“It is entirely up to the Russian President” - Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in an interview with the “Tagesspiegel”
Question: Foreign Minister, are we at war with Russia?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: No. Russia is attacking Ukraine with the aim of annihilating it. It is thus also attacking our European peace order, so that is why it was so important that we have maintained the greatest international unity in our endeavours since the start of Russia’s war of aggression on 24 February 2022. And we have remained united both in our support for Ukraine in exercising its right to self-defence and in defending the Charter of the United Nations and the European peace order.
Question: We are referring to your statement to the Council of Europe, where you said “we are fighting a war against Russia”.
Foreign Minister Baerbock: I realise that, but the context is crucial, particularly at such a difficult time when we are walking a very, very fine line and things are constantly deliberately misinterpreted. In that specific situation, I was being criticised by a lot of people in the Council of Europe who said we would be abandoning Ukraine if we did not send battle tanks immediately. That is why I made it clear that we are supporting Ukraine in defending itself. I argued that we Europeans shouldn’t point the finger at one another, but instead ensure that Ukraine can finally live in peace once again. And I also wanted to make clear that the attack on Ukraine is also an attack on our European peace order and on the Charter of the United Nations.
Question: Rolf Mützenich, head of the SPD parliamentary group, has accused you of strengthening Russian propaganda with your statement. Is that what you did?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: The Russian regime and Vladimir Putin try to exploit everything I say for their propaganda purposes. They would also do so if I were to say “today is Saturday”.
Question: You are well known for being direct and for your emotional statements. You often speak about people you have met, in many cases women or children, and link these stories with a political message. Is the price one pays for this kind of communication a greater chance of making mistakes?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: There’s an expression that says “those who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything”. It is important to me to show people that foreign policy is not something abstract, but rather something that has to do directly with them and their lives. I want to do politics for people.
Question: How could this war end?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: With peace. That is the primary goal of our actions. Over the past 12 months, the German Government and over 100 other countries have repeatedly made it clear to Russia that we can talk at any time. But each time, the response was to launch even more bombs and missiles against innocent people. It is entirely up to the Russian President. For one year now, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been killing people every day. Putin started this brutal war of aggression. And he could end it immediately.
Question: But he is highly unlikely to do so. What steps do you see as regards achieving an end to the war?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: As is the case with so many other people, my most fervent wish is for this war to end. That is what I am striving to achieve every day. I understand that many people want negotiations to take place so the war will finally end. Unfortunately, that will not be possible as long as the Russian President is determined to annihilate his neighbouring country. That is why, no matter how hard it is, we need to face facts and realise that things we used to be able to count on no longer work. The Russian President is not acting in line with the logic of a democracy. Russia is governed by an autocrat. The opposition is in prison. People who demonstrate against the war are arrested. Young men are being conscripted. That is why we will continue to support Ukraine in protecting lives until Russia stops killing people.
Question: You spoke out early on in favour of a faster decision on supplying Leopard 2 battle tanks. In view of the rather hesitant stance taken by the Federal Chancellery, did you encourage partner countries to put pressure on Germany?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: No. In this year of terror, the German Government has repeatedly faced tough decisions. As Foreign Minister, my role in EU, NATO and bilateral meetings means that I am often the first point of contact on what we can do together to support Ukraine in defending its people. Naturally, I conduct these talks with the same aim as the Chancellor, namely to support Ukraine with our partners while not putting ourselves at risk. The Chancellor and I have different roles and perhaps have different personality types, but we are in complete agreement on this aim.
Question: The “Zeit” weekly newspaper has reported that you went behind the Chancellor’s back by calling in London for the UK to supply battle tanks to Ukraine. Did you do so?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Definitely not. Like the Chancellor and the Defence Minister, I constantly liaise with our partners on how we can provide Ukraine with further military support. That is my job. And because some people were criticising us at the time for not being decisive enough, naturally I wanted to know what the UK was doing. At the time, it was thinking of supplying Challenger tanks. We were about to make a decision on providing Marders. For the very reason that I thought it was wrong to accuse Germany of dragging its heels, I always asked during my talks what other countries were supplying.
Question: However, as far back as last autumn, you were publicly calling for a swift decision on battle tanks for Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Let me reiterate that these are difficult decisions. We are not talking about toys, but about heavy war materiel. That is why it is important to weigh up carefully each time how we can best protect people’s lives. And at the same time ‒ this is the other side of our responsibility ‒ we have to constantly ask ourselves what would happen if Ukraine cannot defend itself. If that were the case, cities such as Kharkiv will come under siege and attack again, entire villages will be razed to the ground, and women, children and grandparents will be forced to flee their homes. It is a thin line. And time also plays an important role as regards saving lives.
Question: In the Bundestag this week, the Chancellor warned that public dissent on weapons supplies merely helps Putin. Do you agree?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes. That is why I said in the Council of Europe that we need to stand united as Europeans, as the Russian President is attacking the European peace order.
Question: You didn’t think the Chancellor was referring to you?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: No.
