Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the meeting of members of the German-Russian Forum, Berlin, 19 March 2014

20.03.2014 - Speech

– Translation of advance text –

Mr von Studnitz,
Mr Platzeck, my dear friend Matthias,
Ms Nemirovskaya,
Members of the Steering Committee of the Petersburg Dialogue,
Governor Morosov,
Members of the German-Russian Forum,
Distinguished guests,

It was with great pleasure that I accepted this invitation to address you. Unfortunately, in the light of current events I do not believe that my speech will be too upbeat.

I am delighted to be here – even if I, just like everyone else here today – would have wished a different political environment for this event. The last few days and weeks have been difficult and I fear that the coming weeks and months, perhaps even years, will continue to be difficult. Especially during trying times, we need people who care about relations between these two countries – and I know that many of them are members of the German-Russian Forum.

You – and especially I – could not have imagined that almost 70 years after the end of the Second World War and 25 years after the end of the Cold War, we would be facing a new division in Europe which could only lead to a breakdown in communication, misunderstandings and new conflicts. In the light of our difficult shared history, we – Germans and Russians – must never allow that to happen again!

The German-Russian Forum believes that it has a historical responsibility. Its role has always been to foster understanding between our two peoples. Mr von Studnitz, you have made an important contribution towards this during the last 11 years. I recall many encounters during these 11 years, much joint work – often work in the face of considerable scepticism among the public – ups and downs, as well as the fact that people in our countries have moved closer together. Under your chairmanship, this German-Russian Forum has played a crucial part in this. Allow me to name the German-Russian Social Forum as one example, a forum for exchanging ideas and experiences in the social sector, which, Mr von Studnitz, you initiated in 2011. I am certain that you will continue to work hard to promote German-Russian understanding, even if you are now handing over the baton to Matthias Platzeck.

Matthias, you are taking on this task at a truly difficult time. However, I cannot think of anyone better suited to steering the Forum through the troubled waters ahead. You have been familiar with Russia, its people and its culture for a long time. You are prepared to engage with this country without ignoring, let alone talking down the problems. You have a clear view not only of the differences between Russia and us but also of what links us. At the same time, however, you set great store by nuances and you understand them. That will be crucial in the time ahead. In the interest of us all, I hope that you will succeed at the helm of the German-Russian Forum in overcoming the now more pronounced dividing lines between us – those which we believed were a thing of the past as well as new ones which have emerged in the last few weeks.

But before we examine those matters which are making our work more difficult at present, we come now to the pleasant part of this event: this evening we are presenting the Dr Friedrich Joseph Haass Award to Elena Nemirovskaya.

Ms Nemirovskaya, you established the Moscow School of Political Studies, now known as the Moscow School of Civic Education, in 1992. Immediately after the demise of the Soviet Union, you did pioneering work for a democratic and critical culture of debate in your country. To date, more than 20,000 Russians have taken part in your programmes. Your commitment, your courage and your pragmatism, often under difficult political conditions, have helped ensure that today there are many people – especially young people – in Russia who look to the world with a free and open mind and discuss frankly. For that, you deserve not only great recognition but also the thanks of each and every one of us.

The Moscow School of Political Studies and the German-Russian Forum: both were established a little over 20 years ago, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as a new spirit of optimism swept through Europe. Today, this spirit has vanished. The current general mood is quite the opposite: Right now, Europe is experiencing a crisis that can certainly be called the most severe since the end of the Cold War. At stake is nothing less than a key building block of the foundation of European peace. If we do not pay very close attention, we risk losing the progress our societies have achieved and enjoyed since the end of the East-West conflict.

I will posit that, during the past 25 years, stakeholders on both sides – in Russia and in Germany, in Russia and within the EU – have not always chosen the right course of action. We have not avoided making mistakes. However, this cannot be used as a justification. One thing must be clear: The attempt to redraw borders seven decades after the end of the Second World War is in violation of international law, and the political consequences – also for a multi-ethnic state such as Russia – have not yet fully emerged. This attempt opens Pandora’s box, and it sets a dreadfully bad example. Ultimately, it may even encourage present-day borders to be called into question. During my travels in recent weeks, for example to Hungary and to the Baltic region, one thing became vividly clear, and the angst was genuine: What happened in Crimea has awakened bad memories and is fuelling new fear among Russia’s neighbours.

