We must talk about your age and your experience. You are 34 years old, and you have never been to Moscow. Shouldn’t the Government's Russia Coordinator have a bit more of a background in the field?
What’s important is fresh stimulus. We must not allow our societies to grow any further apart. That is why we now need even closer intersocietal contact and exchange between the two countries, and particularly between the younger generations in Germany and Russia. We need to bring people together. My experience as State Secretary will be very helpful here. As will my age.
Aren’t established personal contacts particularly important, given the current tensions?
There is no doubt that many personal contacts are already firmly established, and yet that hasn’t stopped the situation from worsening in recent years. The office of Coordinator for Intersocietal Cooperation with Russia, Central Asia and the Eastern Partnership Countries is not a one-man show. I am backed up by a network of diplomats, academics and proven experts. Cooperation at all different levels is indispensable. Certainly I am looking forward to making new personal contacts, and in the weeks and months ahead I will be working very hard to talk to representatives of the political, business and academic spheres, but above all of civil society.
Should the sanctions against Russia be tightened? So far they haven’t fulfilled their purpose when it comes to the crisis in Crimea, have they?
The EU sanctions against Russia were imposed as a response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. They are under constant review and are adjusted as necessary. It is important not to over-simplify things. If you measure the success of sanctions solely on the basis of the answer to the question “Has Crimea been given back to Ukraine?”, your assessment might appear correct. But sanctions are a nuanced foreign-policy tool. The purpose of sanctions is clear. On the one hand, the aim is to show Russia the consequences of its actions. That is why we link the sanctions with a clear policy statement: we do not recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. In annexing Crimea, Russia committed a blatant breach of the Helsinki Final Act, going against the fundamental principle of a policy of détente – reducing confrontation. On the other hand, sanctions are intended to put pressure on Russia and set it to implement the Minsk agreements. Here, unfortunately, not even the first point – a permanent ceasefire – has been achieved.
What possibilities are there for defusing the conflict in Syria?
Our prime goal is and will remain a negotiated political settlement. To this end, we and our partners will use all diplomatic means available to us to breathe new life into the UN-led political process. Russia, one of the most important actors in the Syrian conflict, will play a major role in these endeavours. There can and will be no solution in the Syrian conflict without Russia, and certainly not against Russia. That is why we are continuing to seek constructive talks with Russia; by defining common interests – first and foremost stability – we want to try to take initial steps towards a joint approach. Obviously, we also need to try to defuse the situation on the ground in Syria and to relieve the population’s suffering. A country-wide ceasefire and comprehensive humanitarian access are important prerequisites for this, and for the political process.
Was expelling Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal in England the right move?
Europe needs to stand together. It is certainly the case that attempts are being made from various directions to try to weaken cohesion in Europe. You have to keep that in the back of your mind when you take the decision – and this decision was not made lightly, but was a signal of unity with the United Kingdom taken in close coordination with our partners, in particular France. This is also proof of our resolve not to tolerate such attacks in a partner state.
Should the pressure on Russia be stepped up by boycotting the World Cup?
I am not a fan of using sporting events for political ends. That said, major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup in Russia don’t take place in a political vacuum. For my part, I would prefer to see an outstanding, peaceful World Cup competition that helps bring people together – like happened in Germany in 2006.
You want to prevent the people in Germany and Russia from growing apart. How?
By talking, talking, talking. We have to reach young people in Russia. We have to talk to them, build up stable relations with them. We need to break down hardening prejudices and establish islands of cooperation. The young generation is the social capital of tomorrow. We must invest a lot more in this area. Then the desire for a peaceful future and a united Europe will not be mere sermon fodder, but will be an attractive reality to be taken seriously. I will do my utmost to achieve this end.
Interview conducted by Martin Korte