Interview given by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the upcoming G7 Summit and the situation in Ukraine, published in the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung on 4 June 2015
Mr Steinmeier, what are your hopes for this weekend’s G7 Summit in Bavaria?
In a world full of crises, it is right and proper for the large, economically powerful countries to meet and talk to one another. It makes sense not only in view of the fight against radical groups in the Middle East but also with regard to economic threats such as those emanating from unsolved problems to the south of the Mediterranean – in Libya, for instance. Plus, of course, we have a situation in Ukraine that is still unstable even four months after the Minsk agreements.
In what area do you expect to see the greatest progress?
I am hoping that agreement will be reached on matters of international cooperation in the fight against diseases and epidemics in the poorer regions of the world, especially in Africa. We were not in a good enough position to get the Ebola epidemic under control with sufficient speed. We can be glad that our joint efforts did work in the end. Next time, we need to be quicker off the mark. The G7 Summit will be making arrangements for that, among other things.
The German business sector wants a memorandum against industrial espionage. What do you think the chances are?
None of the countries at the G7 Summit will oppose the fight against industrial espionage. Whether that puts an end to industrial espionage is another question, not least because states are not the only actors interested in looking over their rivals’ shoulders.
What about Greece?
We want to have Greece stay in the euro area – for one thing, because we know leaving would have disastrous consequences for Greece, but also because a Grexit could trigger fresh economic instability in the eurozone. But we won’t find a solution without Greece’s input. Jean-Claude Juncker is working with Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi to make Athens sensible reform proposals. It’s now up to the government in Athens to decide whether they want to follow that road or not.
Would it not be helpful to have the Russians at the table at the G7 Summit?
There can be no interest on our part in the G8 remaining the G7 in the long term. On the contrary, we urgently need Russia to help resolve entrenched conflicts in our European neighbourhood, such as those plaguing Syria, Iraq and Libya, as well as Iran’s nuclear programme. But we couldn’t just carry on with business as usual when Russia broke international law by annexing Crimea and was then not prepared to put right what it had done. Then came the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine through military support to separatists. I am hoping that our combination of raising the political and economic pressure while at the same time seeking dialogue with Russia will get us out of a situation in Ukraine which is dangerous for all of Europe.
What is the state of play on implementation of the Minsk agreements?
The Minsk agreements are still a long way from implemented, but there is no doubt that they are having a mitigating effect on the fighting, even though the ceasefire remains fragile.
You were in Kyiv recently to push upholding of the ceasefire – in Kyiv, we noticed; does that mean the key to this is currently there rather than in Moscow?
The Minsk Protocol isn’t going to implement itself. Nothing is going to be easy or move forward by itself; we need to keep up the pressure on the conflict parties from day to day, alongside France, if things are to progress. The crucial condition for progress is a lasting ceasefire. We are therefore concentrating on working with the OSCE to calm the situation in those places where fighting is ongoing, such as Donetsk airport and the small town of Shyrokyne near Mariupol. Together with Russia and Ukraine, we have also agreed that preparations are already to get under way for increased humanitarian aid in eastern Ukraine and initial steps to restore disrupted infrastructure, like water supplies and railways.
To what extent does the government in Kyiv have the armed groups on its side entirely under control?
I find it questionable whether that was always the case. However, President Poroshenko is visibly endeavouring to get the volunteer battalions under the central command of the national army. He isn’t shying away from conflict to make that happen. That dispute with the now dismissed Governor of Dnipropetrovsk was an important move in strengthening Kyiv’s authority in those areas where volunteer battalions have been a powerful military force.
The Russian travel bans are causing resentment and agitation. What’s your advice?
The existing sanctions being imposed by Europe are not an end in themselves. They are intended to generate readiness to negotiate and pave the way for military deescalation and political settlement. Once this road has been chosen and Russia has played its part in the implementation of the Minsk agreements, there will be no reason to keep the sanctions at the current levels, and indeed no interest in doing so. I would add that additional sanctions now would be just as unhelpful as the recent list of Russian travel bans targeting Western politicians.
Germany is currently providing Ukraine with a loan of 500 million euros. What happens to that money if the state goes bankrupt or its debts are restructured?
Germany is doing much more than that. We have been engaged in providing humanitarian aid, particularly to people who have fled their homes because of the fighting. In the course of 2015, we are putting up around 200 million euros to finance projects to restore better living conditions and infrastructure in eastern Ukraine. Germany will furthermore be making credit lines amounting to 500 million euros available to boost the Ukrainian economy in important areas. We are still discussing that with Ukraine. All these measures, alongside others being undertaken by other European partners, the EU, the United States, Canada and Japan, are intended to help avert the insolvency that it is feared Ukraine might face.
German companies are suffering huge losses. Trade between the EU and Russia plummeted during 2014, while trade with the United States soared and deals worth billions of dollars were made. At the same time, Washington was urging Europe to impose strict sanctions. How does that tally?
It was never a secret that a decision about sanctions would also have consequences for German business, and it was sadly unavoidable. In certain sectors, like mechanical engineering, a particularly dense network of supply contracts had been established. Nonetheless, I have the impression that most of the business community understand and accept that politicians had to issue a response to what was a violation of international law. Germany’s strength lies in exports. Export depends on rules which are upheld throughout the global market – so Germany’s business community knows that glaring breaches of fundamental rules in the long run also jeopardise their export model. And on the other side of the coin, we know that politicians have a responsibility not to let a conflict like this take its course but to search for solutions which will return our relations with Russia to a predictable footing. That’s what we’re doing.
All the same, isn’t it paradoxical for Russia’s trade with the US to rise while its European trade sinks?
These are comparisons that the Russians like to point out. However, you do have to keep things in perspective: US trade with Russia is on a pretty small scale, after all.
This interview was conducted by Burkhard Ewert and reproduced by kind permission of the newspaper Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.