No return to business as usual

15.04.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Steinmeier in an interview with Die Zeit about the crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s role and whether sanctions make sense. Published on 16 April 2014.

Minister, Europe is experiencing its most dangerous crisis since the end of the Cold War. Has the conflict in Ukraine caught you on the wrong foot?

It seemed out of the question that more than seven decades after the end of the Second World War we would be confronted within just a few weeks with a policy in which force is used to redraw borders. That must not set a precedent, either in Europe or anywhere else in the world.

Why were you so surprised by this crisis?

Relations between the EU and Russia have experienced highs and lows during the last 15 years. However, after years of growing economic cooperation with Russia and political cooperation which has not always been conflict‑free but has been constant, I didn’t reckon with a return to the old patterns where geopolitical spaces are secured with military force.

Putin has annexed Crimea. Has force triumphed over law?

That’s undoubtedly the case in Crimea. Russia’s actions are politically unacceptable and a violation of international law. Now we have to ensure that Russia’s conduct and its consequences don’t have a lasting influence on relations among Europe’s states.

To date, the sanctions imposed by the West have been symbolic rather than anything else. Will the annexation remain without consequences?

But there have already been consequences. No‑one in Europe believes that we could simply return to business as usual in our dealings with Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Nor can Russia convince itself that the annexation has been without consequences. In economic terms, it has led to a slump in Moscow’s financial markets, the rouble’s fall in value and a dramatically accelerating capital flight. In political terms, the fact that it was clear from the votes in both the Security Council and the UN General Assembly that Russia’s policy is not even supported by many countries which normally align themselves with Moscow should make it stop to think.

Has Europe acted decisively enough?

I believe Europe’s policy is the right one. Firstly, because we have adopted a clear joint stance. And secondly, because we’ve reacted intelligently rather than rashly to Russia’s actions. Our three-phase sanctions leave the door open to tougher action and ensure that there are no obstacles in the way of a return to talks with Russia.

The Americans would have liked to proceed more quickly and further with the sanctions. Why are you and the German Government putting on the brakes?

What actually happened was that in the end the Americans supported the European proposal of phased action and have continued along this path themselves. I know from countless meetings and telephone conversations that John Kerry and I take the same view of the situation.

But why didn’t you call for tougher sanctions?

We made our firm stance clear to Russia and reinforced this with sanctions. However, this is not about issuing rival public statements and falling in with the media’s expectations. Rather, it’s about keeping our options open – in both directions, by the way – in the face of the escalation. That’s what’s behind our strategy. The negotiations on a contact group consisting of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the EU and the US will show whether it has the desired effect. Russia can be in no doubt that it will have to reckon with a strong reaction if it wants to go beyond Crimea.

Germany is not part of the contact group which is meeting for the first time in Geneva this Thursday. Is Berlin losing influence?

No. I myself proposed that the contact group should not be made up of individual European states but that we should create an entity which is as small as possible, works behind closed doors and doesn’t have the appearance of a press conference at its very first meeting. That’s why I advocated that Europe be represented by Catherine Ashton. I wrote a letter to Secretary of State Kerry explaining this.

Are you concerned that Russia will also intervene in eastern Ukraine?

That would be a serious mistake. By the way, I don’t believe that Russia is following a master plan with a prepared script. There are many indications to suggest that Russia is playing things by ear. Moscow is also driven by the jingoism which has been whipped up by the Russian leadership itself. The deployment of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine is alarming, as are the images from eastern Ukraine. That’s why it’s so important that we have OSCE observers in Ukraine. The number of observers hasn’t yet reached the target, but we are already receiving a lot more information on the situation on the ground.

There has now been gunfire in eastern Ukraine, there have been fatalities. Public buildings have also been occupied.

The occupation of public buildings by violent and, in some cases, armed pro-Russian demonstrators is making the situation in eastern and southern Ukraine even more dangerous. Confrontations such as the one in Slavyansk, where people are said to have died or been injured, have huge potential for escalation. However, what we’ve seen there so far is not a collapse of state authority. And there are people with influence seeking to defuse the situation. It would be good if Russia would distance itself from the violent and illegal actions of pro‑Russian demonstrators. At any rate, the risk of a political division in Ukraine has not yet been banished.

Could Russia also intervene in Moldova?

We’ve made it clear to Russia that any activities beyond Crimea in eastern or southern Ukraine or in Moldova would be regarded by us as Moscow taking things to a new level, and that this would trigger the third phase of sanctions.

Some in the West are saying that Ukraine can only be protected effectively if it joins NATO.

