Madam Minister, today (3 May, publication date) is day 68 of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Who can stop Vladimir Putin?
Baerbock: Russia could end this war immediately, from one day to the next. But we have seen that we can not rely on hope. President Putin just made quite clear to UN Secretary-General Guterres, as well, how little interest he has in peace talks. As bitter as it may sound, the one thing that can stop Russia’s brutal invasion at this point in time is Ukraine’s readiness to defend itself. That is the only reason why we are also helping with the supply of heavy weapons.
What is the goal of Germany’s support? What do you want to achieve?
Baerbock: That children in Ukraine can live in peace and freedom, like all other children in Europe. The primary goal now is to reach a ceasefire, so that the bombardment of schools and hospitals does not continue. That said, even ending the bombardment, as a dictated peace and graceful gesture by Russia, would not bring freedom and security. One thing is clear: Russian troops must leave the country. Otherwise, we as a global community will not be in a position to lift the sanctions. After all, this is not just about standing in solidarity with Ukraine; it’s also about our own security and that of our children. How we act now – whether we give in to aggression or defend the rules laid down in the UN Charter – will define the global order and relations in Europe in the next 10 or 20 years.
When did you last speak on the phone with your Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov?
Baerbock: Just before the war started. We now communicate with Russia through other channels. Unfortunately, the experiences of recent weeks show that Russia does not keep any promises, not even those related to humanitarian corridors that are established to rescue innocent people whose lives are in danger. If Russia were seriously interested in talks, then it would first stop launching barrages of rockets.
What if Putin offers to call a ceasefire based on current territorial gains?
Baerbock: The only one who has a right to decide about peace negotiations is Ukraine. It’s not us, but the Ukrainians who are dying in this war. They and their children face the threat – as in Bucha – of being murdered, raped and driven from their homes under Russia’s occupation. It is them whom we must help in this terrible situation, so that they have the strength they need to make their own decisions, as opposed to being dictated to, and living without freedom.
Do you hope to one day see Vladimir Putin seated in the dock of the International Criminal Court in The Hague?
Baerbock: The Russian President is most blatantly violating international law and international humanitarian law. You do not bomb mothers, fathers, children, the elderly and sick people. People who do so commit the most severe war crimes. These crimes must be prosecuted. We owe that to the victims.
How great a danger do you see of there being a nuclear war?
Baerbock: A nuclear power has launched a war of aggression on our doorstep. That alone is reason enough for us to assume responsibility as a government and to take seriously even the most severe scenarios. Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling is completely irresponsible, especially in the current situation – although we’ve heard similar messages from President Putin before.
So is this just so much rhetoric?
Baerbock: Like I said, we are taking even the most severe scenarios seriously. But you cannot employ nuclear weapons without inflicting harm on yourself. The Russian President knows that, too.
We are witnessing a watershed moment. Does a new world order lie ahead?
Baerbock: Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine does indeed mark a watershed. With his actions, the Russian President is laying waste to everything that generations have built in Europe and Russia. My generation was lucky enough to grow up in a peaceful era. And yes, we need a policy realignment after 24 February, the day that changed everything. That’s why, in Germany, we are drawing up a new National Security Strategy. We must be in a position to defend Europe’s peaceful order. We must once again scale up investments in our defensive capabilities – a term that I, a politician of the Greens, previously didn’t imagine having to actively use. We did not choose to be in this situation, but we must be prepared to deal with this new reality – without, of course, throwing everything overboard. Because security is more than defence plus diplomacy. Humanitarian assistance, stabilisation and conflict prevention remain key.
Regarding defensive capabilities – can you envision a European army?
Baerbock: I have always been one of those who could in a distant future imagine there also being a European army. But 24 February has shown that we must be in a position right now to take security policy action, not at some point in the distant future. We must achieve full compatibility of our military systems in Europe, and we must close the gaps in our own national capabilities – through a coordinated, European effort. That is why it is important to have combat helicopters that can actually fly, and for the Bundeswehr to have modern equipment – even though we know that armed forces on their own cannot create peace.