I think that Russia cannot ignore this – just like we cannot ignore the fact that Russia has always had, and always will have, a special relationship with Ukraine. Russia has very close ties with Ukraine, closer than many in the West have been willing to admit. When looking at history, traditions, language, or economic and cultural ties: Russian aspects in this country are manifold and run deep.

And it can certainly not be taken for granted that, last week, none other than the US Secretary of State – in the middle of the conflict, at the height of efforts to find a political solution – said to his Russian counterpart: ‘Although we cannot accept your actions, we see the interests you hold with regard to Ukraine’.

It is the same understanding that, six years ago, in my speech at the University of Kyiv, motivated me to say: It is wrong, both for Russia and for the West, to force Ukraine to make an “either–or” decision, between the East and the West. That is not in keeping with the history of this country. This way of thinking will not hold in a world that no longer functions according to the geopolitical categories of the 20th century.

The Cold War is over, and 21st-century logic is based on cooperation, not on confrontation. The reasoning underlying the Helsinki process implies that no single country, and this includes Russia, may launch a military intervention to protect its minority populations in another country. So this is really a step backwards. To provide precisely such protection – the protection this action supposedly aims to achieve – we have jointly developed various instruments, including the OSCE and the Council of Europe. All of us are members of these bodies: Russia, Germany and Ukraine.

During the past three weeks, I have made every effort to abide by the spirit of Helsinki. We did not fool ourselves – neither about the dimension of the conflict nor about the determination of Russia’s leadership. However, we remained fully convinced that everything possible must be done to prevent the emergence of an even greater conflict – because we know how much is at stake. And we repeatedly told Moscow that Russia is putting itself at greatest risk if, through its actions, it continues down the path of political and economic isolation.

These fears, and knowing what is at stake, are behind our choice to remain fully engaged with a view to finding political solutions.

We chose to persistently seek political solutions, rather than to issue loudmouthed, albeit ineffective statements. We accepted that our diplomatic efforts may miss the mark, taking the risk that we may be seen to fail in public. This was a difficult choice to make, and it does expose us to criticism.

Nevertheless, it is the only way that we can live up to our responsibility. I for one could never forgive myself if we did not seek out and use every diplomatic tool at our disposal, for as long as possible, with a view to finding a solution.

This holds true even in the current situation, in which we must admit that we have not yet reached our goal. The Russian leadership was too determined to separate Crimea from Ukraine. From their perspective, it mattered little that this action was unanimously criticised both in the UN Security Council and in the Council of Europe, and that Russia has been isolated.

As foreign ministers of the European Union, we had to react. We did so on Monday. To the greatest possible extent, I campaigned for a course of action that was both resolute and wise.

These days, my position, and the German foreign policy position, is as follows:

First, our message must be absolutely clear, without any ambiguity! Our Russian counterparts must understand how we view Russia’s policy. And they must also know that, in our assessment, Sunday’s referendum is not in line with the Ukrainian constitution, and that the active pursuit of Crimea’s secession from Ukraine violates international law.

Second, Europe must stand as one and issue a common reply. Russia knows that, if splits were to arise within Europe on such a key issue, this would put an end to Europe’s common foreign policy before it ever began.

Third, possible reactions may include measures that – although harming us – would demonstrate that we cannot accept the continuation of a policy that divides and splits up Ukraine, or that seeks to transpose the action taken in Crimea to other countries in Eastern Europe. Do not be mistaken: If Russia were to pursue this foreign policy, we would support taking strong action, even if this were to bring economic disadvantages for us.

But that does not need to happen!

Imposing sanctions is not an end in itself, and isolation does not constitute a policy!

That is why our position at this difficult time also includes the following: not letting us be driven by expectations communicated in the media, or allowing us to be steered by emotions. As difficult as it may seem, we must stay level-headed and give thought to the possible consequences of our actions, by approaching this conflict from the potential outcome.

