Question: Ms Baerbock, can you remember where and how you heard about the outbreak of war in Ukraine six months ago, on 24 February?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes, I remember very well indeed. It had been drummed into me from my very first day as Foreign Minister that I should never turn off my mobile completely but at least leave it on vibrate mode. And in the early hours of the morning, around 4.30 a.m., my phone did vibrate. It took me a while to realise that it was actually my phone. I then of course headed off to the Federal Foreign Office straight away.
Putin’s war of aggression has been going on for more than six months already. There is no end in sight, is there?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Not at the moment, no. We have to get used to the idea that this war could last for years. Because unfortunately, the Russian Government has not abandoned its fixation with subjugating Ukraine and its people. Yet amid all the suffering, we must put on record that the Russian President’s deluded plan to conquer Ukraine in a very short space of time has not come to fruition. The courage of the Ukrainians and international arms supplies have ensured that the Russian soldiers have not been able to unpack their dress uniforms for the victory parade. We will do everything in our power to ensure that that will never become a reality.
What would have to happen for a ceasefire to be possible at all?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: It’s quite simple. Putin would have to stop his bombing of innocent people and withdraw his tanks. Putin could give the order for this at any time. He is attacking Ukraine. He could stop at any minute and put an end to the suffering.
Ukraine insists on regaining its national territory, including Crimea. Is that realistic?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Crimea is a part of Ukraine. The world has never recognised the annexation of 2014 in violation of international law.
Germany struggled with the idea of supplying heavy weapons. Is Ukraine now getting what it needs to defend itself against Russia?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: We are supplying heavy weapons. And I appreciate that the Ukrainian people want more and faster deliveries. But our stocks do not contain masses of deployable, operational, ultramodern systems, which are what is needed most at the moment. And at the same time we promised our allies in the Baltic region that we would help defend every last corner of NATO territory. The Bundeswehr has to be capable of action in that event. For this reason we are working with others to supply what we can, and above all we have commissioned the production of further defence goods.
But the fight against Putin is being fought right now in Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes, and that is why the armaments industry is now manufacturing directly for Ukraine. Of course, I would like the war to be over as soon as possible, but unfortunately we have to assume that Ukraine will still be needing new heavy weapons from its friends next summer. It’s clear to me that Ukraine is also defending our freedom, our peaceful order, and we are supporting it financially and militarily – and we will do so for as long as it is necessary. That’s all there is to it.
Is this Putin’s war or Russia’s war?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: It is Putin’s war, because he does not rule democratically. In a democracy, there would long ago have been massive protests against this war, which is also harming Putin’s own people. But anyone in Russia who speaks out is oppressed, arrested, locked up – that has been the case for years.
Are you not concerned that Europe and Germany are getting tired of the war and that solidarity with Ukraine is wearing thin?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: No, not if we don’t talk ourselves into it. I am still seeing an incredible amount of support for Ukraine. From school classes, from families that have taken in Ukrainians and from all those who urgently implore me – whether they be 8, 18 or 80 – to not let the people in Ukraine die, to keep helping them. Of course, everyone is now feeling the impact of Putin’s energy war in their own pockets. Driving a social wedge through Europe is part of Putin’s war strategy. That’s something we have to prevent. It will be a stony path, but it is part of our political responsibility to cushion the social disparities caused by high energy prices.
What decisions does the Government have to make in this context?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Firstly, we need to rid ourselves of the delusion that we ever received cheap gas from Russia in the first place. We may not have paid much in terms of money, but we sacrificed our security and independence. And thousands of Ukrainians have paid for it with their lives. The reckoning was late, but all the more dramatic when it came.
If Putin were to turn off Nord Stream 1 completely, should we then open up Nord Stream 2, as Bundestag Vice-President Kubicki is demanding?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Sometimes I wonder whether some people haven’t understood that this isn’t a game played by rules, nor is it a sudden supply shortage. The gas pipelines from Russia have long been not normal pipes, but weapons in a hybrid war. If Putin won’t supply gas via Nord Stream 1, why would he supply it via Nord Stream 2? The fact that insufficient gas is flowing through Nord Stream 1 isn’t because the pipes are broken but because Putin doesn’t want it to.
We are all currently scrimping and saving on every last kilowatt hour of electricity and gas in order to get through the winter in spite of the war in Ukraine. Do you really think it is right for us to decommission our last three nuclear power plants?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: I think any measures that will help us get through the winter are right. But I’m not convinced that nuclear power plants will solve our gas problems. A stress test is currently being conducted to see if we might face an electricity problem in Bavaria because grid expansion there has been neglected for too long.
So if the stress test indicates that a stretched operation mode would make sense, would you advise the Greens to extend the use of nuclear power?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: The people who are currently discussing nuclear power are not talking about stretched operation mode. They want to roll things back and return to nuclear power. We have paid many billions over the last decade for the constant vacillation on phasing out nuclear power. Back-tracking on it again now would be madness und would cost us even more.
DIE LINKE and the AfD are now calling for an autumn of heated protest – do you think that a severe winter of discontent can still be prevented with relief packages?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: I believe that the people in our country can see very clearly who is trying to draw political capital from the war and the high energy prices. Politicians and parties that allow themselves to become pawns in Putin’s game need to remind themselves how fortunate we are to live in a democratic country in which freedom of expression and indeed protests are possible.
The situation in Mali is critical. Why are you so keen for Bundeswehr troops to remain there?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: Because they are protecting human lives. Women in Mali have told me in no uncertain terms that without the presence of the UN, they could not go to the market in safety, they could not send their children to school without worrying whether they would come back home. We are not alone in Mali, we are there under the umbrella of the United Nations. More than 12,000 soldiers from 57 countries are deployed with the UN MINUSMA mission. The Bundeswehr is providing the largest contingent of all the western countries.
The Defence Minister wants to pull out the Bundeswehr troops ...
Foreign Minister Baerbock: We bear responsibility for our soldiers’ safety. If we can’t guarantee that, we have no choice but to terminate the mission, I fully agree with Christine Lambrecht on that. But we also bear responsibility for what happens if we withdraw in haste. If entire regions fall into the hands of Islamists, if girls can no longer attend school or the whole of Mali becomes Russia’s vassal, we will also feel the impact in Europe, whether in the form of new refugee flows or even attacks.
Has the situation not become too dangerous following the withdrawal of the French?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: The situation in Mali has always been dangerous. Otherwise the deployment of more than 12,000 blue helmets there for almost ten years would not have been necessary. It is also true to say that the security situation and the framework conditions for the mission have deteriorated in recent months. The safety of our soldiers remains the top priority of the entire Federal Government. And that is why we have deployed additional troops following the withdrawal of the French. And of course we need to replace the crucial French combat helicopters. Bangladesh has signalled its willingness to help here.
Helicopters from Bangladesh? Is the Bundeswehr not able to provide them?
Foreign Minister Baerbock: When, as was recently the case, only nine out of a total of fifty Tiger combat helicopters are operational, we can’t send half of them to Mali. And of course I could take the easy way out and say: that’s just how it is. But I don’t think that would be very responsible. That’s why I am trying to find solutions in cooperation with other international partners so that we don’t have to abandon the people in the Sahel to their fate and above all so that we don’t let Russia get its hands on this region, too.