Minister Baerbock, you’ve been in office for around seven weeks. Almost no other member of the Government – with the exception of perhaps the Chancellor – was watched as closely as you at the beginning. What’s your assessment of how you got started?
Things got off to a turbulent start right away. After all, the crises of this world have no regard for the schedules of a new government. From day one, my talks in Brussels, Paris, Warsaw and elsewhere have focused primarily on the Russian threat to Ukraine. I haven’t had the time to sort out my office yet.
Were you happy with your start?
Foreign policy isn’t a question of grades awarded by others or about what the German Foreign Minister does or doesn’t like. My job is to help prevent acute crises from getting worse by adopting a clear German position and standing shoulder to shoulder with our Partners.
You’re the first woman to head a ministry that’s pretty much dominated by men. How does that feel?
The nice thing about foreign policy is that you see your country reflected back at you time and again on your many visits and trips. For some in Germany, it may be a cultural revolution that a woman is heading the Federal Foreign Office for the first time in 150 years. Elsewhere, this has long since been taken for granted. At the most recent meeting of the major economic nations (G7), three out of seven Foreign Ministers were female. And, of course, we’re also working in the Federal Foreign Office, as in the entire German Government, to ensure that leadership positions are filled with equal numbers of women and men.
Your term in office is beginning with a serious international crisis. How dangerous do you consider the conflict between Ukraine and Russia to be, in which NATO also plays a role?
We are at a very critical moment. Last Saturday, an elderly gentleman approached me at a marketplace. He told me that he had lost his two brothers, who were 17 and 18 years old, in the war. He said that the most important thing is that there should never be a war in Europe again. And that’s precisely the responsibility of my generation, which was fortunate enough to grow up in peace, and that’s also the most important task of foreign policy. And so, from the very first minute of my term in office, I’ve been working to ensure that we pursue an approach of dialogue, but also of toughness, with regard to the Russian troop build-up.
Is the current conflict at risk of giving rise to a war that could go beyond Ukraine and Russia?
If you want to prevent the worst possible scenario, then you shouldn’t conjure up the worst possible scenario. That’s why I think it’s important to use all channels for dialogue. For years, there was no exchange at all between Russia and NATO on how to work together to ensure greater security. We, as an alliance, have now signalled to the Russian Government that this is the end of the line. And a narrow window is opening up for talks right now. We have to take advantage of precisely this window.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. Why’s he doing that?
Well, it’s hard not to see it as a threat when 100,000 troops with tanks and guns gather near Ukraine for no apparent reason. But, in the end, no one can answer this question but Mr Putin himself. Maybe on some days he himself doesn’t know exactly why he’s doing this. We have to be prepared for everything. In 2022, that means, to my mind, being prepared for armed military invasions, but also for hybrid attacks such as cyberattacks or cutting off the power supply. Destabilisation can come in a wide variety of ways and is a tool that is used specifically to escalate.
You say that Putin himself maybe doesn’t know what he wants on some days. What do you mean by that?
We have received mixed messages from the Russian Government in recent years. On the one hand, we’ve seen efforts to return to an old geostrategic role – even with threats of force as in the Cold War era. On the other, there’s also great interest in increased cooperation in the Russian economy. But the two don’t go together. For me, the basis of any cooperation is international law, in particular our joint agreements on security. I made that abundantly clear during my visit to Moscow.
US President Joe Biden wants to reinforce Eastern European NATO members with troops. Is that the right thing to do?
These plans aren’t coming out of the blue. Russia has built up a threatening presence with its troops on the Ukrainian border and also with military manoeuvres and troop deployments to Belarus. Of course, this triggers concerns, especially in Poland and the Baltic states, against the backdrop of history. That’s why it’s so important that we in the NATO alliance show solidarity and stand by one another. This commitment stands, without any ifs or buts. So far, however, this troop increase is taking place within the framework of plans and the restrictions we committed ourselves to in the NATO-Russia Founding Act. For Russia, this is neither a new situation nor is it a threat.
Countries like the US and the UK are pulling embassy personnel out of Kyiv. Are you planning something similar should the conflict escalate further?