How hard was it for you to reach the decision to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine?
Baerbock: Of course, in the weeks and months when nothing is fully certain, a government will work hard to determine its position and make its decisions. But we are responsible not only for our actions, but also for our inactions. Not supplying weapons would have meant abandoning Ukraine. The decision was not easy to take, but I believe it was the only right decision to make. At a time of injustice, shirking responsibility would have meant taking the side of the aggressor.
Has Russia changed how you believe one should interact with other autocrats in the world?
Baerbock: The struggle between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes has been one of the top priorities on my agenda since the day I took office. But Russia should have opened the eyes of every last one of us. Complete economic dependence, especially on countries that do not share our values, are a security risk. Of course, an export nation cannot isolate itself in an interconnected world. But it is the task of politics, including security policy, to never again allow us to become so strongly dependent that we are not free to take our own political decisions.
Can Russia remain a member of the G20?
Baerbock: Conducting an exchange among the world’s leading economic nations is important, especially these days, as the effects of the war on the global economy, as well as on the prices of energy and food, can be seen very clearly. But during our G20 Presidency, we also indicated that we cannot sit down at a G20 table with countries that are destroying international law and the international peaceful order.
So will the G20 soon be the G19?
Baerbock: When a member of the G20 wants to destroy another country in this world with bombs, we cannot simply pretend that nothing happened and return to political business as usual. But, to exclude Russia from the G20, we need all of the other G19 countries on board. And not all other 19 countries have condemned this war of aggression that constitutes a breach of international law – first and foremost, China.
Do you expect that, now that Putin has cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, it will be Germany’s turn soon?
Baerbock: In the sphere of energy security, too, we have since 24 February been preparing for all sorts of scenarios, together with our European partners. It is part of Putin’s method to try to divide Europe. Obviously, he did not expect us Europeans to take a united stand. We shouldn’t forget that Russia, too, is dependent on its fossil fuel exports.
For decades, there has been talk about reforming the UN Security Council. Nothing has happened. How can the nations with veto power and nuclear weapons – in particular the US, Russia and China, whose behaviour is marked by rivalry – be convinced to go along with a reform of the Council?
Baerbock: For some time, there have been proposals to restructure the UN Security Council in such a way that the body better reflects the world’s population – with a seat for Africa, for example. There is a great unwillingness to act on the part of the countries with veto power. There’s no need to gloss over things: in the present situation, a reform has become even less likely. That’s why it’s so important that, at the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly, 140 countries denounced Russia’s war of aggression and showed that the United Nations’ heart is beating strong.
But the UN Security Council is permanently deadlocked. Has it failed?
Baerbock: Right now, the UN Security Council is obviously not working. This is because Russia is currently breaking all of the rules that this Security Council was created to defend. After all, being a permanent member of the UN Security Council and having veto power is not only a privilege, but also brings with it responsibility to maintain world peace. In Ukraine, Russia is doing the opposite: it is assaulting world peace. Even though the United Nations are currently not in good shape, it is now up to us to defend international law; if we didn’t, we would be playing Putin’s game. Almost every country in the world has a stronger neighbour. The overwhelming majority of states therefore wants a strong United Nations that protects international peace and the rules-based order.
In this situation, do you believe Putin may decide to attack Moldova?
Baerbock: That is something we can by no means rule out. And it is one of the reasons why we, the Federal Government, decided to supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons. If we don’t draw red lines for Putin, the next conflict could take place even closer to our own borders.
Is the war in Ukraine a blueprint for China’s aim to take Taiwan?
Baerbock: I wouldn’t make that direct comparison. China thinks on a different timescale, and it has other possibilities, especially from an economic standpoint. But if we didn’t stand with Ukraine now, we would signal to other aggressors in the world that we will look the other way if you launch an attack on your neighbour. And that’s precisely what we’re not doing.
Interview: Moritz Döbler and Holger Möhle