Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with the Russian news agency Interfax on the occasion of his visit to Moscow, published 9 March 2017
You have visited Russia on several occasions as Economics Minister and Deputy Chancellor and reaffirmed the need for positive dialogue with Russia. What line are you taking and what signals are you sending in your capacity as Foreign Minister? Is a meeting with President Putin planned?
Russia is a large and important neighbour for Europe. We urgently need one another and need as good a cooperation as possible – for peace and security in Europe but also in order to tackle the world's many major conflicts. This was the case for the Iranian nuclear programme, and remains the case for the situation in Syria or in Libya, as well as for the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Yet, it is impossible to overlook the fact that there are differences of opinion between Europe and Russia on key questions. We are well advised to keep trying to iron these out. That is only possible if we remain in close contact at all political levels. That is why I am in Moscow today.
We need and indeed want to further nurture and deepen the millions of contacts between our two countries at the social, cultural and economic level. In many fields, this is working quite well. Last year, finally saw many more young people taking part in exchange programmes between Russia and Germany. This shows that our interest in one another has not waned by any means. We would be wise to give future generations new ways of connecting.
Sanctions: In the past, you advocated lifting or at least easing the sanctions (in your capacity as Economics Minister). And what is your position now? Given recent developments, are you more or less optimistic about the lifting of sanctions?
It is still true that sanctions are not an end in themselves – they are tied to a substantial implementation of the Minsk agreements to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. I would be delighted if we were to finally see progress on implementing Minsk and could then also talk about easing sanctions gradually. The fact of the matter is that we haven't seen that yet.
Minsk agreements: You visited Ukraine recently. In Russia, people believe that the West is starting to realise that it is Kyiv putting the brakes on implementation, at least of the political part. What is your view on the growing tensions at the contact line? What is your opinion on the Donbass blockade and the increasingly difficult energy situation in Ukraine?
To be honest, I would even be happy if the two sides would at least stick to the ceasefire, to withdrawing heavy weapons and disengaging the armed units. But it is dreadful to have to watch the people suffering as a result of the military action, on both sides. Humanitarian assistance needs to be stepped up. But instead, according to impartial OSCE monitoring, both sides keep violating the ceasefire. At our meeting in the Normandy format with the Foreign Ministers of France, Russia and Ukraine on the fringes of the Munich Security Conference, there were pledges to bring all influence to bear to ensure that the ceasefire is finally observed and that what has long been agreed can begin, namely, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the contact line and the military disengagement from places with a particularly high potential for conflict. Furthermore, we called for the clearing of road and rail blockades as they harm everyone. None of these pledges has yet been sufficiently implemented. This is dangerous because we could at any time find ourselves in the midst of a new military and also political escalation. And it shows that we do not just need commitments to Minsk, but we also need a firm political will to implement – otherwise we fail to move forward and it is the people in Donbass who are bearing the brunt.
Do you believe we need a relaunch of the Minsk process as a whole or in the Normandy format? The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin referred to the supposed agreement reached in Munich to extend the format to include the United States as a myth. Foreign Minister Lavrov said Moscow was not against the involvement of the United States. What is Berlin's position?
To date I have not heard from either Moscow or Kyiv that they want to change the format. But above all I don't know what a “relaunch” is supposed to mean. At the end of the day, all negotiations boil down to the same question: Do both parties have an interest in letting the guns finally fall silent and entering into a process to bring about peaceful conflict resolution? The Minsk agreements outline all the key questions that any relaunch of negotiations would also come up with.
Recent visit to the Rukla military base where German military technology is deployed. Moscow is concerned about the first “German bootprint” after World War II just 100 km away from the Russian border. Is Russia seen as a direct threat and to what extent is Germany prepared, also within NATO, to enhance its forward presence at the Alliance's eastern flank?
Here, too, an honest answer, that I want to begin with a question: Are the Baltic states, so small compared to Russia or other European countries, really posing such a threat that the Russian side needed to establish a huge military potential? In comparison, the number of German soldiers is a drop in the bucket. It was not Germany nor other NATO states who first established a presence in the Baltic.
In eastern Europe, there is widespread anxiety following Russia's actions in Ukraine. That is something we need to take seriously.
It would be even more important to focus step by step on disarmament measures. In the last thirty years, we have achieved so much for Europe's security: transparency, arms control and disarmament are important elements of our shared security which we should preserve and develop. Security comes about if we enter into dialogue with one another and take steps to create and improve mutual trust. That is why I feel it is so important for the NATO-Russia Council to meet regularly once again and for talks to be conducted on steps to reduce risk in the Baltic Sea region. We must at all cost prevent a regression to Cold War days.
How do you assess the deployment of Iskander-M missiles in the Kaliningrad region? What could NATO's response be? Germany is a member after all.
If Iskander missiles were to be permanently deployed in Kaliningrad, it would be a source of great concern and a setback for Europe's security. We are therefore watching very carefully and with some concern what is happening in Kaliningrad.
On 21 February, the management of Nord Stream 2 met with the EU Energy Commissioner. Was this ultimately a step forward? Will Germany support the project in Brussels?
Nord Stream 2 is not a European Commission project but an investment decision made by private European companies. For us, it is important the pipeline is built and operated in a way that is compatible with EU law. We will continue to keep an eye on this. Contact between the European Commission and the companies involved is therefore a step in the right direction. In Europe, we have an interest in having secure energy supplies in the long term. As an additional supply route, Nord Stream 2 can play its part. And the Russian side is familiar with my position and has been for years: We want Nord Stream 2 but we also want security for the Ukraine Pipeline and for supplies for countries such as Slovakia, Czechia and Poland. And my instinct is that our Russian partners are prepared to act in accordance.
Many countries are accusing Russia of cyber attacks. Germany, too, with its election this year, was no exception. Does the Federal Government have proof? Was the matter addressed in Moscow?
We take potential cyber attacks connected to the Bundestag election very seriously – regardless of who is staging such an attack! We cannot and will not allow democratic elections to be undermined in this way. We are engaged in dialogue with many countries on cyber security. With Russia, too, we had bilateral consultations at the end of February which were constructive. The OSCE Ministerial Council adopted a resolution on cyber security in December 2016.
Syria: What are the chances of resolving the conflict and how do you assess Russia's role in this process? Recently there were Western media reports that Russian diplomats had called upon EU countries to play a part in Syria's economic reconstruction. Did such talks take place? Is Germany prepared to do so?
Peace will not be achieved through a military victory. Without a political solution, the dreadful conflict will not end, without a political solution, the danger is that Syria will see continued violence and further radicalisation. That is why there needs to be massive pressure on the conflicting parties from the outside so that we will finally see the implementation of what the United Nations Security Council agreed unanimously in Resolution 2254. But we have a long way to go. Everyone, particularly the international actors, have to play their part. Russia plays a central role here. We are counting on Russia bringing its major influence on the Assad regime to bear so that the political process in Geneva now leads to serious negotiations, just as we expect the regional powers to shoulder their responsibility.