Foreign Minister Steinmeier is concerned about the setbacks in eastern Ukraine. In an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper (16 November 2014), he talks about tougher sanctions against Russia and ways of exerting influence. Another issue discussed is the fight against the terrorist organisation IS.
Minister, what poses a bigger problem at present: the situation in Ukraine or that in Iraq?
I wish we could decide. As the crisis in Ukraine is closer to us in geographical terms, there’s no doubt that there is more of an onus on us to act. However, that doesn’t make the conflict in the Middle East any less dangerous. That crisis is all about the disintegrating order of an entire region, far beyond Syria and Iraq, and about the many fighters from Europe – including Germany. This conflict has the potential to throw other states in the region off course.
The black flags of the Islamic State (IS) are also already flying in Egypt and Libya. Is the conflict spreading like a cancerous tumour?
The crisis in Libya has at least two dimensions. Firstly, have we learned our lessons? If you decide to launch a military intervention, you can’t abandon a country the way the international community has done. We therefore have to support the United Nations as it seeks to help Libya enjoy a stable political future. Secondly, the absence of any order leads to radicalisation. Hundreds of very small militia groups are fighting against each other. It’s very difficult to tell who stands where in either political or military terms, whether they are closer to the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups. It’s not clear whether the IS has already moved into Libya. However, it’s clear that the name “IS” is being bandied about in Libya and in other conflicts in Africa, for example in northern Nigeria.
The current strategy for containing IS is not working. Have the IS terrorists triumphed?
No, but of course it’ll take time to win this fight. It won’t happen overnight. The international community is currently developing a joint strategy. We have to use military means to combat the IS but we must not assume that a military approach alone will be enough. The IS can only be pushed back in Iraq if Sunni tribes stop supporting it. In truth, the IS and many Sunni groups have nothing in common, neither in terms of ideology nor religion. They were only united in the fight against a Shiite government. The IS has used the discrimination against the Sunnis for their own ends. Now much depends on whether the new Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi honours his commitment to include Sunnis in the government, in the military and in key functions within society.
Washington regards the IS as the world’s wealthiest terrorist organisation. The UN Security Council adopted sanctions and you supported the resolution against foreign fighters. Has the strategy of cutting off the supply of money worked?
The resolutions adopted are beginning to have an effect. No matter what stance certain governments used to take, there is now an international alliance united in the fight against the IS. The Security Council resolution places us under an obligation to halt the flow of funding and other forms of support for the IS. Within this alliance, we’re looking very closely to see who is failing to honour their commitments.
The IS trades in human beings, oil and antiquities. Individual states and persons, for instance from Qatar or Saudi Arabia, are supporting this trade. Is the international pressure to stop this strong enough?
Oil reserves, which have been turned into cash throughout the Middle East, are among the largest sources of revenue. At least the air strikes have made access to oil more difficult. Enslavement, especially of women, has become a cynical new source of revenue for the terrorists.
There are doubts about the position of our NATO partner Turkey. Ankara seems to regard the Kurds and the PKK as more dangerous than the IS. What’s the German Government’s policy on this?
We must not underestimate what Turkey is contributing by taking in and providing for more than one and a half million refugees. In geographical terms, Turkey is in the midst of things. Its national interests lie in the Middle East. Ankara sees the Assad regime as the root of all the problems in Syria and the turmoil in the region. However, the Kurdish Peshmerga wouldn’t have been able to reach northern Syria to fight against the IS without Turkey’s assistance.
Shouldn’t we be honest and admit: either Assad or the IS will win in Syria?
The civil war has been going on for more than three and half years now and almost 200,000 people have already died. There’s no end in sight to the killing or to the major shifts in areas under the control of different groups. The images from Kobani were unbearable. But in other regions too, the killing continues and people are fleeing. However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get out of Syria. Lebanon is closing its borders. That country has already taken in 1.5 million refugees, which is equivalent to almost one third of its own population.
What are the consequences?
We can’t avoid using military means to fight the IS. However, we can’t resolve the situation with military means alone. We therefore have to ensure the neighbouring countries are stable and to support their efforts in taking in Syrian refugees. The international community made an undertaking to this end at the Refugee Conference in Berlin two weeks ago. Moreover, we need new approaches to bring about the first steps towards a political solution. The UN Special Envoy de Mistura has proposed local ceasefires. He has our full support in this.
In the past, Germany has intervened in genocides. However, we’re only supplying weapons in the case of the IS. Why?
