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“We must not ignore Russia”

02.11.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on relations with Russia, expectations of Ukrainian citizens and the fight against the Islamist ISIS terror. Published in the Stuttgarter Zeitung on 2 November 2014 and elsewhere.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on relations with Russia, expectations of Ukrainian citizens and the fight against the Islamist ISIS terror. Published in the Stuttgarter Zeitung on 2 November 2014 and elsewhere.

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Foreign Minister, Moscow intends to recognise the elections held in the Ukrainian separatist regions. Is this a further escalation of the conflict?

There is a very great danger that holding these elections will result in renewed tensions. It is clear to us that the elections are a clear violation of the Minsk ceasefire agreements, which is why we will not recognise them. Russia must live up to its great responsibility in this most important issue. Statements that may be interpreted by the separatists as an encouragement of their separatist tendencies would only fan the flames of the conflict – I can only warn against this. Russia has signalled its commitment to Ukraine’s territorial unity and must now stand by this commitment.

The results of the parliamentary elections reflect the citizens’ longing for quick integration into the EU. Are they not living under an illusion?

The elections send at least three signals. First, the majority of the population do not want there to be a return to the conditions that prevailed under Yanukovych. The country yearns for modernisation; it wants reforms and to leave the times in which Ukraine made headlines as a result of corruption behind it at last. Second, the election result is a clear rejection of all fascist and nationalist forces and all forms of extremism. And third, the result is a clear affirmation of Ukraine’s territorial unity. The people in Ukraine know that their country has a long way to go to win back political stability.

When do you think the country will be able to join the EU, if at all?

The EU does not face any competition from others. We have made an extensive offer in terms of free trade and political cooperation with the Association Agreement and want to use this to help Ukraine to make progress economically and constitutionally. This will keep us busy for a long time to come as we’re talking about a backlog of reform that has built up over decades. It makes little sense to talk about questions of membership as long as it is not possible to see beyond the coming months and years with a clear perspective.

Has making Russia a strategic partner, the guiding principle of German foreign policy, failed for good?

Our relations with Russia are not a question of guiding principles. A glance at the map is sufficient for us to realise that Russia is a large neighbour that we must not ignore. This is why it is still my policy to treat Russia as a European power. In keeping with this view, we have, in the course of the Ukraine crisis, done everything we possibly can to prevent the confrontation from degenerating into a permanent military conflict – or even a new division of Europe. I hope that we have been able to overcome the immediate threat of a military confrontation between the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces. And there was one piece of good news last Thursday, of course. That we have managed, after long and difficult negotiations, to bring about an agreement between Ukraine and Russia on a winter package for Ukraine’s gas supply, which is an important step on the way to diffusing tensions. Those involved should see this success as an encouragement to address the other difficult questions standing in the way of a political settlement of the Ukraine conflict quickly.

Seen from today’s perspective, can you name one criterion that would lift sanctions against Russia?

It is clear that an easing of sanctions requires the consistent fulfilment of the Minsk peace plan and a political resolution of the conflict. And after the elections in what are often referred to as the special status regions in eastern Ukraine, there may be no new insurmountable difficulties. However, it is important that we start talking about the criteria for an easing of sanctions. I have already made this point at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. The sanctions were imposed for a limited period of time. The EU will need to decide by spring 2015 at the latest whether or not they should be renewed. This is not a decision that can be made over night.

Let’s move on to the next trouble spot: the fight against the terrorism of Islamic State (IS). Are Germans sufficiently aware of the scale of the refugee catastrophe in the region?

I think that German citizens are shocked, outraged and maybe also somewhat overwhelmed by the pictures from the Middle East. A whole region is falling victim to medieval barbarism. The plight of the three million refugees who often had to flee for their lives leaving everything behind and have been living in the most difficult of conditions for years now is, in some ways, taking a back seat in the perception of the media. In order to get some idea of the burden being carried by the neighbouring countries, it is important to realise that Jordan and Lebanon are hosting a quarter to a third of their own population as refugees in their countries. In Germany, that would mean some 20 million refugees. You can just imagine the kind of threat to society that this poses when there is suddenly no longer enough water, electricity and housing space to go around because of the refugees.

Do we need to prepare ourselves for numbers of refugees of an order of magnitude last seen during the Balkan Wars?

We have taken in over 70,000 Syrian refugees since 2011. If other European countries were prepared to host as many, then this would be a step in the right direction. However, we should not succumb to the illusion that we can solve the refugee crisis in the region with open borders in Europe. The vast majority of the refugees stay in the refugee camps because they hope for a swift return to their home villages in Syria, which is why it is important that we concentrate our efforts there on the ground. The host countries require planning security while the refugees need opportunities, especially education for the young people. Last week, I hosted a refugee conference in Berlin at which we, along with the international community, affirmed our commitment to providing more effective and long term assistance for the host communities and refugees.

While we deplore IS for attacking the values of human civilisation, the international community has been slow to react. There is a huge disparity here.

One of the reasons why the civil war in Syria has been so long and brutal is the fact that so many non-Syrian forces pursuing different objectives have a hand in it. This development cannot be rolled back just like that. Unfortunately, it was only when Syria began to export Islamist terror beyond its borders that there was a greater readiness in the region to form an alliance against Islamic State. At the end of the day, the conflict will not be solved by military means alone. The Arab nations in particular have now taken on responsibility. This will be crucial if we are to successfully dry up political support for ISIS and increase resilience to the ideology of hatred and terror. And what matters now is to see whether – in the region and also in Tehran – there will be a growing readiness to conduct serious negotiations with a view to achieving a political settlement.

The way in which IS has been fought so far, with air strikes and placing our hope in the Kurdish armed forces, will only stop the terrorists but not beat them.

Everyone agrees that air strikes alone will not help. We also need forces on the ground that are able to banish ISIS from the cities, towns and villages where it has become entrenched and to regain control. The Kurdish Peshmerga have demonstrated that they are ready to do this in their sphere of influence. And I hope that, with the new formation of the Iraqi Central Government, which has now reincorporated the Sunnis, the Iraqi army will also be emboldened in its fight against ISIS. The terrorist militia is so strong in Iraq because Sunnis discriminated against by previous governments have flocked to its banner in such great numbers. Winning back the Sunnis’ trust is one of the current tasks facing the present Iraqi Government. At the end of the day, success will depend on this just as much as on military action.

Why is Germany not taking part in the air strikes?

It is totally pointless for us to join twelve nations currently conducting air strikes as a thirteenth country. There has to be a sensible division of tasks. Germany assumed responsibility early on for supporting the Kurdish security forces that were brave enough to stand up to ISIS in Northern Iraq. It seems that they have managed to halt ISIS' advance there and to push it back in a number of areas at least. It is also thanks to this division of tasks that a number of the Kurdish forces are able to help defend Kobani at all. The fact that – with all due caution in our assessment – there have been some initial military successes against ISIS in the wake of political progress in Iraq is important because it damages the aura of invincibility that the terrorists preach in their propaganda.

Interview conducted by: Norbert Wallet. This article is reproduced here by kind permission of the editor.

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