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Minister Baerbock, you have come back from talks with your Russian counterpart, but it doesn’t look as if Sergey Lavrov has moved a millimetre. What did you achieve in Moscow?
We have resumed dialogue, and dialogue is the only way out of this crisis. We spent several hours talking to one another and sometimes arguing. I made it very clear that we can only ensure security in Europe together. The basis for doing so is the sovereignty of every individual state and the renunciation of the threat of force. At the same time, I value the fact that Germany and Russia have very close ties – not just in terms of history but also in terms of culture and of contact between hundreds of thousands of people. My responsibility as Foreign Minister is to work towards enabling the people of both our countries to live together in peace and security in our common European house, which includes Russia, too.
Do you see a way out of the crisis after your talks, or at least a willingness on the part of Russia to engage in a diplomatic process?
After two years where it was impossible even to sit down at the same table together, it would be naive to think that we can solve all of our problems in a few hours. But strong foreign policy means keeping the conversation going. And I can see that we have moved closer to one another, not in great strides, but in small steps. Our joint understanding that we have taken away from this rather challenging day is that we should return to the Normandy format.
That involves Germany and France mediating between Russia and Ukraine in the conflict in Ukraine’s east. Is Russia willing to talk about the implementation of the Minsk agreements again? Or only about its demand for a security order in Europe in which Moscow accords itself the right to decide on the future of its neighbours?
We shared a general understanding that we must work on implementing the Minsk agreements in view of the disastrous humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine. People there are suffering day after day, and since the pandemic began they haven’t even been able to see their relatives. We might only have moved a millimetre forwards, but at least on this issue we have re-established a common foundation for talks.
Lavrov said that it’s not about whether you meet, but why.
That is one of the points that we agree on. When I meet with my counterparts, I do so with a clear message, a clear stance and a clear aim. We agreed to make preparations to discuss every single sentence of the Minsk agreements. It remains hard work. We will have to work hard for every millimetre that we move towards greater security.. But that’s better than standing still.
Does Russia not want to talk primarily with the US?
Of course the US plays an incredibly important role. When it comes to disarmament in particular, it’s very important for the Americans to hold bilateral talks with the Russians, too, and fresh discussions are also taking place within the NATO-Russia Council and the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe. But these four strands of negotiations are not in competition with one another. What distinguishes the Normandy format is that Ukraine and Russia sit down at the same table and France and Germany are involved as representatives of Europe, given that the focus is on European security.
Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of failing to meet the commitments made under the Minsk agreements. What do you want to see from Kyiv, too, in that respect?
The fact is that the occupation of Crimea, as well as the violent approach of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, is a massive violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. It’s a violation of international law, and to put an end to this it was established in the Minsk agreements that progress would be made step by step. What is particularly urgent, too, is for us to resume discussion of how we can improve the humanitarian situation in the separatist areas and ensure that the people who are suffering there have their basic needs met. In the end, foreign policy is always about ensuring people’s security – we mustn’t lose sight of that. And in this regard it is a problem that the OSCE mission does not have the unrestricted access it needs. And, yes, Kyiv too has work to do on implementing the Minsk agreements.
You don’t share the Ukrainian Foreign Minister’s view that Kyiv is fulfilling all of the requirements?
We can see that we are at a standstill when it comes to implementing the Minsk agreements. Kyiv must take action particularly on the political requirements, such as the special status law. That includes not passing any laws that contradict the Minsk agreements. This could help us to make more progress.
You have emphasised that there will be no weapons supplies. If other allies took the same approach, wouldn’t Ukraine be in a very precarious security situation?
Every state has the right of self-defence, including Ukraine. And if other countries are willing to supply weapons for the purposes of defence, it isn’t our place to criticise that. But I don’t see a realistic prospect that these supplies will reverse the military imbalance. The best protection is to avoid any further aggression. And the strongest weapon, if we want to use that word, is for us to stand united as NATO members, as EU member states, as the G7, and make it clear that any new aggression would have enormous consequences.
President Biden has highlighted differences of opinion within NATO concerning how it would react to Russian aggression below the level of a full invasion. How strong is the united front that we hear so much about, and what threshold would you say must be reached before the severe consequences that have been threatened take effect?