Anyone doing so will realise that, given the tense situation, we must avoid automatisms and dead ends. They will realise that, even when a conflict escalates, an exit to this vicious circle must always be possible. We must ensure that this option remains open.

My efforts are not driven by illusion, as one could read in a large German Sunday paper last weekend. Rather, I am motivated by the conviction that we must not let the cooperative, peaceful European order that we have achieved and nourished fall victim again to confrontational, 19th century logic. That is why the diplomatic efforts undertaken in Paris, Rome, Geneva, Berne, London, Brussels and everywhere else with the aim of de-escalating the situation have not been in vain, but absolutely justified – even though they did not bring about the success we were hoping for.

My conclusion is the following: Russia now bears great responsibility! A visible sign that there will be no further escalation is long overdue.

We need a statement by Vladimir Putin that he is against any splitting of Ukraine – an unmistakable message to that effect was lacking in the speech he gave yesterday in the Kremlin. There must be a clear declaration that Russia has no territorial interests beyond Crimea.

The Russian president must not only say this, but also deliver proof – by agreeing to the sending of an OSCE mission to Ukraine. We need an observer mission for all of Ukraine, above all in parts of the country that the international community is currently concerned about, in the east and the south. That is the only way the international community, including Russia, can monitor developments and not lose control of the situation. We need this mission right now – within the next 24 hours. Only if it is sent immediately can it prevent a turn for the worse. In two or three weeks it would be too late, the situation may have deteriorated by then.

Second – and this is not a request, but what I expect: Russia must work together with the EU to stabilise Ukraine’s economy. Stabilisation is of course in the interest of all Ukrainians. But it is also in our own interest, in the interest of Europe and Russia! The European Commission and the IMF are currently preparing financial assistance. Joint action with Russia would be very important, and would send a meaningful signal.

We, for our part, must do what we can to ensure that the principles contained in the 21 February agreement become part of Ukrainian policy.

Here, too, we are not under any illusions. The country faces enormous political and economic challenges: rampant corruption, massive structural deficiencies – all this can only be solved within the course of a generation.

However, we have clear expectations of Ukraine: First, the government in Kyiv must gear its policy toward all regions of Ukraine. Second, it must seriously set to work on drafting a new constitution. Third, all sides must join in the effort to fully investigate the crimes that were committed on the Maidan. Fourth, the government must clearly distance itself from extremist groups. These are the benchmarks which any future Ukrainian leadership must meet.

Without a doubt, Russian-European relations, and Russian-German relations, are in a deep crisis. Rifts that for many years we believed had been closed are opening up again. Let me assure you: That is not what we want! This is why EU sanctions have intentionally been designed to keep the door open for political solutions.

But it is time for Russia to send a signal – right now! This must be done to keep the situation from further escalating, and from reaching a point of no return.

I remain deeply convinced that security in and for Europe can only be achieved jointly with, and not against, Russia. This still holds true, despite the current crisis. The aim of a common space, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, remains the right one. In recent weeks, it has become far more elusive than I would have liked. But I believe that in Russia, too, many people still share this wish.

In the near future, relations at a high political level will remain strained by the Ukraine conflict. No matter how hard we try, this problem will be in our midst, and neither side will be able to return to business as usual.

However, people in both our countries – and this is the impression I have gained from many letters that have reached me – are afraid of Russia and Germany drifting apart. What is more: They do not want our hard-won rapprochement to be lost. We have managed to learn so much about one another, about each other’s history, culture, views and prejudices. Ties have been nurtured between Russians and Germans at a very personal level. Our people do not want this progress to erode, or for us to start drifting apart.

That is why we now more than ever need people in our two countries who can build bridges, and help us connect with one another, also in difficult political times. Thank goodness the number of these bridge-builders has increased.

To conclude, therefore, I would simply like to say: Matthias, Mr von Studnitz, Ms Nemirovskaya, distinguished guests:

We need you – more than ever!

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