It goes without saying that we’re continuously reviewing the security situation in different places around the world – including Ukraine. Just like our EU partners, we have currently decided not to reduce our embassy staff in Kyiv. Right now, it’s extremely important to avoid destabilising Ukraine. If economic players feel that the situation in Ukraine is uncertain or unstable overall, they will be less willing to invest. That would play into Putin’s hands. So my message in Kyiv was that we want to expand economic cooperation with Ukraine – through energy partnerships, for example, such as in the area of green hydrogen. But if family members of embassy staff want to leave, the Federal Foreign Office will cover the costs.
What is Germany willing and able to do to help resolve the Ukraine conflict in concrete terms?
First of all, this isn’t a Ukraine conflict, but Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Donbas and Crimea and continues to threaten the country militarily. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine against this violation of international law. We’re playing an active role on all channels together with our European friends and the US. With France, we are making a significant contribution to Ukraine’s security as mediators in the Normandy format – which is the only place where Ukraine and Russia are currently sitting at the same table. In NATO, we’re working to ensure that talks are resumed in the NATO-Russia Council at long last, also to agree steps towards disarmament once again. We are also Ukraine’s largest financial donor in terms of supporting its people and economy. After all, in addition to the military threat, there’s the risk of destabilisation from within.
How are Germany and France dividing tasks?
France is currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and thus plays a special role within the EU. We’re holding the Presidency of the G7 this year, which means we have a coordinating function among the strongest economic nations. That’s why I’m liaising with my French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian on an almost daily basis. Our strength lies in our common approach – also with a view to making the dialogue between Ukraine and Russia possible again.
Do you understand why Germany’s position is not always perceived as being clear in France?
Germany has a clear position, and it’s not just our position but one that we have agreed with our partners. We have not been as united as we are in the Foreign Affairs Council right now for a long time – especially with regard to our full solidarity with Ukraine and our stance vis-à-vis Russia. At the same time, we complement each other in our strengths. Germany has been Ukraine’s largest economic donor for years, ahead of the US. We’re helping with vaccines, investing in the energy sector and supporting important reform processes in the country. And, together with France, we’ve always helped to ensure cohesion on the part of the EU on the issue of sanctions.
But the German Government's position isn’t that clear. You’ve called a spade a spade regarding Russia right from the start. It always took some time for Chancellor Olaf Scholz to fall in line with your position.
What applies to the EU these days also applies to the German Government. A team doesn’t need 11 centre forwards all doing the same thing. What it needs are 11 players who work together well and have the same game plan. A Chancellor doesn’t have to duplicate the Foreign Minister – any more than the Foreign Minister should duplicate the Federal Chancellery. But Olaf Scholz and I are in complete agreement on this issue, and I think that this message is now being received and understood.
Can the Normandy format inject fresh impetus into the situation?
The Normandy format is one of the dialogue channels that’s at stake now because it would gradually bring about greater security. Russia had long refused to enter into dialogue at all, which is why it’s a good sign that everyone is now sitting down at the table again. We shouldn’t expect breakthroughs after only a few days. But those who talk, don’t shoot. That’s why it’s fatal to reject out of hand the resumption of dialogue.
The Ukrainian Ambassador speaks of a historic responsibility – similar to the one vis-à-vis Israel – that Germany has in view of six million world war dead on the territory of today’s Ukraine. Is he right, or is this comparison misplaced?
We have a special historical responsibility towards all the countries of the former Soviet Union because Germany brought inconceivable suffering to the people there. That’s why we also have a historical responsibility to do everything we can to prevent a fresh military escalation.
The Federal Chancellor has threatened Russia with a “high price” in the event of an attack on Ukraine. What is a “high price”?
These are economic, financial and political consequences that we have agreed on with the US and our partners in Europe.
What direction is this heading in?
The list of possible courses of action is long. Russia would have to expect tough countermeasures in different areas in the event of aggression against Ukraine. But just as Putin won’t let us look at his cards, we won’t do him the favour of putting all our options on the table either. Our goal, however, is to live in peace in Europe. The Ukrainians also have a right to this.
The Russian Ambassador to Germany has praised the Federal Chancellor for his stance on Nord Stream 2. Do you agree that the natural gas pipeline should only be assessed in legal and not political terms?
