Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East and the European Union’s stance on Russia
Published in the Passauer Neue Presse on 12 September 2014
Question: Crises, wars – Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, the Middle East – don’t you sometimes feel a bit helpless? Is the world getting more and more out of joint?
Helpless isn’t the right word. But I know what you mean, and you’re right. The world does seem to have got out of joint. I can’t remember there ever being a time when there were so many serious crises all at once. That’s why it is so important that we do not allow ourselves to be rushed into making hasty decisions. Rather, we must be patient and keep a cool head. And there has been some good news as well in recent days. The fact that the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians has held for two and a half weeks is unbelievably important, especially for the people. With one or two exceptions there has been a ceasefire in Ukraine for a week now, too. My experience tells me there is no formula for and no guarantee of a lasting ceasefire. But it ought to be obvious to everyone that political solutions cannot be reached when the guns are firing.
The eastern European states in particular are urging a more resolute stance towards Russia. What’s your reaction to these calls?
I well understand the fears and the feeling of being under threat that our eastern European neighbours are expressing just now. We were the first to respond to the Baltic states’concerns. I have travelled to the Baltic region several times since the start of the conflict in Ukraine to demonstrate that our solidarity is unshakeable. In Budapest we talked to the Visegrad states – the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians, making it clear here too that we will not look on in silence if a country arbitrarily corrects borders in the middle of Europe in the 21st century. That is why we should continue to do both: exert political and economic pressure on Moscow, stepping it up if necessary, while at the same time keeping the channels open for negotiation.
The most recent news gives grounds for hope. Is it a step towards peace or just another phase in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s game of cat and mouse?
Too often in recent months we have had Moscow making big promises but ultimately not acting to help ease the situation in eastern Ukraine. Which is why the ceasefire is just the beginning of the end of the conflict. The most important thing we have all been able to achieve is that Ukraine’s President Poroshenko and Russia’s President Putin are now talking regularly to each other. It seems that both are willing to work together on the agreed 12‑point plan. If it is true that a large part of the Russian forces has left eastern Ukraine, it would be an important step.
The Ukrainian President is calling for a partisan war, and the plans to build a wall along the border with Russia haven’t been forgotten either. Isn’t that adding fuel to the fire?
We should focus less on press releases and more on what is actually happening. There are some people on both sides who are determined on sticking only to the hard line and who want to break off the dialogue completely. The Ukrainian President is courageous and entirely right not to let himself be swayed by this, but to stick to trying to de‑escalate the crisis through a dialogue with Russia.
Why is the European Union still finding it so hard to impose sanctions on Russia?
There is a clear position in Europe. It has always been clear to us all that sanctions never just hit one side, but have repercussions. Economic losses have not stopped us from further cranking up the pressure on Russia. We have now decided on a new level of sanctions. Only if Russia were to implement the peace plan in a significant and verifiable way could the sanctions be withdrawn. It is up to Kyiv, but especially to Moscow, to ensure that the Minsk agreement is respected and that peace becomes possible.
Have Europe and NATO taken too little account of the Kremlin’s sensibilities and extended their influence too far to the east?
Nonsense. Even if there’s a place for critical self-examination, we must not now falsify history. Ukraine is a sovereign state which must not be denied the right to decide freely on its own future.
But many Ukrainians feel abandoned by Europe and the West.
Since the outbreak of the crisis, we have been untiring in constantly rolling out concrete new initiatives to make it possible to take steps towards a political solution. I know that the people in Ukraine really appreciate that, not only from my political talks, but also from my many visits to the country – to Kyiv, Donetsk and Odessa. And we remain ready to help where we can with the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
Can the annexation of Crimea actually be reversed at all now?
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is and remains in violation of international law. There is no political deal and no recognition.
The US wants to extend its fight against the “Islamic State” to Syria and establish a broad-based alliance against terrorism. A new coalition of the willing, in which Germany too will take part?
Terms like “coalition of the willing” arouse false perceptions. So we should get away from the debate about buzzwords. What is more important is the question of how to stamp out ISIS. Anyone who believes they can do this mainly by military means is under an illusion. That said, it would scarcely have been possible to stop ISIS’s advance in northern Iraq without the US air support. Similarly, our decision to provide the Kurdish security forces with equipment was the correct one, even if it was difficult. However, the whole thing needs to be embedded in a political strategy.
In concrete terms, what shape should this strategy take?
There are four main things we need to achieve. We need a new domestic policy in Iraq. It seems to me that new Prime Minister Al‑Abadi is seriously endeavouring to integrate all religious groups and regions. For one thing is clear: there must be an end to the Sunni clans’ support for ISIS. Secondly, the regional actors must also reach agreement on a joint approach to tackling the influence of radical Islamist and terrorist groups. There have been positive signals in this regard in recent days. Part of this, thirdly, is removing the ideological breeding ground for the ISIS terrorist regime. The vast majority of Muslim authorities have positioned themselves against ISIS. And Muslims should speak out even louder against ISIS’s abuse of their religion. Fourthly, we need to cut off ISIS’s financial support and stop it attracting fighters. We are just at the start of our fight against ISIS. On Monday the French President is hosting a first exchange in Paris. I have issued an invitation to a G7 meeting on the fringe of the UN General Assembly in New York. First and foremost, the aim will be to agree with the states of the region on the next concrete steps in the fight against ISIS.
There is now criticism that not enough aid for refugees in the region is getting through.
We do not have the problem that there is not enough humanitarian assistance available. I have been able to see for myself that the aid is arriving in refugee camps. The biggest challenge now is to help the refugees get through the winter.
Interview conducted by Andreas Herholz. Reproduced by kind permission of the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.