Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in an interview with the FAZ

13.09.2023 - Interview

Topics: Foreign Minister’s fourth visit to Ukraine since start of Russia’s war of aggression, European asylum policy, transatlantic relationship, situation in Sahel and Iran

Question: Foreign Minister, you’ve just visited Ukraine for the fourth time since the outbreak of the war. After reports from America about some critical voices regarding the Ukrainian offensive, things now seem to be slowly getting somewhere. How do you assess the situation?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: It would be presumptuous to believe I could assess the situation better than the Ukrainians themselves. It’s a fact that the Russian President wanted to march into Kyiv in full dress uniform more than 560 days ago. The courage and strength of the Ukrainians have prevented that. Now, Putin and his campaign of terror are stuck in the entrenchments in eastern Ukraine.

Question: It is difficult to tell whether Ukraine has the strength to keep building the pressure. In these circumstances, the calls for German Taurus cruise missiles are growing ever louder. When will they be answered?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: The Russian forces have laid a belt of mines that’s roughly the size of the former West Germany to cut off eastern Ukraine. For more than one and a half years, people in the occupied territories have been hiding in cellars for fear of being raped or killed. We don’t know how many people have already died of starvation or thirst because not even the International Red Cross is really getting into those areas. To liberate those people, the Ukrainian armed forces need to be able to overcome that enormous belt of mines. That will take weapons with the requisite range.

Question: Is this the same procedure as with the tanks: does Washington have to pledge ATACMS cruise missiles before we will deliver?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We coordinate closely with our partners and are the Ukraine’s second-greatest supporters, after the United States. But it is also true that, because of Germany’s previous policy towards Russia and mistakes like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, we have lost a lot of trust from eastern Europe. That’s why it’s so important to us that we not only announce things but that these also then work. So, as with the vital IRIS-T air-defence system or the Patriot system, we want to clear up every issue and have the systems ready to work perfectly for the Ukrainians.

Question: Is it important to you that the range of the missiles be restricted?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: If Ukraine wanted to, it could already fire missiles far beyond the border. But Ukraine has not attacked Russia, and it will not attack Russia. Ukraine is defending its territory. To do that, alongside cruise missiles, it continues to need huge amounts of air defence. My visit to the substation outside the gates of Kyiv was another reminder of the urgent need to protect electricity, water and heating supplies before the winter. My call to us and our partners is therefore this: we must put up a winter shield of air defence over Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

Question: What is that to look like in concrete terms?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We intend to add more in the area of IRIS-T in the months ahead. And we intend to advocate that our partners – even temporarily – hand over air-defence systems in view of the coming winter. German-made ammunition for Gepards is really starting to flow now as well.

Question: For Ukraine, prospects for the aftermath are important too. In part, that means war criminals being convicted. The internationalised tribunal you proposed, a Ukrainian court with international elements, has just been rejected by the Ukrainian foreign minister because it would not make it possible to prosecute Putin.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Charges have now been brought against Putin before the International Criminal Court, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to the abduction of children. We actively support that. Under applicable international criminal law, meaning the rules of the International Criminal Court, however, only those heads of state or government can be convicted of the core crime of conducting a war of aggression whose states have signed the Kampala Amendments to the Rome Statute. Russia has not done so; consequently, Putin cannot be charged with that crime. That needs to be changed. Changing it requires a majority of the States Parties – which I am working hard to drum up.

Question: The road towards amending the Rome Statute is a long one, which was why you proposed the internationalised tribunal. But if Kyiv’s wish is for a special tribunal, isn’t the idea dead in the water?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: That’s exactly why I made a two-pronged proposal. I’ve said this many times: even in brutal times such as these, we can’t just bend the law into shape. A special tribunal like that doesn’t just fall from the sky. And the UN General Assembly can’t simply override the UN Security Council. If the necessary overwhelming majority within the United Nations were in favour, we could even amend the Rome Statute. Then there would be no need for a special tribunal, as Putin could be charged before the International Criminal Court for the crime of aggression too. But that majority evidently does not yet exist, and that’s why I instead proposed an internationalised tribunal based on Ukrainian law with international support.

