Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on German and European policies in the Ukraine crisis. Published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper on 3 August 2014.
The European Union imposed harsh sanctions on Russia this week. Do you think sanctions will change the Kremlin’s policies, or is the idea more to demonstrate European cohesion?
Sanctions alone do not constitute a policy. It would therefore be foolish to rely on them alone in a profound crisis. All experience shows that if you increase political pressure in order to make a party willing to negotiate, you also have to remain willing to negotiate yourself. That is why both things go together: the measures decided by the EU following the apparent shooting down of flight MH17 on the one hand, and simultaneously restarting the search for a solution on the other. The Federal Chancellor discussed this with President Poroshenko on Thursday, and I spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on Friday. I hope that crucial steps leading to a ceasefire will now be successful. It can only be a good thing if the EU is united in this approach!
To what extent is Europe united on this issue when France is insisting on supplying two state-of-the-art helicopter carriers to Russia, one of which is to be named after the Crimean city of Sevastopol, while the other could soon be operating in the Baltic Sea?
The EU comprises 28 member states with very different histories that have also shaped their relationship with Russia in different ways. It is no secret that the member states’ national economies focus on completely different things. Hence we should not just look at France, but rather also at the countries that made it difficult to reach agreement on sanctions because they were concerned about the impact on their financial centres. What is important is that we reached consensus in the end on a necessary package of measures that not only demonstrates unity, but also spreads the EU’s risks and burdens more or less fairly.
What counter-sanctions must Europe and Germany now expect from Russia? A ban on imports of Polish fruit or reduced and more expensive gas supplies?
The first import restrictions have already been announced. They were communicated in connection with our decisions, at least in terms of timing. There has been talk of Russia reacting by raising energy prices, but apparently this has not yet been decided. Incidentally, no one should be surprised that sanctions come at a price – especially not those who have been calling for months for tough sanctions as a credibility test for European policies. The German Government, and I myself since March, have been talking with German business and industry with the aim of at least keeping the consequences calculable. Furthermore, it should be possible to adjust and lift sanctions when there is political movement once again as regards finding a solution.
Which Russian interlocutors can you still trust following all the months of fairly inconclusive back and forth and all the suffering that has long since spread further? Who in Moscow can influence President Putin?
There is no doubt that the level of trust has been badly damaged, certainly since the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law. If we nevertheless do not want the communication channels with Moscow to break down completely, then it is not a matter of being gullible or naively trusting members of the Russian Government. We see the discrepancy between words and deeds in Moscow the same way as everyone else does. And like other people, we call on Moscow to exert influence on the militant separatists. At the same time, we recognise that a political settlement to the Ukraine crisis will hardly be possible, or will be difficult to achieve, without Moscow’s support. For that reason, and despite all the difficulties, we are keeping the channels to Russia open. For example, we are also talking about the severe harm that the Russian economy will suffer if the conflict with the West continues. And apparently we are not the only ones talking about this. When Putin’s associate, former Finance Minister Kudrin, describes the risks of Russia’s Ukraine policies in a public interview with ITAR-TASS, then we can surmise that a debate is also under way in Russia.
The MH17 crash has been a huge setback to the efforts to find a solution to the crisis. How can any progress be made now?
Without a doubt, the deaths of 300 people in a civilian aircraft changed the situation once again. And anyone who has retained a mental image of the drunk separatists staggering around in human remains and holding up the victims’ funerals for days will still feel furious. However, rage and indignation cannot and should not have the final say in foreign policy. This is why we and others have kept on working in order to make at least some progress. There have been small steps in the right direction. The OSCE and international experts have been granted access to the MH17 crash site. The first OSCE observers have also arrived at two Russian border checkpoints. And a meeting has finally taken place between the Trilateral Contact Group and representatives of the separatists.
We’re continuing to work on that aspect. The next Contact Group meeting is scheduled to take place next week, and the agenda is supposed to include the path to a ceasefire. Equally, we should not forget the Geneva and Berlin agreements, in which the Ukrainian Government undertook to conduct a national dialogue. The Round Tables need to be resumed. And constitutional reform on decentralisation and the rights of linguistic minorities needs to take shape.
Fighting is continuing unabated in Ukraine, there are still bodies at the MH17 crash site, and the investigations have come to a standstill. What should happen there now? What do you think of Russia’s idea of sending in “peace-keeping forces”?
Police officers from the Netherlands and Australia are due to start working at the MH17 crash site soon and will support the work of the international commission of inquiry. Not only the President of Ukraine, but also the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, agreed to this. This means that we have international support on a clear and legal basis. There is no question of peace-keeping forces being deployed by Russia, and no legal basis for this.
Interview by Peter Carstens. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper.