45 seconds to get your grandmother, your daughter and your younger brother to safety.
45 seconds to take cover under the kitchen table, because the basement is too far away.
45 seconds is how much time there is between the sounding of the sirens and Russian missiles striking Kharkiv.
When I went there in early January, I learned what that meant – 45 seconds.
I was told: “You can just stay seated in the car and count to 45. Afterwards, you'll know what happened.” Luckily, nothing happened while we were there. But that’s not the case for the people of Kharkiv.
I saw apartment blocks that had been crushed like cardboard boxes. I met with the mayor of a city in which more than 150,000 people have lost their homes. I visited pupils in a warming centre who had sought it out because the cold outside was unbearable. This is everyday life in a city that for months has been fighting for survival.
A pupil at that warming centre told me that she used to play volleyball – and that what she used to enjoy most was playing five against five. But 45 seconds are not enough time to escape from the volleyball sports hall. 45 seconds are also not enough to evacuate a school.
That is why these pupils have been stuck at home for months now. They are not playing volleyball, they are not going to school, and they hardly go outside. They simply wait and count to 45, over and over again. What these pupils long for more than anything else is to finally be able to go back to school, and to play volleyball. To finally hear that this war is over.
That’s what keeps me going on a daily basis.
Over the past year, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been killing people every day. This war must never start to feel like normal life to us. That’s why we must, and why we will, continue to closely follow what’s happening in Ukraine.
That is why it’s so important for me to be able to tell people there: “You can count on our support.”
Because that is exactly what this pupil asked me at the end of our talk: “Can we count on you?” To be honest, questions like this always make me gasp a little. Because a promise you make also needs to be kept. And we do not know if saying “yes” will mean several weeks, several months, or even several years.
But I replied with a wholehearted “yes”. Because we’re also talking about our own 45 seconds.
That, to me, is one of the biggest lessons I learned last year. Our partners’ trust in our country is an important – maybe even the most important – currency that German foreign policy has to spend. We Germans will never forget that we owe our life in peace and security and freedom after our country's reunification to our friends around the world, on whom we could count, even when from time to time public opinion shifted in their countries.
That is why today it is up to us to reach out to them, saying: “We stand with you. You can count on us, even though our debates are getting more heated and fierce.”
Because in a day and age when a war is raging in Europe, this trust is our common life insurance policy. And this trust is not to be taken for granted. We need to constantly keep working to achieve it.
I know it’s not very original for me to quote Heinrich Böll in a speech at the Heinrich Böll Foundation – but I’ll do so anyway, because he said many smart things that we should keep reminding ourselves about. Let me quote: “Freedom is not a gift; it is something that is earned.”
This statement is more relevant today than ever before. Because Ukraine is defending not only its peace – so that children can return to school – but indeed also its freedom. Peace in freedom. To see that this is not to be taken for granted, that it’s not automatically a given, one need only look to a neighbouring country. It can be seen in Belarus. Luckily, no one there these days needs to count to 45 in anticipation of missile strikes. But that does not mean that people there are free.
That is why I believe this sentence attributed to Heinrich Böll is also a fitting response to those who constantly claim, “Let’s stop the fighting, regardless of whether all of Ukraine is Ukrainian right now or not – so what?”
But that would also mean that these pupils in Kharkiv will still need to count to 45, because rockets can be fired from Russia, and the border is only 40 kilometres away, which is why air defence systems cannot intercept them like they can in other parts of Ukraine. It would mean that children and adolescents in eastern Ukraine – whom we cannot even talk to because we cannot travel there, and who live under Russian occupation – that they would not live in freedom and in peace.
That is why in my opinion calling for a ceasefire – even though ceasefires always sound like a good thing – will not automatically bring peace, and certainly not peace in freedom. Because a forced ceasefire under the current conditions – with a part of Ukraine being occupied, with missiles and bombs continuing to be launched – a forced ceasefire would not promote peace in Ukraine, but would rather promote the subjugation of Ukraine.
Because the absence of war does not automatically mean peace in freedom. Peace dictated by Russia is the opposite of a just peace. Such a concept of peace, a peace that has been dictated, accepts the law of the strong and tramples on international law. That is why it was so important that we engaged in a joint debate last year all around the world to ask: what does peace mean for Ukraine? Many people I spoke to first said, “This is your war. This is your peace. This is Europe’s affair. Where were you when we needed you?”
That’s a justified question. We must be self-critical and confront this question, time and again. I still repeatedly made an effort to point out: “You are right to ask this critical question. But whom will it serve if we now simply repeat the mistakes of the past; if others look away when international law is trampled underfoot?”
Because no one anywhere in the world will simply be given freedom as a gift. It must be earned – time and again. That is why it is so important, right now and considering the security risks we face, that we invest not only in our European security but also in the trust of our friends and partners around the world.
