On Tuesday (1 April) and Wednesday (2 April) Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. During the spring meeting, the 28 foreign ministers discussed the implications of the Crimean crisis in the North Atlantic Council and the NATO-Ukraine Commission. In view of their concern over Russia’s actions in Crimea, the ministers reaffirmed their solidarity with members of the alliance. They also deliberated on what line to take in future towards Russia. In their talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia NATO members emphasised their desire to intensify cooperation with the alliance’s East European partner country of long standing.
On Monday evening Foreign Minister Steinmeier was upbeat about the first day of the NATO foreign ministers meeting. There had been a “really good and in-depth discussion” in the North Atlantic Council, he reported, and in the matter of alliance solidarity “an extraordinary degree of unanimity”. Although the international situation was anything but simple, NATO partners had kept “cool heads” in their deliberations.
Meeting in difficult times
Prior to the North Atlantic Council meeting Steinmeier had emphasised that it was taking place “in difficult times”. The Crimean crisis, support for Ukraine and the question of what line to take in future towards Russia dominated the deliberations of the 28 NATO foreign ministers at their spring meeting. Ahead of the discussions with his NATO counterparts, Steinmeier had warned of the need to prevent a new division of Europe.
During their deliberations NATO foreign ministers emphasised also vis-à-vis the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the importance of mutual solidarity within the defence alliance. At the weekend Steinmeier had explained to a German weekly that Germany was committed to “alliance solidarity without any ifs and buts”. He had pointed out, however, that two things were crucial “in this extraordinarily difficult situation”. NATO needed to “act with a cool head” and not let the alliance “be rushed into any spiralling military escalation”.
In Brussels NATO foreign ministers agreed to step up the alliance’s aerial and maritime surveillance activities in the Baltic Sea region. Germany had also offered to made additional capacities available for this purpose, Steinmeier explained. “Whether and (...) when we will be taken up on our offer” was at the moment still undecided, he added.
Most serious conflict in decades
Steinmeier warned that the Crimean crisis was “the most serious conflict we’ve seen in years, in decades”. The participants in the meeting had accordingly condemned Russia’s actions in Crimea and agreed to rethink relations with Russia in this light.
In a joint statement NATO foreign ministers announced the suspension of practical cooperation with Russia – for the time being only the high-level political dialogue between NATO and Russia will continue. Speaking at the end of the discussions, Steinmeier noted that the alliance’s future relations with Russia would depend above all on Russia itself. It was important to keep channels of communication open for the eventuality that moves towards de-escalation should become possible.
That would also depend, for example, on whether announcements of Russian troop withdrawals from areas along the border with Ukraine were followed by corresponding action. “Whether such announced withdrawals actually take place is something that will have to be seen over the next few days,” Steinmeier continued.
Stepping up support for Ukraine
On his arrival in Brussels, Steinmeier had already warned that there could be “no military solution” to the Crimean crisis. In a further comment in the evening, he emphasised how important it was therefore to persevere with efforts to de-escalate the situation – including also the OSCE observer mission – even if right now a political solution was still a long way off.
After the meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on Tuesday afternoon NATO foreign ministers announced that support for Ukraine would be stepped up. There had been a great many contributions to the discussions on the situation in Ukraine, Steinmeier noted. The alliance had a duty, he stressed, to help Ukraine become a “functioning and economically viable state that is able to act effectively”.
The first and foremost priority is to implement reforms on the basis of the so-called Agreement of 21 February. Under the terms of this agreement, which was brokered by the foreign ministers of the Weimar Triangle, i.e. Germany, France and Poland, and ended the bloody conflict in Kyiv, a new constitution is to be drawn up for the country. The accord also envisages the disarming of radical forces and the formation of an inclusive government for Ukraine.
While these steps were anything but easy, Steinmeier noted, on his last visit to Kyiv and Donetsk ten days previously his impression was that the country had now embarked on the path of reform. Germany was backing these efforts, he continued. That was why a group of top German officials travelled to Kyiv on 1 April to see where an exchange of experience could be of help.
Afghanistan also discussed
On Wednesday, the second day of the NATO foreign ministers meeting, continued support for Afghanistan after 2014 was discussed at a meeting of NATO and non-NATO troop contributors to ISAF. Ahead of the presidential elections due to take place in Afghanistan on 5 April, Foreign Minister Steinmeier told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung that 2014 could become a crossroads for Afghanistan – provided that “the Afghans elect a new head of state in transparent and free elections”.
With regard to Germany’s commitment after 2014, the German Foreign Minister stated:
Germany will not turn its back on Afghanistan. We are prepared to stand by the country even after the end of the ISAF mission and the withdrawal of our combat troops in late 2014 (...) – if Afghanistan wants that and creates the right legal and political framework.
The preparation of the NATO summit in autumn 2014 was also discussed. The talks will focus on NATO’s future direction as both a security policy organisation and a strategic alliance. During the Brussels meeting the NATO-Georgia Commission and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative also convened. The Istanbul Initiative is a NATO partnership format, its members include Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.