“Those dead schoolgirls in Ukraine. That could have been us”.
These are the words of an 18-year-old Estonian pupil who I met in a grammar school in Tallinn in April.
Her words were fresh in my mind when I visited Bucha three weeks later on 10 May. A town on the outskirts of Kyiv, just as Potsdam is on the outskirts of Berlin.
“That could have been us” – this emotion shook me to the core in Bucha.
This has been the emotion of the pupil from Tallinn from the very first second of this brutal Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. To comprehend this, you need to bear in mind that she grew up differently than an 18-year-old in Berlin, Bochum or Braunschweig.
She was born in 2004, the year in which Estonia and nine other Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union. After decades of being divided into East and West, this was a joyful moment in our shared European history. And for us Germans, it seemed a foregone conclusion that this generation embodying a new EU would grow up in prosperity, freedom and peace.
From the point of view of many citizens and also many young people from Central and Eastern Europe, 2004 above all signified a promise: you are safe!
After all, on the one hand, efforts to come to terms with the suppression, deportation and dictatorship continue in these countries to this day.
It was the call for historical truth that mobilised people in the Baltic states even before 1989. After the end of the Cold War, people were finally free to talk about and remember what had happened. And the scars left by the crimes committed in the Soviet era are yet to heal in people’s collective memory.
On the other, the feeling of being threatened by Russia was never completely erased in Central and Eastern Europe, even before 24 February. Your country, Urmas, was the target of one of Europe’s most serious cyber attacks as early as 2007. You know what it means when trolls try to divide an entire society.
Looking at Lithuania, you can understand this immediate threat. At the Suwalki Gap, the only land connection between the Baltic states and the other NATO Allies. A 65-kilometre strip between Belarus and Russia.
When I was in Lithuania in April and looked at the map, I understood even better what this sentence means: “That could have been us”. There, the horror of the Russian tanks was and remains palpable.
Our Eastern neighbours thus share a profound craving for security. A security that we sometimes took all too much for granted in post-1990 Germany and a security in which we as a result invested too little.
Many of us in Germany thought the European peace union, the security promise of 2004, had just fallen into our laps. Our Eastern neighbours know what it means to truly be able to live in peace. They know that you also have to invest in this peace.
And that is why I can well understand that the pupil had a second question, even though it made my heart ache. She asked, “Can we rely on Germany?”
This is a question I hear time and again. Not just from Eastern European pupils but also from my Estonian and Polish counterparts.
And I also heard this question when I met 87-year old Wanda Traczyk-Stawska on 3 October at the Warsaw Insurgents Cemetery for the fallen of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
She survived the Uprising. But she had taken up arms to protect herself from the horrors of the National Socialists. She, too, asked, “Can we rely on Germany? Can we trust that the Federal Republic of Germany will protect our Ukrainian friends and neighbours who are now having to experience what we experienced in 1944? That Germany, that you, will continue to protect these people even if the winter is a harsh one?”
I am mentioning this here because these are questions which move me deeply – as Foreign Minister but also as a German citizen, as a mother, as a human being and because I as Foreign Minister have a responsibility.
To ensure we can do more than just respond with a simple yes, I am working on building trust so that 18-year-olds do not need to ask the next German Foreign Minister the same question.
And that is why I am saying in all clarity here in Berlin what I said in Tallinn, what I said in Warsaw and again yesterday at the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg: yes, we are there for you. The Baltic states’ and Eastern Europe’s security is Germany’s security! We will defend every square centimetre of our Allied territory if need be.
And yes, we will also continue to support Ukraine intensively with arms. For we are not only supplying Ukraine with armaments in order to save lives, but, I hope, also to demonstrate our trust and solidarity.
And at the same time I have the hope that younger generations from our countries will find it easier to realise that and to stand shoulder to shoulder. After all, as many of you will have experienced in recent months, families are talking today about European security as they eat their dinner in Germany.
Today, a fourth-grader says she is happy to be in NATO. Her grandmother sitting beside here takes a deep breath perhaps because she remembers how she took to the streets in 1980 to protest about the arms race.
But today, the fourth-grader and her grandmother share the sentiment that people in Central and Eastern Europe have long experienced, namely that our security is fragile. That peace is precious and that we at the same time can be grateful to live in a union of peace in NATO and above all else in the European Union.
The shockwaves that have permeated our security will shape the German and European identity for decades – and we will shape this identity with active policy-making.
The results of the Körber Foundation survey on German foreign policy are very interesting here. Even if many people – 52 percent in our country – want Germany to play a restrained role, 74 percent of those interviewed believe the Bundeswehr should be deployed to protect our Allies.
Today, in this situation, most people in Europe, in Germany, know what is at stake. In this situation, we need to let our greatest strength prevail: our European cohesion, our solidarity with those who need our support.
After all, solidarity is not an end in itself. It is the cornerstone of our joint security. This European solidarity is our life insurance. That is why it also forms the basis of our future common security policy. That is what we laid down in the NATO Strategic Concept and at the Summit in Madrid. And it is also reflected in our National Security Strategy which we in the Federal Foreign Office, as lead ministry, are currently drawing up for the Federal Government.
The backbone of our future security policy is the security of our lives, our freedom and the security for the fundamental necessities of our lives.
That is why we are realigning our European and transatlantic defence capabilities.
I would like to focus on three points.
Firstly, that we will continue to support Ukraine – politically, economically, with humanitarian measures and armaments. After all, as it fights for survival, Ukraine is also defending European freedom.