This applies first and foremost to support for the people in Ukraine. From the very day that Russia launched its war of aggression, we stood by their side – providing humanitarian help, financial aid and military assistance. And we were not the only ones. So many countries all over the world – with some choosing not to make it publicly known because they feared there would be reprisals – so many countries around the world are supporting Ukraine militarily, and especially with financial and humanitarian assistance.
And yes, it was the right thing to do when we conferred with our partners in January and agreed on the joint provision of tanks to Ukraine. That’s not because we think tanks are great, and certainly not because we think they’re harmless. But we did so because we need to keep asking ourselves what would happen if we were not to make certain decisions. We also bear responsibility for things that we do not do.
We decided that, in this situation, we have a duty – as in the previous months – to stand by those who are defending their freedom and who want to fulfil this pupil’s wish to simply go back to school. Because that’s what Ukraine needs now – and as I see it, that’s what we are expected to do under international law, in accordance with what’s laid down in the UN Charter.
When the Security Council with its five members is no longer able to act and cannot guarantee world peace, this becomes a matter for the General Assembly to address. And the General Assembly answered this question in March, when it voted by a very, very large majority, saying: we stand on the side of international law. When it comes down to a decision between justice and injustice, between an aggressor and the victims, then we stand on the side of the law and on the side of the people.
Because we do not in any way want to accept borders in Europe or in other parts of the world being moved by force, and unspeakable suffering being brought down on millions of people. We do not want to accept it when Vladimir Putin attempts to force on us the logic of past centuries, when the law of the strong took precedence over international law. This is, and was, the brutal lesson that many other countries in the world were forced to learn.
This is not some abstract fear. In particular not so for Moldova and Georgia; even in Armenia this is a real and present danger. Other parts of the world feel the same way.
If we were to accept that a stronger aggressor can invade its weaker neighbour, then no country in the world will be able to sleep well at night. The countries in Russia’s neighbourhood start listening very closely when they hear Vladimir Putin state that, in his view, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
Jan Philipp Albrecht mentioned earlier that, a few years ago, our answer to some things was simply to say “That’s not what he meant.” Now, in Ukraine, we see that it’s exactly what he meant.
Which is why this question about trust is not an abstract question. And why it’s not only Ukraine, but also why countries in Ukraine’s neighbourhood expect that they can continue to place their trust in us. That is why we are now, together with our partners and our friends in Europe, reorganising our security.
We are investing a massive amount in our security. And we are not doing so based on some last-century thinking, saying these here are our Western partners and friends. For me, it’s not really about the West. You’re entitled to define things as you may, but I’m 42, and I did not grow up with this image of “the East and the West”.
For most of my life, I’ve lived in a reunited Germany, located at the heart of a common Europe. That is why, when looking at how we should reorganise, my thinking is not merely shaped by the G7, NATO and the EU.
Russia’s president was betting on the EU not standing as one, and above all he sought to bring disarray to the OSCE and the Council of Europe. That was based on the assumption that the EU countries and the G7 countries would gather in their respective fora and decide for themselves what action to take. Yet quite the opposite was the case. For me, one of the most important meetings, although it received the least amount of media attention, was last year’s meeting of OSCE Foreign Ministers.
At that meeting, we intensively debated the question “Have we failed, or did we actually grow closer together?” At the end of those two days, the outcome was that the OSCE remains intact, and – even though the organisation does not currently have a budget, because that’s being obstructed by Russia, and even though there is no money to spend, including on the organisation's staff – the decision was made that the OSCE will begin to establish missions for other regions in Europe that can address border disputes. This indeed proves that, even when the fiercest attacks are launched on international law, on our common rules, the law will prevail.
All we need to do is stand up every day for what is right and not allow ourselves to be intimidated. We need to say: “This has only strengthened our resolve – we are even more determined to work together for security in Europe.”
That’s why I believe the big challenge in 2023 is to focus our diplomatic efforts on strengthening this principle: now more than ever, enhancing international cooperation and strengthening international law. Also in countries that, on account of their history or their geographic location, have particularly close connections with Russia.
When I travelled to Kazakhstan last October, I spoke with my counterpart in Astana about a wind farm that a German-Swedish company wants to build there – covering a surface the size of Land Brandenburg.
Such projects are essential for fighting the climate crisis, the largest security crisis of our time. They also enable Kazakhstan to diversify its economic ties and use wind farms to bolster its own security.
Let us remember that Kazakhstan and Russia have the longest land border in the world, stretching more than 7,500 kilometres. Nearly half of all of Kazakhstan’s imports come from Russia. And Astana has always been one of Moscow’s closest allies. But the war against Ukraine has also shaken this trust and the two countries’ ties.
