In the run-up to his talks in Moscow, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave an interview to the Russian news agency Interfax on Wednesday (23 March). The interview focused on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and on German-Russian relations.
Mr Steinmeier, Russia has decided to withdraw most of its air forces from Syria. What is your assessment of this move by the Kremlin? How does Berlin view the idea of Syrian federalisation, which has been actively discussed recently? Does Berlin demand that Syrian President Assad step down immediately? Would the German Government agree to Assad staying in power for a longer transitional period? There are reports that the United States is leaning towards the latter option as a compromise.
Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria can lend new impetus to the peace talks in Geneva. I hope that Damascus will use this opportunity to negotiate seriously on a peaceful political transition process, one that safeguards Syria’s statehood and the chance of peaceful co-existence among the various population groups.
The Syrians need to agree on their country’s political future at the negotiating table. Regardless of who is in the future government, peace and stability will only come about if they meet with broad acceptance throughout Syria. In view of the 250,000 fatalities and the 12 million refugees, I personally cannot imagine that Assad, of all people, would receive the necessary acceptance from all population groups.
Do you view this decision by Russia as positive from the point of view of returning refugees to Syria? Do you hope to discuss the migration crisis during your visit to Moscow? Is it possible to establish closer interaction on this issue with Russia?
Despite significant progress on the ceasefire, we have not got to that stage yet, as hundreds of thousands of people in Syria are still cut off from food and medical supplies. If it is possible to consolidate the ceasefire, to deliver supplies to people in all parts of Syria and to make progress in the peace talks, this could in fact lead to a reduction in the flows of refugees. We will only achieve these goals together. Russia’s influence on the Assad regime plays a very important role in this.
Do you think that the positive experience of interaction between Russia and the West on overcoming the conflict in Syria could have a positive impact on prospects for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine?
We need each other – not least in order to overcome the major conflicts in our neighbourhood. That was the case with Iran; it is the case with Syria; and of course it is also the case with Ukraine.
However, we cannot be satisfied with the situation in Ukraine or with the outcome of the last Normandy format meeting between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine. The Minsk agreements lay down a clear road map for a political settlement to the conflict. But we have by no means made as much progress as one would hope and desire. We now need rapid progress as regards security and upholding the ceasefire. And the same goes for the political process, including constitutional reform.
What way out can you see in the situation with local elections in Ukraine, given the fact that Kyiv is likely to fail to carry out the constitutional reform that would permanently establish the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics? Will Germany, as a Normandy format party, be ready to act as guarantor of the special status in the Constitution and to exert pressure on Kyiv on this issue?
During my last visit to Kyiv with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, it became clear that stabilising the security situation in eastern Ukraine is a very important element, also as regards making progress in the political process, including work on a law on local elections. Security and the political process ultimately go hand in hand. We urgently need to make progress in both areas. Time is running out. The local elections in eastern Ukraine cannot be put off forever. They are a fundamental prerequisite for finally bringing peace to eastern Ukraine and ensuring that democratically elected representatives, who are accepted by the people, can do their work.
Does Berlin support Kyiv’s idea of drawing up a list of sanctions against Russian officials involved in the trial against Nadiya Savchenko, similar to the Magnitsky list? President Poroshenko has said that Ukraine is holding talks with Brussels and Washington on this issue.
We are keeping a very close eye on developments in this case. Among other things, we are concerned about Ms Savchenko’s state of health. I hope that all those involved in this case will soon reach agreement on a humanitarian solution.
Does the EU’s adoption of five principles for further relations with Russia mean that the EU has revised its concept of relations with Russia and that a return to the cooperation that existed prior to the Ukrainian crisis is no longer possible? Do you support Polish Foreign Minister Waszczykowski’s idea of inviting Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to Brussels to discuss Russian-EU relations?
Russia is by far the EU’s largest neighbour. Good neighbourly relations are in the interests of both sides. After the experiences of the 20th century, we Germans in particular bear a responsibility to keep finding channels of communication and solutions to conflicts. We do this on many levels and in a large number of forums. I personally am in close and regular contact with my counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
At the same time, we must acknowledge the fact that there are differences between the EU and Russia, as well as between Germany and Russia, on some important issues at the moment. We need to work together to resolve them. The governments are called upon here, but civil society can also play an important role. This is why it is so important that we continue to foster the millions of contacts between Germany and Russia in society, culture, business and politics, for example through the German-Russian Year of Youth Exchange in 2016/17, of which my counterpart Sergey Lavrov and I will be patrons, or through a university agreement between the Association of Leading Universities of Russia and the German Academic Exchange Service. In this way, we will ensure that future generations can also continue to foster these ties and perhaps find new ways to engage with each other.
Italy, Hungary, Cyprus and Greece oppose the automatic extension of EU sanctions against Russia. Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni recently said that Berlin and Paris’s assessments of the implementation of the Minsk agreements to resolve the Ukraine crisis will be crucial as regards making a decision on extending the sanctions. What is your forecast on this issue? Is it possible that a decision to ease the sanctions or to lift them partially or completely will be made this June? And if so, on what conditions?
The more progress we make on implementing the Minsk agreements, the sooner we can talk about easing the sanctions. This is why we should now focus our efforts on implementing the Minsk agreements as quickly as possible. An immediate and permanent improvement in the security situation is particularly important for the people.
What is the German Government’s current position on Nord Stream 2? Is Berlin capable of providing political support to the project at the European Commission level? How would you describe economic relations with Russia in general?
Europe needs a safe, diversified and affordable gas supply. Russia was always a reliable energy partner for us – including during difficult times. The Nord Stream 2 project is currently being discussed in depth between the companies involved and the European Commission. And of course we are also taking part in this discussion, which involves many difficult legal and political issues that need to be resolved.
Our economic ties with Russia remain very close. Obviously, the sanctions have an adverse effect on these relations, but equally so does the impact of the severe recession in the Russian economy. I am pleased that most German companies are continuing to work with Russia despite this difficult environment. This shows an expectation that trade between us will gather momentum once again. And this is what we should work on.
You personally advocated reopening channels of communication and a hotline between Russia and NATO a year ago in Volgograd. Is NATO now preparing to resume the NATO-Russia Council format? When could a meeting in this format take place and what issues would be on its agenda? Has Germany given up the idea of deploying upgraded US nuclear bombs on its territory? Is Berlin not afraid of Russia’s extremely negative reaction to this? Moscow has already warned about this, and Russia’s Kaliningrad region is not far away from Germany.
Practical cooperation between NATO and Russia was suspended in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but the political channels of communication have remained open, for example between Foreign Minister Lavrov and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. I welcome the fact that a meeting could take place soon at ambassador level in the NATO-Russia Council. Nothing is worse than a lack of communication – and this goes for security policy in particular.