Those who say that should first of all take a look at Ukraine. I know the country’s political leaders from many encounters and talks and therefore know that they have very different concerns and little interest in making the NATO issue, which is highly controversial in Ukraine, the subject of political debate. To be quite honest, I share the view of the US President; I don’t believe Ukraine is heading for NATO membership.

Wouldn’t it be better to leave the Russians in the dark about that? After all, they don’t always tell us what’s not open to question for them.

Well, journalists are free to not ask questions. When you ask me a question, I answer as I think fit.

NATO expanded eastwards even though it was aware of Russian sensibilities. Was that the right way forward?

Looking back with hypothetical assumptions, going into the “what ifs”, is of no use to anyone. There were and indeed still are sensibilities – especially in the case of Russia. But what matters most is that many Eastern European states which had been part of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact wanted to join the Alliance. It was right not to deny them this protection. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to discuss the different interests and expectations frankly and sincerely in the NATO-Russia Council. Whenever I was there, we didn’t get past the rituals of protocol. That was a mistake.

What is the deciding factor when it comes to NATO accession? That the majority of the population are in favour?

NATO is an open alliance with clear criteria. That means a commitment to shared values and the readiness to pursue a joint line. Of course, the views of the people in any country which wants to join play a very important role, but so does the overall political situation.

Should the EU hold out the prospect of membership to Ukraine?

Ukraine has now signed the political section of the Association Agreement. It’s thus now a partner within the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy. When the Neighbourhood Policy was drawn up in the middle of the last decade, incidentally based on the experiences with the Orange Revolution, the idea was that we needed a separate European instrument for countries which were not prospective member states. It was meant to be an alternative to, not preparation for membership. But, of course, the EU has never been a closed shop, nor will it become one in future – provided the EU retains its capacity to absorb new members.

So association isn’t the last step?

Ukraine hasn’t even signed the entire Association Agreement yet. The most important task now is to safeguard Ukraine’s national unity and provide it with every possible support to ensure its political and economic stability.

The EU wants to provide Ukraine with financial support. Isn’t there a danger that EU aid will be passed on directly to Gazprom?

It’s true that Russia holds all the cards and can make Ukraine’s life difficult, perhaps even impossible. But if Moscow would analyse the situation rationally, it would realise that it has most to lose from a collapsed state on its western border. That’s why we’re seeking a dialogue with Russia.

What’s going on in Putin’s head? Is he a nationalist or simply a power politician who pounces when he has the opportunity?

Putin knows how to use power and is prepared to be tough – both at home and abroad. But even Putin’s critics in Moscow argue that he has felt misunderstood by the West time and again.

Are his reactions therefore understandable?

I’m one of those who want more cooperation and less confrontation. I think there is no justification for using force to redraw borders, thereby opening a Pandora’s box with unforeseeable consequences. The erosion of the principle of territorial integrity in favour of a supposed right to self‑determination for ethnic groups could ultimately pose the greatest threat to Russia itself as a multi‑ethnic state. Opposing foreign policy philosophies are clashing with full force and preventing us from reaching out to each other: on the one hand we have the geopolitical thinking prevalent in the 19th century, focusing on spheres of influence, while here in Europe we have largely overcome nationalist thinking and have voluntarily relinquished some of our sovereignty in favour of European integration.

Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the “greatest disaster of the 20th century”. Doesn’t he accept the course of history?

There are many indications that he doesn’t believe Russia has been treated with sufficient respect, either politically or economically.

Are you disappointed by your counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who didn’t react to all of your proposals on resolving the Ukraine crisis?

Disappointment has no role to play in foreign policy. Agreement has already been reached on the OSCE observer mission, and if the Ukraine quartet consisting of Russia, Ukraine, the US and Europe now comes about then my proposals haven’t been that bad. But it’s true to say that I’m disillusioned that 25 years after the end of the Cold War Europe is still unable to deal differently with unavoidable conflicts of interest.

Has your policy of cooperation with Russia failed?

I don’t know why some people are so keen to see cooperative political models fail. Confrontation and self‑isolation are not the way forward and they won’t solve anything. That’s why I can’t understand why some are secretly rubbing their hands in glee. The crisis is serious and the risk of a new division forming in Europe is far from over. I can only warn everyone not to throw the experiences from our history overboard. We have to remain level‑headed when others lose control of themselves.

Has Putin unwittingly done NATO a favour by annexing part of Ukraine, thus ridding it of the identity crisis it suffered during the last few years?