When we condemned Russia’s war of aggression in the United Nations, Kazakhstan did not side with Russia. When Russia declared the independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Astana did not go along with this farce.
Because Kazakhstan , too, sees clearly that a country that attacks its neighbours and uses energy as a weapon, whose leading politicians publicly call the statehood of Kazakhstan into question, such a country is not a reliable partner – not for anyone.
It goes without saying that they sense that not only in Kazakhstan. That’s why it’s so important for us that we now make it clear to other countries, also outside Europe, that they can count on our cooperation.
Here in Europe, we’re doing that vis-à-vis Kazakhstan and also Uzbekistan, where we’re looking for new partnerships.
We’re there when countries such as Georgia, Moldova or the Western Balkan countries seek to move towards EU membership, when they want to become more resilient against Russian disinformation or when they want to protect their infrastructure against hacker attacks. These, too, were moments in this terrible year which made us realise that we are strong together: for example, when we recognised Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU candidate country status. I believe it would have been inconceivable three or five years ago for the EU to agree unanimously on that.
And we are there when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia escalates, a conflict which has caused enormous human suffering over the last 30 years. Together as the EU, we decided to launch a new EU mission there. I’m pleased that this mission is to be headed on the ground by a German official.
I know that many of you here today have been working in this region for decades, operating a dialogue format, running exchange programmes for school classes, collecting donations or launching human rights campaigns. All of you have done so much for the civil societies in these countries. Your work provides a solid foundation on which we can now expand our cooperation at this very time when the war of aggression is being waged.
The offices of the various foundations, especially the Heinrich Böll Foundation, have become a second home for many people in these countries, a home where democracy and freedom are celebrated, where people discuss, work, learn and, thankfully, laugh a lot.
Freedom is not a gift; it is something that is earned. This sentiment drives many in the region – and also many of you. Nobody knows better than you what this commitment is all about: it’s about bringing together millions of people in our immediate neighbourhood. That is one of the aims which guide my approach to foreign policy. It’s not just about visits between ministers in capital cities but also about getting people to enter into a dialogue with each other. These states represent millions of people with different histories and traditions, with different dreams and needs.
We want to focus more on this diversity. When we say: “we’re defending our freedom, our peace, our shared values” it doesn’t mean that we all of a sudden have to do everything the same way.
Rather, this is about standing up in all our diversity for what unites us all. Because we’re humans, because we all dream of peace and freedom.
That’s why we intend to further strengthen these formats that put people to the fore: with civil society, but also in the youth sphere, between school classes, between universities and with the political foundations.
I’m therefore delighted that we decided last week in the Federal Cabinet to appoint Robin Wagener to coordinate intersocietal cooperation with the Southern Caucasus, the Republic of Moldova and Central Asia on behalf of the German Government.
Robin, your work will stand for this very approach: “We hear you. You can count on us.”
Together, we will also send this message to the civil societies of Belarus and Russia, especially as it’s not possible at the moment to travel to these countries.
Many courageous Russians who have expressed their opposition to this war are still there. Some of them have been locked up. However, they are there and they need dialogue more than ever. In Belarus, there are still more than 1500 political prisoners because Lukashenko is oppressing his own people.
We’re creating specially tailored channels of communication and projects for these people, which neither Putin nor Lukashenko can destroy.
The German Government is launching a round table with Russian civil society in exile to bring together exiled democratic Russian stakeholders so that they can actively campaign for a free, democratic Russia.
We need to offer them something new these days. It’s more important than ever in this situation to offer them visas, scholarships and the opportunity to network online. At the same time, we also want to talk about how we can continue to support civil society in Russia. This year alone, we’re implementing more than 50 projects involving Russian NGOs and activists – not despite but because of Russia’s war of aggression. The political foundations are playing an important role in this.
We’re continuing to support civil society in Belarus with our action plan. It allows us to foster independent media, offer protection programmes for members of the opposition and document the regime’s human rights violations so that they can be prosecuted at some point in the future. Because one thing is clear: we will not forget the democratic forces in Belarus and Russia. We will not abandon these people. In these countries, too, there are schoolchildren who may not have to count to 45 until the next missile strikes, but who are waiting for the day when they can live in freedom again.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends, when we seek to win greater trust in Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus, we are also serving our own best interest.
After all, if our neighbourhood is not safe, then we’re not safe either.
But also in Latin America, Asia and Africa, we as globally connected economies rely on our partners. This last terrible year has highlighted that.
On a global scale, we can only act together. However, we can see that the view of Russia’s war of aggression is completely different in many countries. There’s absolutely no point in trying to gloss over that. That’s why it’s no use going there and saying: “Just follow our example. We’ll tell you what to do.”
