As the crisis in Crimea continues, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier again travelled to Ukraine on Saturday (22 March). In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the eastern mining city of Donetsk near the border with Russia, he got a picture of the situation and pledged further support for political and economic stabilisation in Ukraine.
The contrast could not be greater. When Foreign Minister Steinmeier was last in Kyiv, dozens of people were dying in the violent clashes around the Maidan (Independence Square).
The German Foreign Minister and his Polish and French counterparts were able to help bring about an end to the violence only with great difficulty. Commenting on that in Kyiv on Saturday, Steinmeier said: “The barricades were burning, the city was clouded with black smoke, shots were being fired all over the place.”
Four weeks on, the situation is very different: winter has given way to spring, and young families are out for a stroll in the sun on the Maidan. A sea of flowers commemorates those who died in February.
Steinmeier warns against new rifts in Europe
But this spring atmosphere is deceptive. The crisis is not yet over. By reaching for Crimea, Russia has called Ukraine’s territorial integrity into question. Pro-Russian demonstrations are being held in eastern Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Steinmeier is profoundly concerned. Speaking in Kyiv, he told a German Sunday newspaper: “I am very worried that the attempt to cast doubt on internationally recognised borders in countries in our European neighbourhood 25 years after the end of the Cold War will open Pandora’s box.”
Following a meeting with Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Steinmeier once again warned against opening up new rifts in Europe, saying: “We are meeting here today because we know the situation remains dramatic.”
OSCE observer mission on its way to Ukraine
However, there are initial slight signs of deescalation following the confrontation over Crimea. On Friday (21 March), after days of difficult diplomatic negotiations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to send an observer mission to Ukraine.
Steinmeier played a major part in bringing about this agreement. During the difficult negotiations he was in close contact with all involved. In order to remove Russia’s objections, Steinmeier was on the phone to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow almost daily during this phase.
Speaking in Kyiv, the Foreign Minister took a cautious line: “This is not the political solution to the conflict, but it could help ensure that the tensions here do not spill over into renewed violence and bloodshed.”
German support for stabilisation in Ukraine
During his visit Steinmeier told the interim government in Kyiv that Germany would provide further support for stabilisation in Ukraine. At the same time, he said he expected the new government in Kyiv to pursue policies for all Ukrainians and welcomed corresponding announcements by Yatsenyuk: “You have stated that the rights of minorities will be taken into account. These are positive signals, and that’s what Ukraine needs in this situation.”
For his part, Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister expressed his pleasure at the signing of the political section of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. He also asked for assistance in the fight against corruption and in efforts to reduce Ukraine’s energy dependence on Russia.
Surprise meeting with UN Secretary-General
Steinmeier also met UN Secretary-General Ban Ki‑moon outside the official seat of the acting Prime Minister. The two men briefly discussed the situation in Ukraine and attempts to bring about deescalation. Foreign Minister Steinmeier also held talks with acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and opposition politician Serhij Tihipko.
Visit to eastern Ukraine
Following his various talks in Kyiv, the German Foreign Minister travelled on to Donetsk, a city of a million inhabitants in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian demonstrations have been held in recent weeks. In the city, shaped by mining and heavy industry, Steinmeier met various people, including the Governor of the region, Serhij Taruta, with whom he had comprehensive talks. While in Donetsk, the Foreign Minister took the opportunity to hear from a German OSCE expert about the tense security situation in the region.
Shortly before Steinmeier’s arrival in Donetsk there had again been pro-Russian demonstrations outside the district administration buildings – though far fewer protesters turned out than the 10,000 initially expected.
Steinmeier was cautiously optimistic after his talks in Donetsk. The situation in eastern Ukraine remained anything other than stable, he said. But his talks in Kyiv and Donetsk had given him confidence. He had the impression, he went on, that it was now accepted that there would be a new Ukraine.
The region around Donetsk, the Donbass, is vitally important for Ukraine. This region, which borders Russia, is home to mining and heavy industry and is the country’s industrial heartland. Around 20 percent of Ukrainian economic output is generated here. There is a strong Russian influence in the region. In the wake of the Crimea crisis, numerous pro-Russian demonstrations have taken place here in recent weeks, sometimes triggering violent clashes.