He hasn’t done NATO a favour. But he’s helped us Europeans to re‑discover the significance of foreign and security policy. The current crisis shows that our seemingly viable security architecture built up over decades must be constantly bolstered and renewed. That requires an active foreign policy. The Crimea crisis is therefore not an employment creation measure for NATO. But NATO, too, has to look at itself and ascertain whether it has set the right priorities.

Does that mean an “as you were” and a return to traditional national defence in Europe after the discussions on global military operations?

The mission in Afghanistan after 9/11 wasn’t prompted by our desire to bestow our ideas of democracy, freedom and security on people all over the world. It was launched at a time in which more than 3000 Americans had been killed in an Islamist attack and Europe feared that similar attacks could take place here. And attacks really did take place in London and Madrid. We wanted to prevent people in our country coming to harm as a result of the further expansion of training camps for terrorists in Afghanistan. It was about the security of Germany and its Alliance partners.

Germany spends 1.4 per cent of its economic output on defence. The NATO target is two per cent. Do we have to do more?

Most NATO member states fall far short of this self‑imposed target, including us. As we have to continue consolidating our finances, we can’t fool ourselves: no pot of gold will miraculously appear to enable us to immediately increase our spending to two per cent. We have to become more efficient and agree on a greater division of labour, just like the one in the sphere of air transport, which has been quite a success in NATO.

Your predecessor favoured a “culture of restraint”. You yourself say that it isn’t possible to comment on world events “from the sidelines”. What has to change in Germany’s foreign policy in concrete terms?

I’ve nothing against a culture of restraint when it comes to military action. All the parties in the German Bundestag share that view. However, it seems to me that constantly repeating this principle has allowed the misunderstanding to arise that we have to be restrained not only in military terms but also in foreign policy. I believe that’s wrong. We’re a bit too big and also too important within the international community to merely observe the game from the sidelines and make clever comments. Our partners expect more of us than we can deliver. But we have to be more active in those areas where we can live up their expectations. That’s why I decided just after taking up office that we would play an active role in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons and in securing arms stockpiles in Libya. And the attempt undertaken together with Laurent Fabius and Radek Sikorski to end the bloodshed in Kyiv is also part of this.

Germany’s allies have appealed to Berlin time and again to do more in military terms. Will you now give in to this pressure?

Anyone who believes that greater responsibility in foreign policy means more military missions is very much mistaken. I see no cause for such a debate. The facts tell a different story: we’ll be bringing 3000 troops home from Afghanistan before the end of 2014. Of the remaining missions in which we’re taking part, the KFOR mission in the Balkans is by far the biggest. Far fewer troops participate in other mandates, especially in Africa. Our focus is very much on training. I don’t see any kind of militarisation in that.

The Federal Chancellery has been in charge of European policy during the last few years. There has been little input from the Federal Foreign Office. Is Europe part of the Chancellor’s remit?

We have reason to hope that we will manage to overcome Europe’s economic crisis. Nevertheless, Europe’s lengthy economic stagnation has led it into a credibility crisis. That undermines Europe as an idea. We therefore have to ensure that Europe can be seen by everyone once more as a source of hope. Secondly, we also have to counter the lack of credibility by ensuring that Europe grows closer together. That’s not a task which anyone in Berlin could master on their own. I believe other ministries alongside the Federal Chancellery have to play their part, including the Federal Foreign Office. That’s why we’ve strengthened our policy on Europe.

So, the Federal Foreign Office first of all had to fight its way back from insignificance?

That’s a harsh judgement! And it’s not correct. I believe that the Federal Foreign Office has something to offer and that it has to be heard. And we’ve ensured that people are listening. I’d like to go a step further: in the course of the next 12 months, we want to undertake the broadest possible review process in the Federal Foreign Office in conjunction with both experts and ordinary people throughout Germany. We want to ask ourselves and others questions and find new answers: What is expected of a modern foreign policy? Do we have the right resources in a world of new complexities? I hope this will ignite a lively debate on the importance of foreign policy and, of course, also provide ideas and impetus for our work.

You’re serving your second term as Federal Foreign Minister. Why was it so important for you to return to the Federal Foreign Office?

The first reason is obvious. I was responsible for foreign policy for four years, and even enjoyed it, and I couldn’t accept that in the eyes of many foreign policy had lost some of its significance. Secondly, there are a few things where I had the impression that I’d only just begun, projects which I wanted to continue. Thirdly, I also wanted to ensure that Germany makes a more visible and active contribution to international politics. Anyone who may have thought that foreign and security policy has become superfluous is wrong.

The interviewers were Matthias Naß and Michael Thumann. Reproduced by kind permission of Die Zeit.

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