“We must break the silence”

22.04.2016 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaks about engaging more with Russia and warns of the dangers of a Brexit. Published in the Handelsblatt on 22 April 2016.

Minister Steinmeier: Syria, Ukraine, the Islamic State – these words describe the current geopolitical chaos in the world. Is disorder the new world order?

With the end of the confrontation between the two blocs, the order that prevailed for decades, with all of its cynical realities, also came to an end. We Germans probably benefitted the most from this. The Berlin Wall fell, and German unification became possible. Only no new enduring order has yet taken the place of the old one. The world is searching for a new order. The struggle for influence and control is not taking place in the peaceful atmosphere of a university seminar. Rather, it is generating outbursts of violence. We are witnessing this above all in the Middle East, where conflicts are being fought under the mantle of cultural and religious struggle – with ideologies taking over, turning differences into bad blood.

Is Syria the greatest challenge when it comes to creating more stability in the world?

Honestly, I find it very difficult to think in terms of a hierarchy of crises. They could be grouped according to their geographic proximity, the number of victims, or their potential for future escalation. In terms of proximity, the conflict in Ukraine is undoubtably the most important crisis. When looking at the number of victims and suffering brought about by five years of civil war, including the great numbers of refugees, then Syria is certainly the most important. Thinking about the potential for vast escalation, we must keep a close eye on Libya and remain strongly engaged regarding that country.

For Libya, can similar agreements be reached to those with Turkey, in order to prevent new routes for refugees?

We must make demands of the new government, without overburdening it. At this point in time, it would be too much to ask the government to take action that would require it to project power beyond the capital itself. Also, there is a key difference between Libya and Turkey: Libya has not signed the Geneva Refugee Convention, and so far it is not remotely capable of sheltering refugees in humane conditions.

After a wave of willingness to help tackle the refugee crisis, more and more Germans are doubting that the civil war in Syria can be ended soon. How optimistic are you that a solution can still be found this year?

Anyone who knows the Middle East cannot be optimistic. However, after nearly five years of fighting, nearly 300,000 casualties, and some twelve million displaced persons, momentum for change is finally building. In November, the Americans, the Russians, the Iranians, and the Saudis – as well as other actors in the region and from Europe – met in Vienna with the aim of ending the civil war. We knew, and remain fully aware, that this is not an easy task. Just think: The opposition side is made up of representatives of organisations that only recently were arch-enemies. It is hard enough to get them to agree on a joint position concerning President Assad. Things will get all the more difficult when the time comes to make concrete decisions. It is no surprise that we have reached the first true crisis in these negotiations now that we are seriously discussing the formation of a transitional government in Syria.

Is there not the possibility that the talks will fail? The opposition parties just left the negotiating table.

I was not surprised when the opposition took this decision. After a seven-week cease-fire, hundreds of people have again been killed due to escalations in recent days near Aleppo and in the suburbs of Damascus. That caused the opposition to at least partially withdraw from the talks. However, I do not believe that we now risk complete failure of the negotiations. Nevertheless, we must do everything we can to ensure the cease-fire is respected again.

What makes you so confident?

We do currently have a more or less functional political mechanism, in the form of the contact group on Syria and the two task forces established in Munich. There are also more intensive contacts between the Russians and the Americans. It is a good sign that, after the strikes on markets in Idlib three days ago, which killed 40 people, a phone call immediately took place between Obama and Putin. It is my impression that Russia. too, has a keen interest in making sure that this peace process does not fail.

And yet Assad’s grip on power has not loosened. The successes he has achieved against ISIL create the impression that it may even be in Germany’s interest for Assad to remain in power a little while longer.

That would be based on the assumption that the Russians and the Iranians are absolutely bent on keeping Assad in power. Of course, not all those working for a future unified Syrian state share that same motivation. And it is also clear that, by getting involved in the Syrian civil war, Russia changed the equation of the war. What I think Russia wanted, and still aims, to prevent, is the complete collapse of Syria’s state structure, with the Islamic militias seizing power.

But what does the Kremlin want?

We can only speculate about Russia’s motivations. Certainly, it has a key interest in securing its naval bases and, along with them, its access to the Mediterranean. And, surely, Moscow wants a seat at the table when a new order is created in the Middle East. Through its engagement in Syria, Moscow also aims to stay on an equal footing with the only remaining global power, the United States. In addition to all these interests, we must not underestimate Russia’s concern that current tendencies towards radicalisation in the Islamic world of the Middle East could spread along, and also penetrate, Russia’s southern periphery. For all those reasons, I do not think that Assad is Russia’s sole or chief priority.