We will not have any success if we’re not prepared to see things from the perspective of others. If my country is dependent on Russia militarily, then I cannot simply say: “Of course I’ll implement all your sanctions.” Certainly not when a neighbouring country is threatening me at my own border.
That’s why it’s so important that we’re always prepared to see things from the point of view of others but, at the same time, not to stay silent when the arguments put forward are incompatible with international law.
Fortunately, however, the opposite is true. Fortunately, we’re often asked the same questions that we were asked in Kharkiv.
“Can we count on you?” I was also asked this question at the last Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh when we called for a loss and damage fund be set up to tackle the climate crisis. Some who went into the talks thinking: “Now we’re proposing a fund. They should all be grateful.” were surprised.
I remember a session where I initially said: “I can’t believe it.” European countries were calling for CO2 to be reduced on a bigger scale and said that they wanted to set up a new joint fund. And then an African country said: “No, we won’t agree to any of this.”
And when told that, as a consequence, CO2 wouldn’t be reduced and that there would be no funding, the representatives of this country said: “Yes, but you’ve already made so many pledges in the past.”
Part of the problem was that there were, of course, other countries exerting pressure in the background. That they were in a group which had previously demonstrated solidarity and inspired trust, a group which they automatically joined because it was these countries who had helped them in times of crisis in the past.
So if we want to expand our alliances then we have to constantly remind ourselves that we don’t automatically enjoy trust in other regions. That’s why I consider the issue of climate action to be so important when it comes to safeguarding peace in Europe. Not because I’m a member of the Green Party but because the climate crisis is a huge threat to the security of many countries around the world – especially small ones – which know very well why the Charter of the United Nations is so vital to them. These countries have to know that we take the biggest threat to security, the climate crisis, very seriously.
We can only gain their trust if, when it comes to our pledges – for example, the 100 billion dollars for climate finance – we finally ensure that sufficient funding is made available.
For Germany, this trust is an important currency. For if we want other countries to free themselves of dependencies, just as we freed ourselves of our dependence on Russian energy, if others want to free themselves of military dependencies in their regions, then, of course, financial security is vital.
One consideration is the military aspect – and, fortunately, other countries don’t only associate us with military power. That means that other countries may have to shoulder responsibility when it comes to security. However, we’re associated with reliability, with trust and diplomacy – and as the world’s fourth-largest economy it goes without saying that we’re also associated with economic competence.
That’s why a sustainable economic policy and sustainable economic relations with these countries are in our own best security interest. They complement our development cooperation, our measures in the field of cultural relations and education, as well as the work of the political foundations.
That’s why it’s so important that when we talk about security, in the broader sense, for example in the National Security Strategy, that we see this as an integrated security among all these spheres. This includes humanitarian assistance, not only in the face of the terrible disaster in Turkey and northern Syria.
I hear time and again, especially when we’re confronted with tight budgetary constraints and we’re in the midst of the budget negotiations: “But if we’re the world’s fourth-largest economy, why are we the second-largest donor? We could make a few cuts here.”
My response is quite simple: because as a country which is not a major military power but is a leading economy, trust is our most important currency. If, when encouraging others to trust us, to help us safeguard our European peaceful order, we signal at the same time that we’re no longer prepared to provide the assistance we did in previous years, then this trust will be lost.
I’d therefore like us to do the opposite. I want us to understand that even after the watershed we’ve experienced, security has not suddenly become a purely military issue.
Yes, we have to invest much more in our defensive capabilities because we’re obviously vulnerable and because it’s evident that one of the world’s major countries is currently not complying with international law. However, we also have to invest in integrated security – and that’s more than the Bundeswehr budget. I believe it’s crucial that we make fair and good offers to our partners in Africa, Latin America or Asia within the context of development cooperation, offers which go beyond purely financial support.
For these countries often don’t want to be recipient countries. Rather, they want to invest with us in their economic development. For that we need to make fair offers. For that they have to have trust in us, to feel confident that we’re not making deals but, rather, long-term agreements on which both sides can rely.
For trust is also their life insurance policy when sea levels rise or when the next drought or the next natural disaster strikes. Trust is essential in this world. Partners are essential.
As diverse as we are, we actually all have the same hope: to be able to have confidence that others will help us in emergencies rather than hiding because they’re worried that a stronger country is more powerful.
The trust of people in Kharkiv depends on us continuing to closely follow what’s happening to them.
The trust of people in Warsaw, Tallinn and Vilnius depends on us showing that we will stand up for their security.
The trust of people in Astana, in New Delhi or in Accra depends on us making substantial and fair offers regarding cooperation.
This trust is not to be taken for granted. We have to invest in it every day.
“Can we count on you?” If we invest in international cooperation every day, then we’ll still be able to reply “yes” in future.