And yes, if you look at the opinion polls today compared to February or March, questions are being voiced more loudly. And we are hearing flippant remarks: Why don’t you get a move on with negotiating? We don’t need to worry about each and every corner of Ukraine. Do we not need to be a bit more ready to compromise so that we finally get peace?“
But let me say here loud and clear – while it is important for us to have controversial discussions particularly at this time, while indeed this is the defining feature of strong democracies: to my mind this naive approach fell short as early as 2014. We have seen after all that the annexation of Crimea and what happened in Donbas were only a prelude to what has been unfolding in Ukraine since 24 February: further efforts to subjugate Ukraine entirely – the Russian President is making no bones about it.
And let’s look at the situation once more: although half the world has done everything to re-establish peace in recent months; has worked to ensure the horror of this war finally ends; although half the world is begging the Russian President to finally withdraw his troops, he is at this time not recruiting negotiators but more soldiers to make further inroads into Ukraine.
We are seeing that these men, most of whom are being sent into this war against their will, that these Russian soldiers and fighters are not bringing peace to Ukraine. Particularly in eastern Ukraine, they are bringing the most horrendous crimes: raped women, abducted children, fatal shots being fired at a mayor distributing bread to his people, fatal shots fired at a conductor who does not want to make music with the occupiers.
That is why we will continue to support the Ukrainians in their efforts to liberate their people for as long as is necessary.
And that is why I say loud and clear that a victor’s peace is no peace for the people of eastern Ukraine.
Secondly, we are equipping the Bundeswehr in such a way that it can be there as part of NATO to bring security to the people of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius or Warsaw should it prove necessary. This includes better coordinating European armaments cooperation as part of the European pillar of NATO.
Currently we have so many different types of transportation vehicles in NATO and the EU that we are not even able to operate a shared pool of spare parts. To put it plainly, we should therefore not see European armaments cooperation as a joint economic project between various European nation-states but first and foremost as an instrument for shared security. And that is what we are working on.
Thirdly, we continue to stand up to Russian aggression.
With the sham referendums in the occupied territories, President Putin made abundantly clear that he is not looking for a way back. That is why for Europe, this is not a matter of security with Putin’s Russia but of security against Putin’s Russia.
Thanks to our presence in Lithuania, we can deploy several thousand soldiers of our brigade to NATO’s north-eastern flank within ten days. We are providing Eurofighters for air policing in Estonia and Patriots for Slovakia.
Yesterday in Luxembourg, we decided together that we can and will train 15,000 soldiers from Ukraine. Some in Poland, some in Germany where one of the headquarters will be. We are making plain that we are there for one another. We can rely on one another. And at the same time it is clear that we are in the midst of a hybrid war, that we are in the midst of rivalry between systems, between democracies and autocratic regimes. That is why a large part of our National Security Strategy and our work in the European Union and in NATO will consist of working to increase our shared resilience, working to ensure together that our infrastructure and networks are better protected.
The explosions at the pipelines on our shores show how vulnerable we are there. That is why we decided in NATO as a first step to do more to protect our underwater infrastructure.
Hundreds of thousands of kilometres of networks – whether telecommunications, electricity or railway tracks – are there to protect. And it is obvious that we cannot promise 100-percent security and protection for hundreds of thousands of kilometres.
With 34,000 kilometres of tracks in Germany alone, it is clear that we cannot watch every section around the clock. But we can ensure that the nodal points are monitored. And we can ensure that response chains work in such a way that no-one is harmed in the case of incidents or attacks. And we saw how well this can work just a few days ago. No-one was harmed and trains were running again after just a few hours.
All of these steps help make Europe safer. But we will only be able to guarantee our freedom in the long term if we think beyond the borders of our continent. If we face up to the rivalry between those who believe in international law and international cooperation on the one hand and authoritarian regimes on the other – also in the interest of countries in other parts of our world.
That means we need to learn first from the mistakes made in our policy on Russia in recent decades. I want to say very clearly that one-sided economic dependency makes us open to political blackmail.
When it comes to Russia, that’s water under the bridge. We could talk at length about who warned whom when. Indeed our Eastern European friends have long been issuing such warnings. But we did not listen. We now need to be sure not to make the same mistake again. And that means we will have to take more account of this also in our policy towards China. That is why part of our National Security Strategy will be Germany’s first strategy on China which, needless to say, will be firmly rooted in Europe’s China strategy.
And we will make plain our realisation that no matter where we fail to take action, where we as European partners with shared values fail to stand by partners who share our values in the world, others are all too happy to step in to fill the vacuum – whether in the Western Balkans or in eastern Africa.
That does not just hold true for security in the sense of defence policy issues. The vast majority of countries in our world say loud and clear that the greatest security risk is the climate crisis. And that is why the question as to how we support other countries in their efforts to deal with this climate crisis is a highly geopolitical question and the ultimate security question for the coming decades.
Our message to our partners around the globe is the same message that we send to our Eastern European friends and neighbours: we are there for you. We are presenting you with strong and fair offers because we want to find solutions together and reflect the interests of all those involved and not create new, brutal dependencies.
That is why technical terms such as Global Gateway are to my mind central to our future cooperation. I hope and am pleased that this will also be the focus of intensive discussion as the day progresses.
After all, solidarity and cooperation are not an end in themselves. With the fight against the climate crisis, with our shared energetic stand to ease the food crisis, our commitment to international law, we are supporting our partners. But we are above all else protecting our primordial security interests.
Ladies and gentlemen, the former Czech President Vaclav Havel once said that in the part of the world he inhabited the word solidarity was capable of shaking an entire power bloc.
It was the solidarity of people who back then wanted to live in freedom and security instead of under Soviet dictatorship. It was also the solidarity of the people in Prague and Warsaw and it was the courage of the freedom movements in the Baltic states that forged the way for German reunification.
Solidarity is Europe’s response to the brutal Russian war of aggression. Together we are stronger than this war. Thank you very much.