitali Klitschko called for sanctions at an early stage. The United States was also in favour. Should you have listened to them?

Simply calling for sanctions does not in itself constitute wise policymaking. Sanctions have to remain a means to an end – they cannot be an end in themselves. When all’s said and done, I believe that we handled this tool responsibly.

Has Russia suddenly discovered that cooperation is in its interests?

Russia is an important but not an easy partner. With regard to Syria’s chemical weapons, the Iran dossier and now in the case of Ukraine we have managed to find solutions. In other areas we have not yet succeeded. Where that is the case, we are continuing to engage in dialogue and trying to find common ground.

So you intend to pursue your policy towards Russia, which periodically led to conflicts with the Chancellery during your first term of office?

What would the alternative be? To go away and sulk in a corner and refuse to engage in talks? If, in our foreign policy, we cultivate the habit of not speaking to states which do not share our stance, we will get absolutely nowhere in resolving the many crises in the world.

The issue isn’t whether we should be talking to governments like Russia’s, but how. In your first term of office you advocated a quiet approach – without much success.

As far as the success of foreign policy is concerned, history will decide. And as yet we have no proof that the loud voices with their radical approaches will leave a positive stamp on it. Russia is a European country, and I want it to remain so. Some criticism of Russia is justified. We have very divergent conceptions of the rule of law and civil rights. Nonetheless, we ought to try to cooperate even more closely in the areas in which we can work together to have a positive impact. In this context I have adopted the phrase “positive agenda”.

During your first term of office you also established contact with the Syrian President Bashar al‑Assad. Have developments in Syria proved you wrong on this point? The idea that Assad could become a partner of the west seems illusory from today’s perspective.

That’s your opinion. At that time I found the division of the world into black and white along the axis of evil much more unrealistic. I appealed for talks to be held with Assad at a time when he was not so blinkered by ideology. I believed that by strengthening Syria’s ties with the west we would perhaps be able to have a greater influence on developments in that country. I am not as convinced as you are that that was such a bad thing!

And if people had listened to you, would things have not unfolded as they did?

Syria teaches us that we have to take the trouble to painstakingly analyse political conflicts before making decisions.

And what are the consequences now?

In the short and medium term I see no possibility of a political solution. If we manage to stop violent clashes by means of local ceasefires and humanitarian corridors in individual regions, we will have achieved a lot.

For someone who is an exponent of an active foreign policy, that sounds very tame.

Active foreign policy doesn’t mean that we have a solution up our sleeve for every conflict. Foreign‑policy conflicts often flare up in a couple of weeks and can take two decades to resolve.

Then please explain what it does mean.

In Germany we have acquired the unfortunate habit of commenting on the actions of others. Often we know precisely what the British, the French and the Americans are doing wrong. And yet we are not prepared to do any more ourselves. I want to change that. We shouldn’t wait until the horse has bolted before closing the stable door.

That hasn’t always bothered you. When the UN Security Council gave the green light for the operation in Libya two years ago, Germany abstained. You supported that.

We must distinguish between different things. One factor was the vote in the Security Council, the other was Germany’s decision not to make a military contribution itself. I believed then, and I still do believe that Germany was right not to participate in the intervention. And I am not too impressed by what those who dropped their bombs on Libya left in their wake.

And the vote in the Security Council?

We could argue about that, but it is water under the bridge now. Be that as it may, I intend to work to advocate earlier and more decisive engagement with conflicts and to encourage us to get involved where we have the opportunity to make an impact. We have seen in Kyiv that this can work.

That sounds as if it is mainly about diplomacy. You yourself have said in connection with military operations that the culture of restraint must not become a culture of standing aloof. Have we been too aloof in the past?

This isn’t only about diplomacy or military operations. It is about foreign policy. And it is pretty absurd that the quality of good foreign policy is measured according to the number of operations abroad and the number of military personnel deployed there. The decision to conduct military operations must be a last resort. Nothing is going to change as far as that is concerned.

Your Cabinet colleague Ursula von der Leyen says that Germany can no longer look away when murder and rape are a daily reality. She was specifically referring to military operations. Do you share her view?

In the late 1990s I was involved in the decision‑making process on whether we should participate in the NATO air strikes against Serbia. We said no to the war against Iraq, and yes to involvement in Afghanistan. That isn’t a contradiction in terms. Those were very difficult decisions which we made with great awareness of the responsibility we carried. That is how it will be in the future, too.

Then why do we need the new foreign policy you are now advocating?

That we need to do a few things differently is simply down to the fact that the world has changed. And a few people have indeed noticed that the profile of foreign policy is beginning once again to change for the better. But that is not enough. I have initiated a process of self‑assessment at the Federal Foreign Office. The goal is to trigger a public debate on the conditions and prospects of German foreign policy. In our Review 2014 – A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy we also intend to ask whether German foreign policy has been setting the right priorities in recent years.

Do you have the impression that the Chancellor also thinks it is time for a critical review of the past four years?

I’m not aware that the Chancellor has anything against Germany being more prominent in the world and concentrating on key foreign‑policy challenges.

As Chancellor, Angela Merkel has been extremely restrained with regard to military operations. The Merkel doctrine preferred supplying weapons to critical regions so that the regional players could sort things out for themselves.

Germany’s restrictive arms export policy remains in place. That is a fundamental social‑democratic conviction. But we want to go further, to make arms exports more transparent. In the medium term the whole basis will therefore shift. In future, exports of tanks to Saudi Arabia won’t simply happen.

We have talked about dealing with difficult partners. This Thursday you will be visiting one of them. What will you say to United States Secretary of State John Kerry about the mood in the Federal Government?

He is aware of it. We had a long confidential talk recently.

The United States seems unwilling to engage in a debate on the work of the intelligence services.

In the United States the balance between freedom and security is viewed differently than it is in Europe and especially in Germany. That has a lot to do with the experiences we have gleaned from our history. The rifts are deep, and the work that lies ahead of us should not be underestimated. Incidentally, I doubt whether a no‑spy agreement will really move us forward.

So the Americans continue to monitor us without batting an eyelid, and your reaction is, “Let’s talk about it”?

I don’t believe that the Americans will continue as before. Washington has hopefully understood that the way it treats its partners may also be politically costly. I am sure that the surveillance of political leaders of friendly states will cease. In other areas the European and American understanding of data protection is still very different. I intend to discuss this with Mr Kerry.

Mr Steinmeier, thank you for talking to us.

Reproduced by kind permission of Der Spiegel.

www.spiegel.de/spiegel/

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