Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks about his trip to Ukraine in an interview published by Die Welt on 24 March 2014.
Mr Steinmeier, does the current situation remind you of the Cold War?
I am well aware of the danger of slipping into a new confrontation in the middle of Europe. But it’s not too late to prevent that from happening. I am delighted that our extraordinary diplomatic efforts within the OSCE succeeded in bringing about a decision to deploy a monitoring mission to Ukraine. The mission can help us to gain an objective perspective on events there, especially in southern and eastern Ukraine. This is an initial step towards de‑escalation, which is being supported by Moscow and Kyiv. Now we have to try to build on this initial small success. But make no mistake: the situation, especially in eastern Ukraine, is anything but stable. I was able to get a first-hand impression myself on Saturday in Donetsk. That’s why we are continuing to do everything in our power, in close cooperation with our partners, to defuse this extremely dangerous conflict.
What can an OSCE monitoring mission really accomplish?
For three days – and nights – we engaged in intense negotiations. We were close to a deal a number of times, but then negotiations broke down over minor details or shifts in the political climate. Chancellor Merkel spoke with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in Brussels, and OSCE Chair Didier Burkhalter was very actively involved in the process. I can’t even remember how many times I spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the phone. This makes me all the more pleased that it worked out in the end. This is the moment where the spiral of escalation has been interrupted for the first time since the onset of the crisis.
And what does that mean specifically?
For different reasons, both Russia and Ukraine have an interest in the deployment of monitors in Ukraine – Moscow more in the west, and Kyiv more in the eastern and southern parts of the country. For us, it was important that we can now counter intentionally spread rumours and politically motivated allegations with facts. We were able to negotiate such a large number of monitors that hardly anything going on across the whole country is likely to escape the mission’s notice. That in itself already helps to de‑escalate the situation.
What is Putin trying to achieve?
We cannot ignore the fact that Russia’s actions in Crimea violate the central foundations of the European framework for peace. I am greatly concerned that the attempt to redraw internationally recognised borders in our European neighbourhood – 25 years after the end of the Cold War and in violation of international law – will open up a Pandora’s box. I also wonder whether Russia, which is itself a multi-ethnic state, has thought the potential impact of its actions all the way through.
Putin has compared the annexation of Crimea with German reunification...
The comparison speaks for itself. Maybe it reveals the deeply ingrained phantom pain that some people in Moscow continue to feel more than 20 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. What many people experienced as liberation from the Communist yoke is perceived very differently by some people in Moscow.
Do Europeans have the means to prevent Russia from swallowing up other parts of the former Soviet Union?
That’s not the situation we’re in, and I hope that things don’t get to that point. But one thing is clear: if Russia should reach beyond Crimea, we Europeans will take decisive measures, even if we have to put up with economic disadvantages as a result.
What consequences would it have if Russia were to be excluded from the community of leading economic powers?
The G8 is one of the most effective bodies at the international level and constitutes an international forum for dialogue in which Europe, the United States and Russia have engaged in close cooperation. Proposals made by the G8 have repeatedly paved the way towards solutions to difficult international problems. This is a valuable resource that we shouldn’t frivolously place at risk. But Russia’s actions have caused cooperation with Russia within the framework of the G8 to be suspended – correctly – for the time being. It’s now up to Russia to decide if it wants to remain part of the club in the future.
German businesses are cautioning against sanctions...
I take such admonitions seriously. Economic sanctions always hurt both sides. And sanctions by themselves don’t constitute smart foreign policy. That’s why we have to remain level-headed, to think about how we want the conflict to end, and to shape our policies towards Russia in a way that does not lead to dangerous automatic reactions. In conflicts like these, even in an escalating crisis, it’s crucial to keep communication channels open and to keep holding up visible signs that say “off-ramp out of this conflict”. Only then can we avoid self‑made dead‑ends.
Is this crisis teaching us a lesson about the weakness of Europe and the West as a whole?
I see no weakness in the policies we are pursuing. It is good and important that Europe and the United States are closely coordinating their actions in this crisis. We’re sending clear messages, we’re reacting swiftly and coherently. At the same time, we remain willing to talk – and that’s true for both sides of the Atlantic. And make no mistake: in my view, it is by no means certain that the “Crimean undertaking” will turn out to be a success for Russia in the long run. Russia is already internationally isolated today. Even close allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States are keeping their distance from Moscow.
What is your advice to Kyiv?
The situation in Kyiv is extraordinarily complicated. I was able to get a sense of that myself during my talks there. The interim government has to hold the country together, prepare elections and stabilise the economic situation while simultaneously launching necessary domestic reforms. The talks I held in Kyiv and Donetsk gave me confidence. The political leaders there have clear ideas about how they want to stabilise their country. It’s an important sign that the EU and the IMF have already indicated that they are prepared to provide financial assistance to Ukraine. We’re also working on an action plan to provide Ukraine with practical assistance on top of that.
Forces of the far right were also involved in the toppling of the Ukrainian government. Is the West being naive about what is transpiring in Kyiv?
The vast majority of people on the Maidan were taking action in favour of democratic values. But we’re not turning a blind eye to the extremists on the margins. That’s why I again stated clearly to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in Kyiv that we expect the new political leadership in Kyiv to protect the rights and interests of all Ukrainians – regardless of their background, religion or language – and to distance itself from extremists. In any event, the attempt to suppress the Russian language was a mistake that the interim government has fortunately corrected.
Can Ukraine hope to join the European Union?
Ukraine has taken a first step towards Europe by signing the political provisions of the Association Agreement. Now the main priority is to stabilise the country, politically and economically. The European Union has offered extensive financial assistance for this purpose, and this is the issue that we should be concentrating on right now. It would be good if Russia would get involved in these efforts as well.
Interview conducted by Jochen Gaugele and Claudia Kade. Reproduced with the kind permission of Die Welt.