Is it not time to bring Russia back into the fold, in an international sense?

Considering there has been a flagrant violation of international law, we cannot simply return to business as usual. However, the question of whether or not to include – and our willingness to engage in dialogue with – Russia is not tied to the current political situation, but rather a matter of principle. I am most deeply convinced that, especially in difficult situations, we must not pursue an isolationist policy. There are not many examples in recent history where marginalisation and isolation have helped bring about a political solution.

Is it not quite the opposite?

Resolution of the conflict with Iran has shown how relying on only one instrument will seldom produce change. Even in apparently hopeless situations you must not give up, but rather continue to insist on negotiations. Because of experiences like ours with Iran, I urge us not to do away with the few opportunities that we still have to meet. That is why I campaigned for re-engagement with Russia through the NATO–Russia Council. The first NATO–Russia Council meeting was a challenging event. But I am happy to see increasing awareness that completely cutting off ties with Russia bears more risks than opportunities.

Would you like to see a return to the G8 format, that is, a format including Russia’s President Putin?

The fact that we are currently meeting in the G7 format is not an end in itself. I wish we could sooner rather than later have the conditions under which a return to the G8 format would be possible.

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has called on the West to actively engage with Russia. That is, to better acknowledge progress in connection with the Ukraine conflict. Were opportunities missed in this respect?

We must not disregard the fact that, with the annexation of Crimea, international law was violated. Russia is not just any actor, but a signatory of the Helsinki Final Act. The inviolability of borders is enshrined in it as one of Europe’s greatest principles. This cannot simply be ignored. But you are right in saying that we must meet each other halfway. I sincerely hope that, after weeks of standstill, and now that the governmental crisis in Ukraine has been resolved, we can re-enter a phase of cooperation and willingness to compromise, so that the Minsk Agreement can again be implemented. The signals we are getting from the new government in Kyiv are encouraging.

Do you feel that Russia, for its part, is willing to meet halfway?

I see a mixed picture. In the conflict over Iran, Russia was highly cooperative. Regarding Ukraine, Russia must clearly do more. With respect to Syria, Moscow is being helpful in supporting the peace talks in Geneva. Libya, however, has been a sensitive issue between Russia and the West, ever since 2011 and the consequences of the Security Council’s decision at that time. Here, it would be good if we could break the silence. I could imagine us making a serious attempt at cooperating with Russia on Libya. We have a common interest in stabilising the situation there, and in making sure that ISIL does not gain a better foothold.

Is this a second Cold War?

The temperature of the Cold War varied. During its coldest days, there were certainly situations in which there was even less political contact than there is now. But this comparison belies the fact that we are today in an entirely different situation. The days when the world was divided up among two dominating world powers are behind us. The great number of present-day conflicts are proof of how disorderly a world we live in. State structures are falling apart. In some regions, there are no state structures or counterparts whatsoever. However, there will be no return to the Cold War, simply because the world is completely different than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. This mainly means that the world is not as cut-and-dried as it was. Conflicts today are less and less between state actors. They are becoming increasingly compounded, and fuelled by ethnic and religious interests. All this makes our world a more dangerous place, because it is more difficult to predict than the old one.

How do we defend ourselves against terrorism?

Our security authorities are doing professional work. However, the biographies of the terrorists and the way that attacks are being prepared highlight the strong role of international terrorist networks. It is therefore absolutely necessary that security authorities in Europe further increase their cooperation.

We spoke about how Europe is in danger of falling apart. What would the consequences of a Brexit be, that is, of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union?

I am afraid that some people underestimate the consequences of a Brexit. Should the British vote in favour of leaving the EU, this would have immediate consequences on Great Britain itself, as well as on neighbouring countries, such as Ireland, as well as on us. We would immediately be confronted with an intensive eurosceptic debate, and this could well play into the hands of right-wing populists. Also for that reason, I hope those in the United Kingdom in favour of remaining in the EU will succeed in convincing the eurosceptics.

Would a Brexit be the beginning of the end of the European Union?

That would be a game-changer. In my view, it would be an illusion to think that, the day after such a vote, we could continue conducting business as usual among the 28 members minus the UK.

Minister Steinmeier, thank you very much for the interview.

The Minister was interviewed by Sven Afhüppe, Mathias Brüggmann and Thomas Sigmund.

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