If the pipeline didn’t have geostrategic implications, we wouldn’t have been talking about it for years. That’s why the entire German Government – including the Chancellor – has made it clear once again that if there is further military escalation, all options are on the table. And that includes energy projects like Nord Stream 2.
When will the German Government say no to Nord Stream 2? Where is the red line?
In an interconnected world, economic consequences can be a more effective deterrent than guns. Disrupted supply chains – as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated – can bring economies to a standstill. We have effective measures at the ready. Since our goal is de-escalation, we will deploy these measures only when necessary.
The Russians are calling for a halt to NATO’s eastward expansion. NATO, on the other hand, says that each and every democratically legitimate country may decide for itself which alliance it joins. Is it possible to find a compromise with such opposing positions?
Eastward expansion of NATO is not on the agenda at all at the moment. In Moscow, I therefore had a long discussion with the Russian Foreign Minister about what we were actually arguing about. I explained that, as far as I was concerned, international law and the agreements we had reached together applied, and these agreements stipulate that we have common security and the right to choose alliances. But I also made it clear that we would be happy to go through every sentence of the various European treaties again.
Let’s assume that peace is won in Ukraine. How do you deal with the country’s desire to become a member of NATO?
As I said, everyone knows that this isn’t on the agenda at the moment, including Russia. The people in Ukraine want to live in peace and security. Many have been separated from their families for years by the conflict in the Donbas. That’s what this is all about – not about an imminent NATO accession. That’s why the most important task now is to get back to talking about implementing the Minsk agreements so that people can live in freedom and security.
Russia’s wealth is being fuelled by burning oil and gas. How do you plan to win the oligarchs over to wind and solar power?
I don’t want to win anyone over, but the climate crisis is omnipresent, and the global economy is already set to phase out fossil energy in the medium term – including in Russia, as my visit to Moscow showed me. The EU’s plans for a CO2 border adjustment tax are being taken very seriously there – and the energy and steel sectors in particular know that they have to adapt to this in order to remain competitive. Many large companies in Russia are therefore making the switch to renewable energies and hydrogen on their own initiative. Given its sheer size, Russia has immense potential for new business models in green hydrogen and reforestation. It would be such a blessing to be able to cooperate in this regard on the basis of international law.
Would German gas supplies be at risk if supplies of Russian gas were cut off?
Security of supply in Germany is guaranteed, even though we’re doubtlessly still very dependent on oil and gas imports from Russia at the moment. Enriching our energy mix with many more renewable sources is therefore an important contribution to greater energy security.
The Winter Olympics are about to start in China. What message do you want to send as Foreign Minister?
I like the Olympics and am rooting hard for our German athletes. At the same time, of course, I’m very concerned about the human rights situation in China, and a sports festival like this can’t cover that up. But as a sports fan, I also wonder about sudden changes to rules for the admission of athletes to competitions, such as altered CT values for PCR tests. Like free societies, the Olympics thrive on fair rules.
Is it okay to take part in the Olympics even if human rights are trampled underfoot and activists are arbitrarily arrested?
The Interior Minister and I have agreed that we will not travel to Beijing for the Olympics. We’re discussing human rights and other very problematic issues with China at the political level. But athletes who have spent years preparing for the Olympics must not have to suffer the consequences.
This year, the FIFA World Cup will also be held in a country that is far removed from democracy – namely Qatar. Was awarding the World Cup to the Gulf state a mistake?
No matter whether we’re talking about football or the Olympic Games, you can only really celebrate major sports festivals if other people don’t have to pay for them with their lives. That’s why key criteria must be observed when awarding international sporting events. These criteria include freedom of the press, human rights and working conditions. As regards Qatar and the numerous reports about the terrible conditions on the construction sites for the football stadiums, however, we have also seen that international attention can certainly be helpful and change things for the better.
The German Government doesn’t recognise nuclear power as a sustainable source of energy. Do you want to file a lawsuit like Austria did?
At the moment, every country is sending its comments to the European Commission, and the German Government has also already adopted its position. We have made it clear why we are phasing out nuclear power in Germany. It’s risky and expensive, and not sustainable even with new reactor designs. How the European Commission responds to our arguments remains to be seen. We’re examining all other points, also with a view to possible lawsuits