Ukraine – “I can understand why people are afraid”

27.04.2014 - Interview

Interview given by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the current situation in Ukraine. Published in the Spiegel magazine, issue 18/2014

Interview given by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the current situation in Ukraine. Published in the Spiegel magazine, issue 18/2014


Minister Steinmeier, do you understand why people might currently be afraid of a war breaking out with Russia?

We all sense that the events of the last few months could lead to a break, to a crossroad for Europe. I understand why that might scare people – nobody could have foreseen how quickly we have slid into the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Those who can remember the fall of the Berlin Wall know what we have accomplished over the past 25 years. The gains we have made almost everywhere in Europe in terms of peace, freedom and prosperity are now at stake. That is why it is important we take every measure to prevent things from getting worse.

For a long time, a military escalation between Western and Eastern Europe was considered out of the question. Is that certainty still valid?

I do not even want to think about military escalation between the West and the East. One thing, however, is clear: if the wrong decisions are made now, they could nullify decades of work furthering the freedom and security of Europe. Nobody of sound mind can seriously want that. Because we would pay the price for it in Europe – all of us, without exception.

Is the Russian leadership playing with fire?

It is, in any case, playing a dangerous game with potentially dramatic consequences – for Russia in particular. The financial markets are already reaching their verdict: Moscow stocks and bonds have fallen sharply. The outlook for growth has disappeared. Many Russians are openly cheering their leadership on while simultaneously withdrawing as-yet unknown amounts of capital out of Russia. And this does not even take into consideration the foreign investments that Russia so urgently needs for its modernisation. This nationalist exuberance could swiftly lead to a hangover.

Why is the situation in eastern Ukraine so opaque and chaotic?

In 1991, Ukraine inherited a difficult legacy with its independence. It lies on the border between East and West, with regions that have completely different histories, with a plethora of unresolved ethnic, religious, social and economic conflicts. It does not surprise me that when the pressure in the pot rises, it would erupt. Now in this crisis there are stakeholders on the ground who are not revealing their true motives or deeds to us, and others who are playing with loaded dice.

Do have a notion of what Vladimir Putin is planning in the short and long term?

It is anyone’s guess whether the Kremlin has a master plan or if the Russian leadership is making decisions as it goes along. But it seems clear to me that when President Viktor Yanukovych fled in a panic from Kyiv on 21 February, it set off a dynamic in Moscow whose consequences we must now deal with. That this course of action has – at least in the short term – wide popular approval, complicates matters.

Would the Federal Government and NATO be well-advised to revisit their strategic defence planning and armaments priorities?

There is no military solution to the conflict in the Ukraine. Even if it can sometimes be frustrating, I am firmly convinced that only persevering with diplomatic efforts can bring us any closer to a solution. That is why I am arguing with all of my strength that the OSCE should get the chance to fulfil its mission as stipulated in the Geneva Statement. Of course, that does not preclude us members of NATO from incorporating the latest developments into our joint planning – that is a matter of course. That was already the task of the Foreign Ministers at the most recent meeting of the North Atlantic Council, and now the results are indeed being implemented.

Do you think it is Europe or the United States that is more likely to come out of this conflict geopolitically strengthened?

I do not have a crystal ball, unfortunately. But I caution against looking for winners and losers in the middle of the crisis based on concepts from the 19th and early 20th century. Spheres of influence, geopolitical regions, hegemony, aspirations to dominance ... none of these are part of our foreign policy – though we would also be well-advised to take into account the fact that other people are thinking along those lines. Whoever thinks that war allows for lasting victories these days should have a look at European history books and learn their lesson.

This interview was conducted by Nikolaus Blome. Reproduced by kind permission of Der Spiegel.


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