“The Ukraine conflict needs to be de‑escalated”

01.12.2014 - Interview

In an interview with bild.de, Foreign Minister Steinmeier discussed the Ukraine crisis, the situation in the Balkan state of Moldova and the fight against the ISIS terrorist organisation. Published on 29 November 2014.

Minister, Russia’s President Putin is sending warships through the English Channel and being provocative by flying fighter jets over the Baltic Sea. How seriously do you take this sabre-rattling?

It is not helping to de-escalate the situation, and it is unnecessary. However, regardless of the Ukraine conflict, Russian warships always travel through international waters, including the English Channel, and Russian combat aircraft always fly through international airspace, something which they are entitled to do under international law. We are not obliged to be pleased about it, but neither should we overestimate its importance.

On Sunday elections will take place in the Balkan state of Moldova. How great is the risk that Russian influence will put the country's unity to a similarly severe test as that seen in Ukraine?

The circumstances are not comparable. We definitely have to do everything possible to stop Moldova veering off onto a similar crisis path. We expect all sides to refrain from exerting any external, undue influence over the elections, before, during and after they take place.

Moldova – like Ukraine – aspires to join the EU. Do you advocate accession?

That question is completely irrelevant at the moment. Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe – moreover it is a country with serious internal political tensions and a huge logjam of problems. The voters now have the chance to choose whether they want to continue along the long and arduous path of reform towards becoming a market economy. We are certainly supporting Moldova in its efforts to take its economy forward, recently for example by concluding an agreement on visa-free travel.

Your party colleague Egon Bahr advocates, if not officially recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea, then at least accepting the political reality...

Egon Bahr, whom I greatly respect, bases his argument on his experience with Ostpolitik in the sixties and seventies. The situation was entirely different then. If today, seven decades after the end of the Second World War, borders are being changed arbitrarily and international law violated, then we cannot simply ignore it and return to business as usual. It stands between us – yet it does not relieve us of the responsibility to explore all options in an effort to de-escalate the conflict.

In all honesty, Minister – were or are there differences of opinion between you and Chancellor Merkel on how to deal with Russia’s President Putin?

What is the real issue here? It is that the conflict in Ukraine needs to be de-escalated and a new division of Europe prevented. That is the policy of the entire German Government, and the Federal Chancellor and the Foreign Minister both bring their own experience and all of their skills to the table in pursuing it. And we are doing all we can, fully aware of Germany’s responsibility.

Is it at all possible for Ukraine to get back on its feet?

The new government in Kyiv has our full support if it goes ahead with what it has planned to do, namely implement far-reaching root and branch reforms. The time of nearly an entire generation has already been wasted, even after the Orange Revolution. Now is the time to act in order to return to economic, financial and political stability as fast as possible. It will be an uphill struggle for Ukraine and, for quite a few years, it will also be demanding for its neighbours.

Last week you spoke at length with Putin. What impression did you gain of him?

We have differing views regarding the causes of the crisis in Ukraine. The Russian view of the world is blinkered, asserting that mistakes have been made nearly exclusively on the part of the West. These discussions are difficult but nonetheless necessary! However, two points should be taken from them, firstly: although there is no doubt that we have not advanced much, Moscow wants to adhere to the Minsk Protocol. Secondly, I recognise that Russia is interested in continuing to discuss the big conflicts in the world – such as in Syria and Iraq – with the West.

Turning to this year’s second large conflict: in recent days it has seemed as if it may be possible to halt the advance of ISIS in Iraq. Is this a turning point?

I would like to say yes, but that would be premature. Progress has been made on some fronts, true, but ISIS is far from beaten. Still, in recent weeks the aura of invincibility surrounding ISIS has started to fade. We must stop the terrorists from holding on to the areas they have conquered in the long run.

Why is it so difficult for the world to put paid to a gang of Islamist terrorists?

All experiences in Afghanistan and the first two wars in Iraq have taught us that it is not possible to truly defeat groups such as ISIS from the air. And given that no one is prepared to put boots on the ground, local forces must come into play: the Iraqi army, the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga, all of whom require a great deal of support in order to survive the fight against ISIS.

Can you envisage a situation in which ultimately, even Syria’s President Assad becomes an ally of the West against ISIS?

In my view, after more than 200,000 deaths, that is out of the question. However, we must reflect on how, in Syria, we can take steps towards ending the violence which has lost all respect for boundaries. It won’t be long until half of the Syrian population is fleeing violence and war. UN Special Envoy de Mistura is right in proposing to now 'freeze' small zones and agree local ceasefires. It is not a political settlement but it would be a small start.

Interview by Rolf Kleine. This article is reproduced here by kind permission of the Axel Springer Verlag.

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