Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the escalation of violence in eastern Ukraine, the terrorism threat posed by failed states, the wave of refugees coming from the crisis zones and the impact of the Pegida movement on Germany’s image abroad. Published in the Lausitzer Rundschau amongst others (26 January 2015).
Shortly after the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Berlin on Wednesday, people were once again killed in rocket attacks in Donetsk and Mariupol. Do both sides in eastern Ukraine genuinely want a ceasefire?
The Foreign Ministers of Ukraine and Russia agreed in Berlin that heavy weapons should start to be withdrawn from the contact line immediately. No one has even gone through the motions of implementing it because a few hours after the agreement was reached, artillery attacks violently altered the status quo on the ground. That is why the conflict has further escalated since then. In eastern Ukraine warmongers are once again setting the tone. Now, in the middle of winter, the separatists have placed all their bets on a military approach and are spreading violence and destruction. If an end is not put to this now we could easily soon end up exactly where we were last summer – on the brink of a military confrontation which could spiral out of control. Neither Ukraine nor the separatists will be able to defeat the other side with military means. Everyone needs to clearly recognise that the battle for eastern Ukraine cannot be won through the use of military force.
Moscow has consistently promised to exert influence on the separatists. Is there a gap between its talk and actions?
It is not for the first time in the crisis that promises have been made which have been followed up by little or no action at all, and not only in Moscow. I have already stated after our crisis meeting that we will only see how robust our agreement is when it is actually implemented. It would seem that long‑term instability in eastern Ukraine plays into the hands of many of the separatists. That is what makes the situation so difficult and complex. But we will not give up that easily simply because things are not going as we want them to.
Many people think that the crisis could be resolved by offering Putin a way out which allows him to save face – for example greater independence for Donbas or the assurance that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. Sigmar Gabriel is even offering Russia a free‑trade area. Do you agree with this?
It is of course right to seek out ways and options to maintain peaceful relations with Europe’s largest neighbour in the long run, even now, in a crisis situation. Yet at the same time, one thing is clear to us all, namely that we need to make progress in de‑escalating the crisis in eastern Ukraine before we can take concrete steps to plan such projects. An economic community with Russia from the Atlantic to Vladivostok is a long‑term vision. And that by the way is not a gift to Putin. The involvement of Russia and freer trade in Europe are in everyone’s interest because it could bring more stability, security and prosperity to us all. Germany has a vested interest in this. As a country of industry and trade at the heart of Europe.
And what about the offer of lifting the sanctions?
At the EU Foreign Ministers’ consultations on relations with Russia, there was agreement that given the current situation in eastern Ukraine and the renewed surge of tensions on the ground, now is not the time for such a move. The topic will be placed on the table when the situation has been de‑escalated and unfortunately we are too far away from that point today.
An increasing number of countries are falling apart – Libya, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and possibly also Mali and Nigeria. Does the West have to get used to the idea of the threat of terrorism becoming permanent?
Yes, I’m afraid that the disorder in the world is not a temporary phenomenon. What is happening in the Middle East and Africa has consequences for us in Europe and doesn’t stop at our borders, including when it comes to the growing number of refugees who seek protection from persecution in our countries. Terror and precarious statehood in these parts of the world also pose a threat to our security, too. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris were a dramatic demonstration of this. In addition to this there is a new, dangerous dimension. Young people from our societies are actively deciding to join groups such as the ISIS terrorists and at some point return home. Anyone who asserts that we would be safer if we decided to have nothing to do with all of this, that we should simply close our borders and isolate ourselves from the rest of the world have misjudged the situation.
The terror spread by Boko Haram is particularly savage. There is a growing number of people in Africa who say that the West should either intervene itself or that it should support an African intervention force. What do you think about that?
Boko Haram is terrorising the population in Nigeria and now also in the bordering countries of Cameroon, Niger and Chad with a wave of unbelievably brutal violence and horror. It is up to all of us, the countries in the region as well as the West, to combat Boko Haram. Against this background the proposal of a regional intervention force is quite right. It would be – set up to be sustainable and with support from the West – an expression of Africa’s growing ability to act and sense of responsibility. That is something which we will actively support.
Does Europe need to prepare for the waves of refugees from Africa and the Middle East continuing or even increasing?
Europe is a significant target destination for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Our freedom, the protection which we offer to those persecuted and our prosperity, too, attract many persecuted people and refugees. Whether we like it or not, in light of the many crises which surround us the situation is not going to change significantly in the near future. That makes it all the more important for us to work with our European partners to get a grip on these crises which are forcing so many people to flee, be it for political, economic or humanitarian reasons.
You were recently in North Africa. Do you expect these countries to stop refugees from crossing the Mediterranean?
It is clear that the cynical practise used by human traffickers of abandoning defenceless people in the high seas, putting their lives in danger, must be stopped. The transit countries can play an important role here. That alone will not solve the problem of flight but it would save lives. My trip to North Africa confirmed the impression I had that those in power in Tunisia and Morocco are prepared to work together to solve these problems.
Pegida is being closely followed abroad. How are you confronted with this on your trips?
When I am in talks abroad I am repeatedly asked about the Pegida demonstrations. My interlocutors want to know who is taking to the streets in our country and who these people are actually speaking for. They see Pegida’s posters and hear their slogans. Some come away with the impression that a new xenophobic movement is forming and gaining influence in Germany. That is why it is good to make it clear to these people that Pegida does not represent this country. Germany is and remains a country open to the world.
This interview was conducted by Werner Kolhoff. Reproduced by kind permission of the Lausitzer Rundschau.