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"Russia should not be brought to its knees"

20.12.2014 - Interview

In an interview with "DER SPIEGEL", Foreign Minister Steinmeier discusses Germany and the EU's relationship with Russia. Published on 20 December 2014.

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Mr Steinmeier, Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” was an important part of your political socialisation. How has it shaped your foreign policy?

I feel a very deep sense of connection with the legacy of “Ostpolitik”. The importance of “Ostpolitik” – a policy for which Willy Brandt endured many years of antagonism and unfair attacks – cannot be overstated. Without this policy, there would never have been any cracks in the Berlin Wall.

Egon Bahr, the architect of “Ostpolitik”, thinks that the German Government has dealt too harshly with Russia in the Ukraine crisis. Who is Willy Brandt’s heir – you or Egon Bahr?

There is no dispute on this topic in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Willy Brandt himself said that “every era needs its own answers”.

Is “Ostpolitik” only of historical significance today?

We cannot hold on to history, and history does not repeat itself. But we can try to learn from it and to apply what was good and right to other historical situations. Being firmly rooted in the West goes hand in hand with openness towards Russia. This is the doctrine of Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik”, and it remains valid to this day. And I also base our policies on this idea at times like this, when the old bipolar certainties of the Cold War have given way to a new disorder.

And now is not the time to make a move towards Russia?

Egon Bahr knows from our talks that like him, I want a good, neighbourly relationship with Moscow. This is why I am working day after day with the options available to us to overcome the Ukraine crisis so that a different and better future of German-Russian relations becomes possible once again.

“Ostpolitik” meant building up mutual trust under the most difficult conditions. Why is this not succeeding today?

Steinmeier: It is not possible to have security in Europe without Russia or for Russia to have security without Europe. This is why we need to repair the damaged European security architecture. But we must not forget that the time also had to be ripe in the past. It took almost a decade from 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, for the Eastern Treaties to be signed. I hope both sides aspire to move towards each other quickly.

So far, it doesn’t look as if Moscow is particularly ambitious in this area.

Détente does not come about by itself and it is not something you can impose. Progress is only possible if both sides have an interest in it. I assume this interest exists, also on the Russian side. We have to rebuild the trust needed for this. And for that we need Russia to do its part.

“Ostpolitik” was one of social democracy’s greatest success stories. Is that a reason why so many members of your party have such a problem with criticism of Russia?

It’s not only Social Democrats who believe that “Ostpolitik” eased the antagonistic relationship with the neighbouring Soviet Union. In eastern Germany in particular, people remember that the Red Army left German territory peacefully and without a single shot being fired after being stationed for 40 years in what was then the GDR. The Ukraine conflict is a serious setback. I find this just as painful as other people do, but this can’t allow us to go straight back to business as usual after international law has been violated.

There is a petition called “War in Europe again? Not in our name!”, which has also been signed by leading Social Democrats. It refers to an “ominous spiral of threats and counter-threats”, which it says needs to be stopped. Do you feel this has anything to do with you?

German foreign policymakers have been working flat out to end this spiral of violence. Since the escalation on Maidan Square in Kyiv, we have tried over and over again to ensure that the situation does not get completely out of control. This included involving the OSCE, setting up a contact group and holding countless talks with the Ukrainian and the Russian sides, not least during the foreign ministers’ meeting in Berlin. All this was necessary to make direct contacts between Russia and Ukraine possible in the first place. And it was these contacts that led to the Minsk Protocol.

The signatories of the petition fear that sanctions by the West will make the crisis even worse. The situation is serious enough as it is. The rouble is in free fall and the Russian economy is in recession. Aren’t you worried that the entire country will be destabilised if Europe doesn’t relax the sanctions?

I am worried. This is why I oppose any further tightening of the sanctions. Anyone who wants to bring the Russian economy to its knees is completely mistaken if they think that this will bring about greater security in Europe. I can only warn against that approach. Capital flight and a lack of investment are the price of the loss of trust caused by the crisis, the price that Russia is now paying. However, both had already started before the sanctions by the West. Along with the dramatic drop in the rouble and the sharply declining energy prices, this is a real economic and financial crisis, which will certainly also have an impact on domestic policy. It cannot be in our interests for this to spiral completely out of control. We should bear this in mind in our sanctions policy.

For a long time, you yourself were committed to a modernisation partnership. Were you under illusions about Putin?

When opportunities are not used, it is rarely the fault of one single person. In better days, long before the crisis in Ukraine, neither side did enough to develop more than just our economic relations. We simply put too much on the back burner, including youth exchange, cultural exchange and cooperation in health care and research.

