“Our arms deliveries are protecting human lives”
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung
Question: Minister, US President Biden warns that the danger of a nuclear Armageddon is greater than it has been since the Cuban crisis. Do you agree?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Putin’s war has clearly unhinged our world. As Russia’s military options diminish, we are seeing a parallel increase in irresponsible nuclear threats. That’s why we need to stay level-headed. At the same time, we the international community, must on no account give the impression that we are submitting to blackmail. If others feel they can follow Putin’s methodology of commiting war crimes and threatening the use of nuclear weapons, our children will grow up in an even more dangerous world.
Question: So no backing down, for example on arms deliveries for Ukraine?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Precisely. After all, if we do not help push back the brutal Russian attack, the horror and suffering will spread to yet more parts of Ukraine. Just this week, Russia fired missiles at Kyiv which exploded right beside playgrounds and also next to the German visa section. If Ukraine had not intercepted many of these missiles, there would have been even more people left dead or injured. Our arms deliveries for Ukraine, for example for air defence, are protecting human lives.
Question: A month ago you said that the decision on supplying Western battle tanks must not be dragged out any longer. How long will Ukraine have to wait?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Arms deliveries are not an end in themselves. When I was in Kyiv, the lack of tanks made it difficult for Ukraine to reinforce its troops. Now deliveries are arriving via three-way exchanges and Ukraine has taken possession of a huge number of abandoned Russian tanks in the liberated areas and can now use these. Nevertheless we have to keep considering whether we can supply more material to help liberate people – and that’s what we’re doing.
Question: Should Ukraine reclaim Crimea and the whole of the Donbas?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Liberate is the right word here. People in eastern Ukraine have not been occupied by Russia of their own free will. Every time Russian troops are driven out, they leave behind mass graves and torture chambers. Ukraine was, is and will remain a sovereign state and the Donbas and Crimea are part of its internationally recognised territory. Back in 2014, the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas was also a violation of international law and quite obviously the prelude to the brutal war of aggression we are seeing now. It makes more sense to turn that issue around. If Ukraine does not win the war, we in Europe are not safe either. Putin would see that as an incentive to use violence against others and has even said as much. Similarly, we must not underestimate the message this would send to other autocratic rulers: no smaller country could sleep well at night if we accept murderous land-grab and blackmail.
Question: Rolf Mützenich, the head of the SPD parliamentary group, is calling for you to take diplomatic initiatives together with the United States.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Since 24 February, half the world has been doing nothing but working together to steer Putin away from this horrendous war. Every single day of this war is a disaster. Every single day is one too many. That is why this Federal Government is not waning in its efforts to bring peace despite all the setbacks. That is why we are negotiating about the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. That is why we are working with the International Committee of the Red Cross to get civilians out of cities that are being bombed and help Ukrainian grain to be exported to the world. The head of the SPD parliamentary group ought to have got wind of that. If we want to move beyond noble words and actually save lives, we need to face the facts: the Russian President’s only response to each and every offer of talks has been more violence each and every time.
Question: Ukrainian President Zelensky says he is no longer prepared to negotiate with President Putin. Can you see where he is coming from?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: For a negotiated solution, the Russian President has to actually want peace. Week after week, he makes plain once more that his aim is to destroy Ukraine. War crimes, crimes against humanity, a war of aggression that violates international law – that is what we have been seeing for months and the International Criminal Court is currently gathering evidence to call this to account. In recent months, we have learnt the bitter lesson that it was not possible to turn Putin by gentle cajoling and by making concessions. All that worked was Ukraine’s strength as it defended itself and protected its people. Only after military defeats in the suburbs of Kyiv did he give up trying to conquer the Ukrainian capital.
Question: Three of the four Nord Stream pipelines have been sabotaged. Experts believe Russia is behind it. Do you?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: We are thankfully living in a state based on the rule of law. Even if you harbour suspicions, you have to provide evidence. That is why together with Denmark and Sweden we commissioned experts to investigate what is behind this destruction. But we knew before that Russia is using our gas supplies as a weapon against us. We are living in a country which is so strong economically that we can defend ourselves. With the gas and electricity price freeze, we the Federal Government are creating security for the winter. We need to be aware that other countries do not have this security and are suffering even more dramatically as a result of Putin’s energy war. If we, the democratic forces, link arms and stand together at this time of economic hardship, a difficult time for many, we will get through this crisis in good shape.
Question: There was an act of sabotage targeting Deutsche Bahn at the weekend. Do you think it possible that Russia could also be behind this?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Given the brutality with which Russia’s President is proceeding in Ukraine, you can’t rule out him failing to draw the line at civilian targets elsewhere. And that is why it is so important that we Europeans protect our infrastructure much better – even if we can’t guard thousands of kilometres of electricity, rail and communication connections 24 hours a day. When it comes to the especially vulnerable undersea cables, we have submitted proposals to NATO together with Denmark as to how we can ensure that critical nodal points are monitored.
Question: How secure is Germany’s critical infrastructure?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Secure but vulnerable. Not least, because we also have to consider the cyber dimension. I was in favour of also using the 100 billion special fund for the Bundeswehr to invest in the security of critical infrastructure. Unfortunately the CDU/CSU blocked this. As a result, no special funding is available. In the National Security Strategy the Federal Government is drawing up for the first time, protecting critical infrastructure will however play a central role. I want us to improve our institutional set-up. When it comes to cyber defence, for example, we need clear competences. At the same time, rapid reaction chains are essential as we saw from how well things worked with Deutsche Bahn at the weekend.