Question: But your call for a swift decision was not a form of dissent?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: None of us have ever experienced a situation of this kind before. I think it is a good thing if members of a government weigh up matters in detail together. That is what is at the heart of democracy.
Question: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has reiterated the demand for fighter jets. Politically, how does a battle tank that Germany wants to supply differ from a fighter jet that Germany does not want to supply?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: That is not something we are debating. What matters is that decisions made are carried out promptly. We are currently seeing a Russian offensive, in which waves of conscripts are repeatedly launched at Ukrainian positions, with complete disregard for their lives. In this situation, we are supplying battle tanks, armoured infantry fighting vehicles, ammunition, artillery and air defence.
Question: But the debate is already in full swing. The UK is already training Ukrainian pilots on western aircraft.
Foreign Minister Baerbock: I am aware of that.
Question: The aim is that Ukraine will win the war. Does this also include retaking Crimea?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Crimea is a part of Ukraine and was illegally occupied by Russia in 2014.
Question: If talks do take place, will Ukraine have to cede territory?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: We are helping Ukraine to defend its freedom, and that also means its territorial integrity. It is entirely up to Ukraine whether and how it conducts talks. It has nothing to do with us.
Question: How will Russia respond if Ukraine succeeds in liberating Crimea?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: During the past 12 months, things I could never have imagined happened in Europe. Russian soldiers deliberately planted mines in children’s toys. In Bucha, people were shot in cold blood as they were cycling back home with their shopping. Teenagers were abducted and raped. By destroying infrastructure in the winter, the aim is to systematically freeze people to death in temperatures of -15°C or to let them die of thirst. These are all clearly war crimes, crimes against humanity, so the priority for us is that these crimes are stopped as soon as possible. That is our aim as the international community.
Question: What are you doing to create the prerequisites for negotiations?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: We are liaising closely with our international partners and forming alliances against the brutal violation of the Charter of the United Nations. Not all 143 countries that denounced this war of aggression in the United Nations were immediately on board. At the start of the war, many countries said this was a European war. Particularly during my term as Chair of the G7 Foreign Ministers, we were able to convince more sceptical countries that this war also affects them. If we allow a stronger country to invade its weaker neighbour and just stand by and let that happen, pretty much no country in the world will be able to sleep in peace. This would spell the end of international law. Diplomacy is arduous, especially at a time like this when the rule book has been ripped to pieces. But we have been able to achieve some things. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross has better access to people in Ukraine and experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are ensuring at least a minimum of security and protection for the staff in an exceptionally dangerous situation at Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The problem is not a lack of diplomacy, but a lack of willingness on Putin’s part to stop his insane conduct.
Question: Since Chinese President Xi Jinping denounced the possible use of nuclear weapons on the margins of the Chancellor’s visit to Beijing, there have been no further nuclear threats from the Kremlin. Do you see a connection?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes, of course. The G20, in which not only the western G7 countries are represented, but also countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia, made clear that under no circumstances may Russia use nuclear weapons in its war of aggression against Ukraine. Russia was isolated on this issue. We see here how important it is to forge these international alliances.
Question: The spy balloon affair is dramatically worsening US-Chinese relations. Does the German Government stand with the US?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: A balloon sounds harmless at first. But we are not talking about a toy balloon. It is a serious matter when a spy balloon flies into US airspace without its permission. This is a violation of internationally agreed rules. When others breach international law, we stand with our partners and the rules-based order.
Question: Foreign Minister, over 10,000 people lost their lives in the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. What help must Germany provide?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Like everyone else, I am profoundly shocked by the magnitude of this disaster. Just imagine parents are trying to rescue their children from the rubble with their bare hands. Everyone in Germany knows someone who has family or friends in the region. I am very impressed by people’s willingness to help, including here in Germany. In order to support the rescue efforts, we sent several search and rescue units to the affected regions in Turkey immediately after the earthquakes. In addition, the Bundeswehr is now delivering tents, blankets, radiators, medicines and generators to Turkey. These items are particularly urgently needed in this acute phase in the aftermath of the earthquakes and because of the challenging weather conditions on the ground. The situation in Syria is even more complicated, as people were already suffering terribly there because of the ongoing conflict. The earthquakes have made the situation far worse. We are providing help there via aid organisations. And despite the Syrian regime’s cynical policies, we are doing everything we can to reach people in the region. As a first step, we rapidly approved an additional 25 million euro for United Nations aid funds.
Question: You have also called for the border between Syria and Turkey to be opened. Will you also raise this with the Syrian and Russian regimes?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Right from the start of this disaster, I called internationally, including on Russia, for the Syrian regime to open the border crossing points. For years now, it has been extremely difficult to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria. The United Nations depends on a single crossing point because of the Syrian blockade. Other crossing points need to be opened so that aid reaches people. In this kind of situation, you have to use every diplomatic channel you have.
Interview: Felix Hackenbruch, Valerie Höhne and Hans Monath