Question: Minister, can you understand Ukraine’s wish to have German Leopard 2 tanks?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes.
Question: And do you also agree with your Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba’s suggestion that Germany and other Western countries are entrenching themselves behind a psychological barrier here?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: A country at war, a country that is seeing friends, parents, siblings die in the most brutal manner day in day out, quite rightly wants every possible help and military support. No matter what the cost. And that is more than understandable. Those of us, on the other hand, who are lucky enough still to be living in peace and security – not least because Ukraine is defending our European peaceful order – have a dual responsibility: not merely to promise this help, but to deliver it. And also the responsibility to ensure that the war does not spread to other countries. That is why, right at the start of this war, and even though it broke my heart, we spoke out against a no-fly zone – because imposing a no-fly zone would have meant that we ourselves had become a party to the war against Russia. Instead of being drawn into the war ourselves, we made a radical change to German policy and have since been delivering weapons – including heavy weapons – so that Ukraine can defend itself. And the past few days and weeks have shown how important these international deliveries are. Ultramodern Western weapons systems are making a massive difference. Our Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, self-propelled howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems are helping to free occupied settlements in eastern Ukraine at last and to target Russian air forces and major Russian positions precisely.
Question: Would the successes the Ukrainian forces are currently having influence a decision?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Of course. The weapons we have supplied are clearly helping hugely to save lives. So a human-rights-oriented foreign policy ought constantly to be asking how we can help with further deliveries to liberate even more villages and thus save lives. Because this war is not an abstract item of news from a far-distant country. The territorial gains in the east do not mean merely the shifting of lines on a map. Rather, for an 86-year-old woman they mean being able to emerge at last after weeks spent in cellars out of fear of being shot on the village street. Bucha, Mariupol and the recently liberated Kupyansk, Izyum and Balakliya have demonstrated with dreadful clarity what suffering awaits the people in eastern and southern Ukraine if they are not liberated. People are being arbitrarily shot, raped or abducted – men, women, the old, toddlers. Every additional week under Russian occupation means another week of war crimes. The coming months are therefore crucial.
Question: So you yourself would be in favour of sending tanks?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: The current debate around tanks is not enough. Three questions need to be considered. Firstly: how can we supply even more of those things that are helping so well just now – air defence systems, artillery, multiple launch rocket systems? This is also a question of our own stockpiles. It is something that needs to be clarified with NATO. Secondly: what use are heavy weapons if the munitions run out or the equipment breaks? With this in mind, we are establishing a maintenance hub at the Polish-Ukrainian border. Following my recent visit to Kyiv, I am looking at the idea of working with the industry to launch separate production lines for the materials in short supply, especially munitions. Thirdly: the tanks. We have been supplying tanks for some time now – anti-aircraft tanks, armoured vehicle launched bridges, recovery tanks. Armoured infantry fighting vehicles are now coming via three-way exchanges. And a decision on modern battle tanks can only be taken jointly, in a coalition and at international level. In this crucial phase Ukraine currently finds itself in, however, I do not believe this is a decision that should be put off for long.
Question: Following the Turkish President’s diplomatic success in opening up Ukrainian ports for grain freighters, do you now see scope for a Franco-German diplomatic initiative to get the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant out of the firing line?
Foreign Minister Baerbock:The situation is extremely dangerous, because Putin has made the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant a bargaining chip in a war zone. At a moment like this, it is important to act efficiently in the background. So the bulk of my talks with France over recent days have been about how we can together ensure that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can maintain a permanent presence at the power plant. In a situation where – just imagine! – Russian soldiers have occupied the nuclear power plant and at the same time Ukrainian members of staff are working extremely hard every day, under the most awful conditions, to keep it functioning and prevent a disaster. The most important thing just now is how we can ensure that the Russian troops don’t keep on firing at the plant or paralyse it from the inside.
Question: The longer the war lasts, the more we will feel its impact in Germany, too. You already warned against social unrest a few months ago. Was that premature? After all, there wasn’t much of a turnout for the first protests.
Foreign Minister Baerbock: I put it in rather exaggerated terms back then, to make it clear why we had not acquiesced to the first calls for an immediate oil and gas embargo in the spring. Dependent on imports from Russia for 55% of our gas, we couldn’t simply stop them overnight. That would have had huge repercussions. That’s precisely why the Federal Government, and in particular Robert Habeck, has been working flat out since the outbreak of war to find alternatives. Now we buy only between 6% and 8% of our gas from Russia, and today our gas storage facilities are over 88% full. So we have prevented the Russian regime from weaponising gas supplies. And we have also prevented Putin from dividing us over this issue. With the relief package and the measures at European level, we are ensuring that rising energy prices in the autumn and winter do not lead to social division. At the same time, however, we will not allow, of all people, the very poorest in our country to be played off against the people in eastern Ukraine, who are currently holding out in the drizzling rain in the war zone. Because yes, government – especially in such a rich country as Germany – must ensure that people on low incomes and small craft enterprises do not pay the highest price for Russia’s war. But again and again I hear this, particularly from people on low incomes, from pensioners who have themselves experienced war: help us with the energy prices, but whatever you do, don’t abandon the people in Ukraine.
