Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks about arms control and how to deal with Russia in the Ukraine conflict. Interview published by RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland on 31 August 2016.
Minister, you are to host the OSCE Conference in Potsdam tomorrow. Is that a kind of warm-up exercise for Germany in its efforts to assume greater responsibility worldwide?
It is certainly no coincidence that we have taken on the OSCE Chairmanship in such turbulent times! This was a deliberate step which we took to help strengthen peace and security in the OSCE area. Crisis management and work on key European security architecture issues are two sides of the same coin – the aim of both is peace and greater security in Europe for us all. Over the past months I have myself visited all the regions in which frozen conflicts have been demanding our attention, I have spoken with all the parties to the conflicts, and let me tell you that was no training exercise, it was very real diplomacy!
In the context of relations with Russia, you have recently called for a “re-launch of arms control”. What chance do you think such an initiative has at a time when Russia is violating basic principles of peace, for example by annexing Crimea?
Of course talks with Russia are difficult at present. Russia has infringed fundamental principles of the European order of peace with its annexation of Crimea and its actions in eastern Ukraine – nobody is claiming otherwise. But precisely in such a situation it has to be in our interest to avoid any further escalation and to create transparency where trust has been broken. A re-launch of arms control is not a concession to Russia, but is in the interest of everyone in Europe! In any case, long-term security can only be established by working together, not by working against each other.
What first step would Russia specifically have to take for the West to start dismantling sanctions, a prospect you raised?
I have always said that sanctions are not an end in themselves. If we make good progress in implementing the Minsk agreement with Moscow’s participation, we will be able to talk about lifting sanctions. But at the moment we are stuck on two fronts. On the one hand, there’s the security situation. The agreed ceasefire is being broken time and again, and troops on both sides are much too close to the line of conflict. We have to make sure, at long last, that the shooting stops and that troops and heavy weapons are withdrawn. On the other hand, we also need progress on the political front. For example, both sides have to agree to hold local elections in eastern Ukraine. Proposals already exist. What is lacking is the necessary willingness to compromise – on both sides.
Would it help to connect the diplomatic efforts regarding Ukraine with those on Syria, in a kind of give and take between Moscow and the West?
The fact is that neither conflict can be solved without Russia. However, we should not link the two conflicts. As regards Ukraine, we agreed on a peace plan two years ago, and have since been trying with France to get those accords implemented. In Syria the situation is much more complicated. The negotiations on a peace plan have been suspended, the humanitarian situation is dire, and the people are suffering immeasurable hardship. Dozens of actors, in Syria and the region, are involved in the conflict and are fighting each other. Of course, Russia is one of the main actors. It is in Russia's hands whether a ceasefire can hold and the horror of Aleppo brought to an end.
Do you expect Vladimir Putin to attend the G8 meeting in Sicily in 2017? Or does it look as if he will be shut out again, as at Schloss Elmau, where the group met as the G7 without Russia?
The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine underscore how great our interest is in not excluding Russia from the close coordination among the major economies. At the same time we cannot turn a blind eye to the developments of the past years – to the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. Moscow holds the key for a return to the G8 format. If substantial progress is finally made in eastern Ukraine and on negotiations for a ceasefire in Syria, the G7 partners would surely be willing to talk about welcoming Moscow back.
You have called US presidential candidate Donald Trump a preacher of hate. Is that a diplomatically wise move with regard to a man who might become the most powerful politician in the Western world in two months’ time?
At a time when one crisis follows hot on the heels of the last, many people understandably look for simple answers. But populists instrumentalise this fear of an ever more confusing world for their own political ends, claiming that when everybody is at everybody else’s throats, cutting ourselves off is the best solution. I consider that immensely dangerous. We have to be honest and tell people that there are no simple solutions, no miracle cures. And above all we have to make it clear that we need each other, and can only master the tremendous challenges we face if we work together. Any future US President will realise that soon enough.