In the petition we just talked about, it says that people should understand the fear felt by Russians “since NATO members extended an invitation to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 to join the Alliance”. Did the West drive Russia into a corner?

Ukraine and Georgia were disappointed that the Bucharest Summit did not pave the way to their joining NATO. The meeting in Bucharest was criticised at the time for being too indulgent of Russia’s geopolitical needs.

In your inaugural speech a year ago, you asked if the EU had perhaps made a mistake in the negotiations on an association agreement with Ukraine, thus playing a role in causing the crisis. Have you found an answer to that question in the meantime?

The EU has answered the question itself. We are now talking with Russia about how the EU-Ukraine trade agreement can be made compatible with Ukraine’s existing agreements with Russia. It was a mistake not to do this earlier.

Is “Realpolitik” a positive term for you?

Foreign policy that is not based on an honest analysis of reality is dangerous and prone to errors. This is why James Baker said during his recent visit to Berlin, “Reality should not be a term of abuse in foreign policy.” Dividing the world into friend and foe, good and bad, and black and white has led us down the wrong track more than once in recent years – with particularly grave consequences in 2003 as a result of the military intervention in Iraq. Foreign policy that only sees desires and visions as relevant is not good foreign policy.

There are people, such as your fellow SPD politician Matthias Platzeck, who want to concede a sphere of influence to Russia that would end at the border to the EU and NATO. Is that good “Realpolitik”? After all, Russia’s fear of being surrounded, but also Moscow’s ongoing significant influence in eastern Europe, are a reality.

We haven’t yet completely embraced the global political watershed since the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the changed global order, with many new players, that ensued. This goes both for us and for Russia. We still revert to the patterns of interpretation we grew up with, but which no longer apply.

What does that mean in practice?

Russia is currently feeling the contradiction between a foreign policy that thinks in terms of geopolitical spheres of influence and the reality of an economy that is globally interconnected. However, the current economic crisis and Moscow’s experiences with the globalised economy show that it is definitely not possible to create stability and security through geopolitics alone.

In Germany there is not only a great deal of sympathy for Russia among the left, but also on the right, in the Pegida movement and parts of the AfD. Can you explain that?

Authoritarian political models and communities where political decisions stem from one person are clearly attractive to the right. It seems that the lack of clarity in liberal societies is too great a challenge for many people.

Why is it that the question of how we deal with Russia polarises opinion so much?

In his book “Der Russland-Komplex” [“The Russia Complex”], Gerd Koenen provides an excellent description of how the relationship between Germans and Russians was always highly emotional over the centuries, both in good and bad times.

In the past year, most of your work has involved crisis diplomacy. As foreign minister, you also need to take a farther-sighted approach How can German-Russian relations be improved again in the long term?

It’s important to provide the political infrastructure so that something positive can develop if possible. We need to actually make use of the dialogue forums available to us, also to conduct a contentious debate. The relationship between NATO and Russia has never been as silent as it is at the moment. We only talk about each other – we don’t talk to each other.

How do you want to change that?

At the last NATO Council meeting in Brussels, I suggested that we organise an exchange of views at least on the military expert level. Even during the coldest days of the Cold War, these types of talks were held. What manoeuvres, movements of troops and overflights are taking place? We need to talk about such things. My hope is that with the gradual implementation of the Minsk Protocol and the de-escalation of the Ukraine conflict we will rebuild German-Russian relations at some stage.

Wouldn’t it make sense for NATO to exclude Ukraine from membership?

I have already commented publicly on that issue.

You said that you don’t see Ukraine as being on the path to joining NATO.

This wasn’t even raised at the last NATO Council meeting, let alone debated. Sometimes what is not said at a summit is also important.

You yourself have said that trust has been damaged for decades to come.

Nevertheless, we need to make a new start at some stage. I have already suggested that we explore the option of a dialogue between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. That would allow us to talk both about economic synergies and about how we deal with conflicts of interest.

Why do you think Putin actually wants this?

Because Russia would have nothing to gain from a permanent conflict with the West. Despite all the problems, there are also a few positive signs.

Such as?

So far, the Ukraine crisis has not had a negative impact on Moscow’s conduct in other conflicts. On the contrary, during the talks with Iran in Vienna the Russians played a very positive role by offering to make fuel rods for Iran. And I can’t repeat often enough that we need Russia if we want to take serious steps towards resolving the conflict in the Middle East and reducing violence in Syria.

Mr Steinmeier, thank you for the interview.

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