Question: To secure the general energy supply, there is also the plan from your Greens colleague, Economic Affairs Minister Robert Habeck, who wants to keep only two of Germany’s three nuclear power plants in reserve come the new year. Have the Greens unnecessarily invited the accusation here that they are putting their party agenda before the public interest?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Absolutely not. The Economic Affairs Ministry has looked very closely at what the worst scenarios might be in the winter. The result of this stress test, however, was that there is a good chance that the electricity supply will not come under such massive pressure after all. To counter the residual risk that all unfortunate circumstances – poor weather, production shortages in other European countries, low water levels in rivers – might collide, two nuclear power plants are being kept in reserve.
Question: As the former chair of the Greens, though, don’t you think there’s a big flaw in political logic there? We can only complete the phase-out of nuclear power in the winter if it is certain that French nuclear power plants will supply us with enough electricity?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: In this complex situation, it is important to look closely at energy relations in Europe. It’s not that France supplies us with electricity; we supply France, because a substantial proportion of French nuclear power stations are shut down. It is true, however, that there are no easy answers at this time, even if it hurts. We will get through this winter as Europeans only if we act together. That is why two German nuclear power plants will be kept in reserve, although we are phasing out nuclear energy at the end of the year. And we are reactivating mothballed coal-fired power plants – despite the absolutely necessary goal of phasing out coal as quickly as possible for the sake of our climate targets.
Question: Russia’s aggression is changing the situation on the international stage, too. Can the Bundeswehr remain active in the UN mission in Mali if increasing numbers of Russian mercenaries are active there?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: It’s not without reason that we’re in Mali. Here, too, we are protecting people and enabling development cooperation. This mission has always been and remains dangerous, otherwise there wouldn’t have been just under 12,000 soldiers from almost 60 countries there over ten years. In this difficult environment, the international community – from countries like Bangladesh to Sweden to Germany – has not pretended to be able to combat Islamism itself with the MINUSMA mission. But we at least have the responsibility to guarantee security to an extent that children can go to school, market stall women can go to the market, and herders can look after their cattle, all of them in safety. Russia has been trying for some time, even before the war of aggression, to destabilise Mali. Regrettably, we have seen increased cooperation between the military government in Mali and the Russians in recent weeks. For this reason, together with our international partners, we are considering whether some aspects of this mission need to be changed. Because alongside our responsibility to help the people of Mali, we also have a responsibility for the security of our soldiers.
Question: What would the changes be?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: For one thing, now that the French – who unlike us have been actively engaged in combating terrorism – have withdrawn, their combat helicopters will no longer be available for emergencies. And as only a few of Germany’s approximately fifty combat helicopters are currently operational, we will unfortunately not be able to replace them ourselves. Working intensively with the United Nations, I have managed to get other countries to step in and provide helicopters. We need to see whether that’s enough and how other European partners can contribute. But as a case in point, Mali shows that in foreign policy, too, there are always two sides to the coin: we expect African states to roundly condemn Putin’s war of aggression and thus commit to protecting peace in Europe. Equally, these countries then expect us to make a contribution to security and stability in their region. We cannot – and I have no intention to – shy away from that.
Question: Alongside anxiety about Russian aggression, there is also increasing concern in the world at demonstrations of power by China. How will our relationship with China change?
Foreign Minister Baerbock:China has changed over the past few years, so how we deal with China has to change, too. China is increasingly isolating itself and is restricting civil liberties ever further, not only in respect of Hong Kong. I am hearing more complaints about unfair competition methods, and more and more companies, especially SMEs, are rethinking their business in and with China. We are also seeing how in external relations China is calling into question fundamental rules of peaceful coexistence, for example with respect to Taiwan or in the South China Sea, or with threats towards small island states in the Pacific such as Palau. In an interconnected world, we must not ignore this.
Question: And what can we learn from that?
Foreign Minister Baerbock:To avoid repeating past mistakes. The Russian war of aggression has made it painfully clear that trade does not automatically bring democratic change. Developments in China in recent years are confirmation of that. Moreover, we have learnt that we cannot afford to allow ourselves to become existentially dependent on a country that does not share our values, because that leaves us susceptible to blackmail. China is trying to enforce its economic model with autocratic traits and to push the law of the strong, whereas we are committed to fair competition and to the strength of the law. That is why we as the Federal Government are currently working on a China Strategy. To this end, we are coordinating closely with our European and international partners. Of course we cannot cut our ties with China, nor do we want to, despite the all the systemic rivalry and competition; we need cooperation with China on climate action and other major global challenges. The thing is, we mustn’t be naive.
Question: Recently you have strongly emphasised the importance of the partnership between Germany and America. What consequences does that have in respect of South-East Asia? If America provides Taiwan with military assistance in response to Chinese aggression, would we be on board?
Foreign Minister Baerbock:Difficult as times may be at present, and despite all the crises, we should remember that we Europeans find ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder in new strength and unity. And if we work together as Europeans, particularly in relation to China, then Europe is absolutely not a dwarf; on the contrary, our internal market can set standards. This is especially true if we cooperate more closely in future with other partners in the world who share our values. There are so many in the Indo-Pacific, but also in Africa and Latin America, who, like us, believe in international law and work to support it day in, day out.
Interview: Johannes Leithäuser