Question: What lessons can be learned from the mistakes made in policy on Russia when it comes to dealing with China?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: That we are never again going to make ourselves existentially dependent on a country that does not share our values. Complete economic dependency rooted in the principle of hope makes us susceptible to political blackmail. Now that we know better, we must not repeat this mistake. Regrettable as it may be, China has also changed in recent years. It is pulling up the drawbridge, threatening military action against Taiwan and trying to replace international norms with its own rules. We need to gear our political but above all our economic relations to the China that exists today. That doesn’t mean complete disengagement which isn’t possible in the case of one of the world’s largest countries. But it means tapping alternative markets in Asia. It means diversification and risk management.
Question: Is that how the business community sees it?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Many SMEs are reducing their trade with China and saying in all clarity: we need to protect ourselves. Because they do not just see the short-term gains but also the geopolitical risks. Entrepreneurs are also citizens who see that we as a state, as a society, are having to spend billions of tax revenue on saving energy companies who put all their eggs in Russia’s basket. Responsible businesses and needless to say politicians have the task of not allowing us to end up in a situation a few years hence where we are having to spend billions of tax revenue to bail out the chemical and car industry because they have made themselves dependent for better or for worse on the Chinese market.
Question: China wants to invest here, in the Port of Hamburg for example. Can the Federal Government allow Cosco to have a 35 percent stake in a container terminal?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: The Port of Hamburg is not any old port but one of the key ports not just for us as an export nation but for Europe as a whole. For every investment in German critical infrastructure, we need to ask ourselves what could happen if China were to turn against us as a democracy and community of shared values. We are seeing in other countries what it means when China owns or partially owns critical infrastructure – whether airports, rail or electricity networks.
Question: Are you on the same page as the Federal Chancellor here? As former Mayor of Hamburg, he seems to be in favour of Cosco’s involvement...
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: Obviously, we don’t just consult in the coalition where we are currently working together on Germany’s first China Strategy which makes plain that simply carrying on as before is not an option. We agree that we need to drastically reduce our vulnerability. We have also obtained a European Commission opinion. After all, we are talking about a shared European stance here. And most European countries are following the principle of seeing China not just as a partner on global issues but also as a competitor and systemic rival.
Question: The Federal Government wants to buy gas and in the long term hydrogen from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states despite major human rights violations. How does that fit in with value-led foreign policy?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: What is crucial is that we do not make ourselves so dependent on any country that the need to be considerate prevents us from taking a loud and clear stand to promote human rights. In my talks with such countries, I say in all clarity: you do actually have potential for green hydrogen but when making long-term investments we have to be sure that basic international rules are being respected. These rules of course include general human rights but also environmental and social standards.
Question: In the coalition agreement, we read that no weapons can be delivered to countries involved in the Yemen war. And yet Saudi Arabia is receiving German defence goods. How do you fancy explaining that at the Greens party convention?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: I beg to differ, Saudi Arabia is not receiving direct deliveries of German armaments. The ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia stands. Previous governments have however concluded agreements on joint projects with Britain and Spain as a result of which Germany is supplying individual parts for the Eurofighter which also end up in Saudi Arabia. You cannot just wriggle out of this kind of joint project. Given the threat to European security posed by Russia since 24 February, reliability amongst European partners is more important than ever before. As Europeans, we need to cooperate more closely on defence policy so that we are able to protect ourselves together. That is why in this particular case that we inherited, we faced difficult choices. We decided not to block deliveries for the joint project but to identify shared criteria for future agreements to facilitate a get-out clause if human rights criteria are not met. With our German law on arms export control we want to ensure these values are more binding in Europe so that we can reach joint decisions instead of ending up with a race to the bottom where the lowest standards prevail. This decision was anything but easy, so I understand the criticism. But I personally am convinced that we need to face up to this European dilemma at the current time to find joint solutions rather than shirking responsibility.
Question: As a champion of a feminist foreign policy, what have you got to say about the brutal suppression of the so-called anti-hijab protests in Iran?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: I do hope that each and every one of us utterly condemns this brutal violence without having to cite feminist foreign policy. But for me it is no coincidence that women are suffering so much and that headscarf rules are playing a role. That is why from my very first day in office, I have made clear in every country that, in line with feminist foreign policy, women’s rights are a yardstick for the state of a society. Those who oppress half of their population obviously don’t set much store by democracy. And the brutal way in which the regime has been treating women for almost four weeks now shows its lack of consideration for its own population. We see and hear horrendous examples on a daily basis: women are being abducted on the street, beaten up, tortured, 15-year-old girls taken from their homes. In Iran, we are not just seeing the systematic suppression of women. Feminist foreign policy also means showing how other groups are affected. We are talking here about the rights of Sunnis, Bahá'ís, Kurds and homosexuals. I am working hard to ensure that the perpetrators of these human rights crimes are called to account, that they are not allowed to enter Europe and that their assets in the EU are frozen – in addition to the 550 persons and organisations currently sanctioned. And this first sanctions package as a reaction to the suppression of women is only going to be the start of providing the people with effective assistance.
Interview: Daniel Brössler, Paul-Anton Krüger and Nicolas Richter