Why do you say “only weapons”? We’ve agreed on an international division of tasks. Over a dozen countries are carrying out air strikes. It wouldn’t make sense for us to join them. We decided after a difficult debate to supply military equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga who are defending their home region against IS attacks. Incidentally, we were quicker to do so than most of our partners. The Kurdish security forces now have armoured vehicles and weapons which will help ensure they don’t become the helpless victims of the IS.
You talk of a difficult debate. But wasn’t it more like an astonishing and quick reversal of opinion?
Many people are sceptical about supplying weapons, even though parts of Iraq are experiencing the return of barbarism: villages are being attacked, men murdered, women sold in slave markets, heads chopped off and, as a warning to the local population, impaled where everyone can see them. The IS has acted with unbelievable brutality. We therefore have to give more than bread and warm blankets to those risking their lives and struggling desperately to stem the IS hordes. That’s why we’re providing military support and that’s why we’re also supplying weapons.
Are you and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen always working together here?
There’s no competition and no differences of opinion within the German Government when it comes to supplying weapons to the Kurds. We took the decision together after carefully assessing all the risks. Because there are of course risks involved.
The situation in Ukraine is also worsening. How do you see the crumbling “ceasefire” in the east?
We’re witnessing a serious setback in eastern Ukraine. The situation was much better at the end of September. It’s therefore all the more important now that we ensure that all sides focus once more on the arrangements made between President Putin and President Poroshenko.
Will you toughen the sanctions against Russia at the EU Foreign Affairs Council on Monday?
That’s not on the agenda. However, we will discuss putting eastern Ukrainian separatists on the sanctions list, which would limit their access to assets and place a travel ban on them. And as for Russia, the economic pressure is already considerable – not so much due to sanctions as to capital flight, lack of investment security, currency depreciation and low oil prices. However, we’re also seeing Russian fighter aircraft along NATO’s borders and Russian warships off the Australian coast. This muscle-flexing shows that Russia is still heading in the wrong direction.
How can we exert influence on Russia now?
I hope that the many talks on the margins of the G20 meeting in Brisbane will make it clear where we stand with Russia. In my talks in both Kyiv and Moscow on Tuesday, I want to sound out for myself whether there’s any chance of preventing this conflict from escalating again. Perhaps we have to look for new ways of reducing the tension between the EU and Russia. That doesn’t have to mean abandoning the current strategy of exerting political pressure while, at the same time, demonstrating a willingness to negotiate. However, if we remember Russia’s nervous reaction to the EU’s free trade agreement with Ukraine and the EU’s nervous reaction to the Eurasian Union project, then one approach could be to bring together representatives of the EU and Eurasian Union for initial contacts. A meeting between the two organisations on an equal footing could help ease the tensions. Incidentally, President Nazarbayev expressly welcomed this idea during my visit to Kazakhstan a few days ago.
The current global conflicts are all linked to each other. On the one hand, you need the Russians to resolve the crises in Iraq and Syria, on the other you can’t simply give them a free rein in Ukraine, can you?
There are many good reasons to resolve the Ukraine conflict. First of all, because far too many people have lost their lives. Secondly, because we have to prevent Ukraine’s political and economic destabilisation. Thirdly, because the European peaceful order is at stake and we have to avert a new division of Europe. As long as the US and Russia are at loggerheads over the Ukraine conflict, the UN Security Council will be unable to resolve any other issue. The conflicts may be thousands of kilometres apart, but they are linked to one another by the deadlocked institutions of collective security which we so urgently need at the moment.
Did Putin perhaps decide long ago that he wants to go down in history as the man who revived the Soviet Union?
I believe the Russian President wants Russia to remain an equal partner with other influential powers. That’s understandable. However, it doesn’t justify a violation of international law, such as the annexation of Crimea. I don’t know whether he really is trying to distance Russia from the international community. The fact that Russia isn’t seeking confrontation in other spheres would seem to indicate that he isn’t. Russia is playing a constructive role in the crucial final negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme.
The deadline for the negotiations with Iran is 24 November. Is a solution emerging or do you expect the talks to be prolonged?
We have to do everything we can to get an agreement. In reality, the negotiations have advanced more in the last year than in the previous nine. Why would postponing the deadline once more make it easier to reach a deal? We’ve negotiated constructively. There are still considerable differences with regard to the key parameters. But I believe they are surmountable. We won’t abandon our aim of preventing a military use of the nuclear programme.
Interview conducted by: C.C. Malzahn, Silke Mülherr and Daniel Friedrich Sturm. Reproduced by kind permission of Welt am Sonntag.