Question: Another prospect is EU membership. Ukraine is a candidate country, but some reforms are required. When President Zelensky talks about wanting to equate corruption with high treason in future – is that the progress you had in mind?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: I wouldn’t put it like that. But we are not the ones in such an appalling war. For us as member states of the European Union, it is important not to repeat the mistakes of the past. When it comes to accessions – however geopolitically important they are – there can be no short cuts on the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Corruption has greatly harmed Ukraine in the past. The situation requires not just laws but radical reforms. I am impressed at the intensity with which the country is going about it in the middle of a war.

Question: Before the EU takes on new members, it has to prove that it can reform itself. Do you think the EU is capable of that, in view of the long-debated reform of asylum policy?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: To my eyes, the enlargement of the European Union is the geopolitical consequence of Russia’s war of aggression in violation of international law. It would therefore be truly humiliating if Ukraine could get massive reforms sorted in the middle of a brutal war of aggression and the European Union couldn’t reform ourselves in good time. That means a common European asylum system, but it also means being capable of swift decision-making, particularly in connection with foreign and security policy. We have proved, in the face of the present war, that we are capable of acting swiftly. We need to spread that speed to other areas. The world won’t wait for Europe.

Question: The home affairs ministers have painfully thrashed out a compromise on the asylum system, but will it serve its purpose?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: If you’re not prepared to step out of your own comfort zone, you can’t expect other people to do it. A common European response will always be a compromise, will never be perfect. But if we don’t find a common European response, particularly on the migration issue, others will exploit those gaps. They will be the people who want to destroy Europe, those for whom every person’s human dignity is not inviolable. That’s why I’m keen to reach a common solution, grounded in solidarity, hopefully before the European elections.

Question: Ukraine is claiming another prospect in connection with its security. NATO membership is not imminent, but the G7 have agreed to form security partnerships. Some G7 countries are already in talks with Kyiv, but Germany isn’t – why?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We are in the middle of the process, but Kyiv can’t negotiate with everyone at the same time. After all, the partnerships need to dovetail. We are taking the same coordinated approach to this security partnership with which we have delivered our military support.

Question: What will the German package look like?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We’re working with our partners on an insurance policy for peace for Ukraine which combines the short, medium and long-term views. It includes the country’s road towards the European Union and NATO as well as direct weapons deliveries for self-defence and medium-term economic support extending to reconstruction. In very concrete terms, for example, during my visit to Kyiv the initial steps were signed for a wind farm in the former Chernobyl exclusion zone, and greater coordination between Ukrainian and European electricity grids was discussed.

Question: When it comes to supporting Ukraine during and after the war, the United States is indispensable. But election season is approaching over there, and help for Ukraine is disputed among Republicans. What does that uncertainty entail?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Russia’s war of aggression also set off a new chapter in transatlantic relations between Europe and the United States; we are even closer now. That’s not limited to intergovernmental relations alone – though it is of course true that the Federal Chancellor and President Biden get on very well. And I, too, greatly value my trustful collaboration with my US counterpart, Antony Blinken. Trust, person-to-person contact, is priceless, especially in times of crisis.

Question: But will we be prepared if things take a different turn in Washington again? After Kyiv, you are travelling straight on to the United States.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: The transatlantic friendship has no subscription to a political party. We are not naive, but nor will we let ourselves get wound up. That’s why I’ll be travelling not only to Washington but to Texas as well: a state which, today, is already a yardstick for the America of tomorrow – a state which has one foot still in the old oil world but the other one in renewables in a really big way. A state which has a diverse population but also has worrying disintegrative forces on its fringes. A state, in short, where you can see and learn a lot.

Question: The central point of Trump’s criticism was burden-sharing, broken down to the NATO two-percent target. Shouldn’t we be doing everything possible to prevent any doubt about our pledges, rather than just pointing to the special fund and talking about the “average over several years”?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: That is exactly what we are doing with the watershed moment. The commitment of our National Security Strategy is that we will invest at least two percent of our gross domestic product in our country’s defensive capabilities. But rather than inefficiently fragmenting things so as to hit exactly 2 percent each year, averaging out over several years is surely much more efficient. Simultaneously, I always point out to our American partners that burden-sharing in this war of aggression on Ukraine also involves millions of people finding refuge in Europe. A million of them are in Germany, where they work, their children attend school and everyone can go to the doctor’s – notoriously not something everyone can take for granted in the United States. We are shouldering that too. So during my trip to the United States, I also intend to talk about how our common yardstick when talking about Ukraine needs to be an accurate picture of all the support. And on that score, Germany and Europe really don’t need to hang our heads.

