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"I am taking Russia at its word that it does not want to destroy the unity of Ukraine."

24.11.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on unity within the German Government and his impressions from the Kremlin. Published in DER SPIEGEL on 24 November 2014.

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Your admonishment to use moderate language when dealing with Russia was seen as a criticism of Chancellor Merkel. What parts of her speech in Sydney did you disagree with?

That’s far‑fetched! It doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of the crisis or to the warranted questions on summits like the one in Brisbane if you try to portray this as a problem within the German Government. However, I don’t think it is wise when these sorts of summits, which provide the last opportunities for direct, and possibly confidential talks, are staged as a public forum.

But you clearly distanced yourself from Merkel in terms of tone, and the Chancellor is willing to tighten the sanctions against Putin. Are you also willing to do so?

Once again, our position is clear. Our policies, and thus our decisions on sanctions, are in line with our assessment of the developments. This will not change. At the EU Foreign Ministers meeting on Monday in Brussels, we tasked officials with identifying those responsible among the separatists in eastern Ukraine who should be sanctioned because they are trampling all over Ukraine’s territorial integrity. That is what was needed – and above all, it’s the shared view within the German Government.

The discussion on how to deal with Putin is now more heated than ever in Germany and the EU. Do you see a threat to the unified stance adopted by the West?

DER SPIEGEL really shouldn’t worry about heated discussions in democracies. It is a mistake of authoritarian regimes to regard such debates as a weakness. The EU unites 28 countries that have very different historical experiences and thus different perceptions. And objectively, the member states are affected to a greater or lesser extent by the situation. Nevertheless, we have always managed to adopt and maintain a united stance in the end. I will lobby for this to continue.

Matthias Platzeck, your colleague from the Social Democratic Party of Germany, has called for the annexation of Crimea to be “retrospectively regulated in international law”. Do you share this view?

We’ve already said everything there is to say on this matter. Russia’s actions in Crimea are a blatant violation of international law and the principles of Europe’s peaceful order. That is why we cannot, and why we must not, ignore or overlook what happened.

You met President Putin in Moscow last week. Are you now more optimistic than you were before your meeting?

In light of the dangerous situation, I felt that it was necessary to seek dialogue with the political decision-makers in Kyiv and Moscow. The rhetoric between the two capitals had escalated over the weekend of the G20 summit and subsequently reached a dangerous level. I returned from Kyiv and Moscow with the impression that presidents Poroshenko and Putin want to adhere to the Minsk Protocol. Given the complex conflict situation on the ground, this isn’t much. Indeed, it isn’t enough, but it’s a basis that we can build on.

Do you believe that Ukraine’s territorial integrity can be restored in the foreseeable future, or has Ukraine lost Crimea and eastern Ukraine for good?

I can’t see any willingness on Russia’s part to give up Crimea again. Unfortunately, we can expect the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law to be a source of conflict between us and Russia for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, matters have not yet been decided in eastern Ukraine. I am taking Russia at its word that it does not want to destroy the unity of Ukraine. However, the facts, so far, tell a different story. But we cannot allow ourselves to become discouraged, especially when the outcome is still open. It would be wrong of foreign policymakers to do nothing or to abandon their principles.

Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann. Reproduced with kind permission of DER SPIEGEL (www.spiegel.de).

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