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“The crisis in Ukraine isn’t just going to disappear”

17.05.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to the newspaper Thüringische Landeszeitung about the efforts being made to resolve the crisis in Ukraine

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to the newspaper Thüringische Landeszeitung about the efforts being made to resolve the crisis in Ukraine (interview published on 17 May 2014).

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Mr Steinmeier, you are engaged in tireless efforts to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict. You are now being criticised severely for this. Your diplomatic efforts are being described as permanently failing and insufficiently coordinated with the EU. German diplomacy working on its own, they say, cannot lead to success. Are you sticking to your strategy?

I can’t think of any strategy that would guarantee success. But that is no excuse for doing nothing. It would be irresponsible not to do all we can to help de-escalate this dangerous situation and seek progress towards a peaceful settlement. I will keep doing everything in my power to bring about opportunities for that. Our idea of launching a national dialogue and setting up round tables across the country provides just such an opportunity, and I am glad that the process was got under way a few days ago. Everyone who has been at our side in the endeavour to calm the conflict knows that this is no easy task, given that the conflict parties have been engaging in violence and accusing one another of being fascists or terrorists. But if we don’t want the Ukraine conflict to spiral utterly out of control, then we have no alternative. And I might add that I am confident this policy has broad support.

Notably, the grumblings about your Russia policy are emanating not just from the Christian Social Union but from prominent Social Democrats too, such as Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder. That kind of criticism surely weakens Germany’s position with respect to Putin.

There is sadly no panacea that would make the crisis just disappear by itself. The danger here, if we don’t manage to find a peaceful solution, is ultimately that Europe could end up divided anew. I would wish that those who are so quick to criticise might take a look at the bigger picture. We in Germany are nearly the last to have not yet given up on continuous dialogue with Russia, right in the middle of the crisis and facing a lot of pressure. Let me specify that keeping channels of communication with Russia open does not mean glossing over, let alone justifying, Russia’s policies. We have to be very clear in saying that the annexation of Crimea is a violation of international law and that Russia’s behaviour on both sides of the Ukrainian border is anything but an aid to de-escalation. Seven decades after the end of the Second World War, we cannot allow borders in Europe to be redrawn by violent means. Once that starts, there will be no end to it.

...But even the Scots are voting to decide whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom. Shouldn’t we see to it that democratically legitimate referendums are held in Crimea and eastern Ukraine?

The two situations couldn’t be more different. In Britain, the relationship to Scotland has been argued about for many years. But the argument is being conducted within the framework of the constitutional order. There is no prohibition against the Scottish part of the British Isles pursuing self-determination. On the contrary, there is even a political Agreement between the Government in London and the Scottish Government stating that a referendum on the future of Scotland will be held and that London will recognise the outcome. In Ukraine, the constitution doesn’t have any provision for individual parts of the country to split off, and certainly not by violent means. Any referendum there stands in violation of Ukrainian law and is therefore illegal.

Military action is not a rational option. Ever tighter sanctions won’t have any effect on Putin, though. Doesn’t that make them pointless?

Sanctions mustn’t be an end in themselves; they mustn’t replace foreign policy. However, they can be a sensible part of a foreign-policy strategy in cases where political pressure needs to be increased. They were an important element of our policy towards Iran, helping bring Tehran back to the negotiating table. We do have to avoid letting sanctions become too automatic and painting ourselves into a corner with no political moves left to take. It is my hope that third-stage sanctions against Russia can be avoided. That will depend, however, on Russia not hampering or even entirely impeding the elections coming up in Ukraine on 25 May.

Sanctions may even hurt the economically weaker countries of Europe more than they do Russia. From that point of view too, they would be a bit of an own-goal!

Anyone who embarks on the road of economic sanctions must know that it will have a price at home too. We in Europe have been maintaining a clear joint stance on the Ukraine crisis. When it comes to the possibility of further sanctions, Europe will continue to act responsibly. Consultations are under way with our partners in Europe and the United States on what will happen next.

So we can expect a long ice age between Russia and the EU?

Not necessarily. My hope is for cooperation rather than confrontation. We are ready to pursue cooperation. It remains to be seen whether everyone else is ready too. One thing is clear, and that is that many major conflicts on the international agenda – the civil war in Syria, the Iranian nuclear programme and Afghanistan, to name but a few – can only be resolved with Russia’s involvement.

The situation in Ukraine is bleak. Do you have any hope that properly conducted presidential elections can happen?

The OSCE reports that preparations for the elections are well under way in many parts of the country, including in the East and South. The time now remaining needs to be used to prepare the ground politically too, for elections that reflect the will of Ukraine’s citizens in the North, South, East and West of the country. The national dialogue launched a few days ago and the round tables being held even in eastern Ukraine are the right tool for that. And to Moscow we say this: those who question the legitimacy of the Ukrainian Government must surely have an interest in democratic elections being held to establish fresh legitimacy. That can only happen if the planned elections go ahead.

It is hardly realistic to imagine that elections are going to be held in all of Ukraine!

Following the annexation of Crimea, certainly, elections will not be possible there. But elections can take place in all other parts of Ukraine. Even in Odessa, where more than 40 people died in a fire in a union building, the situation has now calmed and returned to normality. We are worried about Donetsk and Mariupol, where violent clashes have left the situation hard to assess, and dangerous in parts. Mariupol has quietened down considerably in recent days. Things are admittedly looking less good in cities like Slavyansk and part of Lugansk.

There is a risk, then, that the legitimacy of the whole election will be called into question.

We called in the OSCE very early on – with the involvement of Kyiv and Moscow, by the way – to monitor the elections. They will be able to tell us directly after the elections whether they met European standards and actually reflect the will of the electorate. It is very clear that we need the right environment if the elections are to be free and fair. If we succeed there, anyone trying to call the election outcome into question will have one argument less.

Ukraine’s state structures are dissolving more and more, central government is finding itself unable to realise many objectives, and corruption is ubiquitous. It is surprising in that context for the International Monetary Fund and the EU to have pledged billions of dollars and euros in support. Is that justifiable?

It is right for Ukraine to have to do its bit to bring about political and economic stabilisation. The focus needs to be on corruption. Just passing laws won’t be enough there either; what’s needed is credible, decisive action to fight corruption and bribery with unrelenting rigour. Only then can financial assistance for Ukraine and its new Government be justified.

Which is to say that funds will only be forthcoming if obligations are actually met?

The assistance pledged by the International Monetary Fund can of course only be disbursed under certain clear conditions. That’s the agreement. Aid from Europe and Germany is similarly contingent. We cannot have millions of taxpayers’ money flowing into a corrupt system. We must ensure that they go to help Ukraine get back on it feet as quickly as possible.

Is the West letting Putin make it look ridiculous in Ukraine? In the United States, President Obama is being accused of chronic ineptitude. Some in the US are even quoted as saying that Putin would never have dared annex Crimea if George W. Bush had still been President.

Turn that round and it makes more sense. We are still dealing with the consequences of George W. Bush’s foreign policy today. For me, the crucial factor in foreign policy is not strength, but wisdom.

This interview was conducted by Bernd Hilder and is reproduced by kind permission of the Thüringische Landeszeitung.

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