Question: In the last few months, Berlin has been doing a lot to keep the number of states that disown Russia’s war of aggression high. The G20 summit at the weekend showed how hard it is to get the emerging economies on board. The price was a watered-down declaration that Ukraine has complained about. Isn’t that a very high price?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We need to stay accurate on this. I recently experienced the opposite. When the war broke out, I spent a lot of time phoning around, and what I often heard was, “What has this war got to do with us, and where were you when we needed you?” I scarcely hear that any more. It has been clear for a long time now that this war is something else, namely an attack on the international community. Anyone who conducts a war by abducting and brainwashing children has lost all vestiges of humanity. But in a format where the final declaration needs to be signed by China and Russia too, the language is going to sound like what we now have.

Question: The language sounded clearer at last year’s summit in Bali.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: The problem was solved differently in Bali. The line there was, “Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”. And it wasn’t just China and Russia back then. This year, the text has everyone’s backing. That shows that China’s position has shifted slightly. China is no longer making itself an outsider alongside Russia. South Africa and Brazil are also seeing the dire consequences of Russia’s war. As a result, we have a text in which even Russia implicitly recognises that this war is having enormous global consequences. The document also says “war”, not “conflict”. The fact that I’m so focused on individual words may suggest to readers how difficult international crisis diplomacy is in times of war. Each word is argued over.

Question: In your speeches, you call for Germany’s foreign policy to be more active and self-determined, to go ahead and not to crumple when it encounters headwind. But what’s happening in the Sahel right now, in the Niger and in Mali, would be better described as a storm. What do we do now?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We strive to be there when others need us – particularly when storms hit. The comfortable old position would have been to say that there’s nothing we Germans can do anyway. But now, we as Europeans are standing by the democracies of West Africa. We are supporting ECOWAS, as West Africa’s regional organisation, to prevent even more democracies being swept away by coups. We are helping to ensure that migration and terrorism don’t destabilise other states.

Question: The Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, gave a speech in which she quoted a leader from the Global South saying that he liked our values, but if he went with the Chinese, he got an airport; if we went with us, he got lectures. Doesn’t sound good for us?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We have a proverb with the same sentiment: fine words will butter no parsnips. That’s why values-led foreign policy primarily needs to be active foreign policy. For a long time, the Federal Foreign Office had a standing order for how ambassadors should conduct themselves at conferences. It said that the most important thing was that we should not go it alone. What that leads to, though, is that you can make life very easy for yourself by saying, “There’s no majority for our position, so we’ll do nothing for now.” But if nobody does anything to stand up for not only our values but the United Nations’ values, then ultimately nothing gets done. And then there will be no-one to help us when we need it one day.

Question: In Iran, it’s the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. Many people in that country, especially women, could have done with our help as well.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: That’s why I and our partners in the EU launched the first-ever package of human rights sanctions that targets those who so brutally trample the rights of women and children under foot in Iran. A year after the protest movement began, we are still standing by the people in Iran in their courageous fight for freedom and self-determination. At the moment, we are working towards adding to the list of those sanctioned by that package, and at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, we have seen to it that the UN is setting up an independent mechanism to investigate and build cases around the human rights violations in Iran so that those responsible can be brought to justice. That is real foreign-policy drudgery. As dreadful as it sometimes is to endure, just like in Russia or Afghanistan, we can’t change the regime from the outside.

Question: Why are the revolutionary guards not yet listed as terrorists, as many politicians have urged?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: I have noticed that some people make it very easy for themselves in the Iran debate in Germany, such as when listing the Iranian revolutionary guards as terrorists is sold as a panacea. Yes, such a label would have symbolic power. In practice though, the question is whether they can be listed in such a way that will stand up in court. And the Legal Service of the EU Council, which is responsible for such matters, has come to the conclusion that this will not be possible right now and that European courts would overturn such a decision because that legal form depends on domestic investigation of terrorism offences. I have already explained this in the Bundestag to the CDU/CSU, who keep on calling for it. Moreover, the revolutionary guards have been listed by the EU for many years in a way that will stand up in court, namely under the weapons of mass destruction sanctions regime. In terms of scope, those sanctions go significantly further than the EU terrorist list. I think we need to look at the realities carefully, centre our focus on the courageous people in Iran and then support them in ways that actually help them. Ideas that sound good but don’t change anything in practice help no-one – least of all the women in Iran.

Interview: Matthias Wyssowa


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