I don’t see any disagreement among the partners on this issue. We are in complete agreement that any new violation of Ukraine’s borders would have severe consequences. We have therefore identified a long list of actions that we could take, particularly as we have to anticipate different scenarios, from acts of sabotage to the shutdown of critical infrastructure. In 2014 we were caught off-guard by the tactic of low-level escalation and hybrid attacks. Today, we are prepared.
You have also justified your opposition to supplying weapons with the argument of Germany’s historic responsibility. Is it only to Russia that we have a duty?
We have a duty to all of the countries of the former Soviet Union, because we inflicted terrible suffering on millions of people there in the past. And so it is a raison d’être of German foreign policy to do everything possible for peace and security in Europe. But in the twenty-first century, military deterrence is just one of a number of options. In an interconnected world, the option of cutting a country off from international supply chains or restricting payment transactions can have a much greater effect than supplying weapons.
German politicians have insisted that Russia must not be excluded in any way from the payment system SWIFT, which banks use to process their transactions.
Cutting Russia off from all payment transactions might be the heaviest stick, but not necessarily the sharpest sword. The Western countries are looking very closely at what smart economic and financial sanctions would in fact impact the Russian economy and leadership, rather than coming back to hit us the hardest. My US counterpart Tony Blinken and I agree absolutely on that.
Can you see how your Government’s position and the many comments from within the coalition regarding the controversial Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 are raising significant doubts in Eastern Europe about whether Berlin is really willing to follow through on the major consequences it has announced?
Both the Federal Chancellor and I have made it clear that, if there is any further military escalation, nothing will be off the table. And that includes Nord Stream 2.
The coalition agreement does not reflect the Greens’ famously critical stance on Nord Stream 2. Were the Greens shortchanged by the SPD, which still very much shares Gerhard Schröder’s position on the pipeline?
On the contrary. The coalition agreement makes it very clear that energy projects in Germany, and that includes Nord Stream 2, are subject to European energy law. The fact that the regulatory agency, the Bundesnetzagentur, has now suspended the certification procedure is the result of this firm stance, which wasn’t always shared by everyone in the past.
Does Germany not need to expand its liquid gas infrastructure in order to address its growing dependence on Russia?
First of all, it’s a myth that we will need more gas in the future – our demand remains the same for a transitional period. Our dependence on fossil gas will only increase if we fail to make resolute progress with the expansion of renewable energies. This means that expanding renewables is not just a climate change mitigation measure. It has become a core security issue. But for the transitional period until we establish a climate-neutral energy supply, we absolutely need to become less dependent on Russia. The preceding government did not do enough on this front. For us, however, it’s clear that energy security and climate change mitigation must go hand in hand. That is why the new Federal Government has agreed that all new infrastructure must be compatible with hydrogen and that we must transition to hydrogen by the mid‑2040s at the latest.
To go back to relations between NATO and Russia – the Kremlin insists that Russia feels threatened by NATO. You say you don’t share that view, but can you understand it?
One of the most interesting parts of my visit to Moscow was meeting with members of civil society. People’s greatest concern – shared by seventy percent of the population, according to surveys – is that Russia will become embroiled in another war. This shows how important it is in foreign policy to distinguish between governments and wider society. In 2014 many people in Russia had a relatively positive assessment of its military action, but now the opposite is true. I am trying to do my part by engaging in dialogue to ensure that this understanding, the understanding that the greatest danger to Russia’s security would be further military escalation, reaches the Russian Government. If my grandparents who lived through the war taught me one thing, it is that peace is more important than anything else.
Nevertheless, Moscow sees itself under threat from the eastward enlargement of NATO.
An understanding was reached in Europe, including with Russia, that every country has the freedom to choose its own alliances. Some Eastern European countries chose to become members of the European Union, or of the defence alliance NATO. Other countries chose the Russian‑led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. If membership of NATO is seen as dangerous, then logically I would have to see membership of the Russian-led alliance as a threat, too. I said as much to the Russian Foreign Minister. This is why I think it is so important for us to work towards greater military transparency, for example when it comes to exercises, and to reopen the discussion on mutual arms-control agreements, within the NATO-Russia Council among other places.
Has the West not made any mistakes in its dealings with Russia? The list of grievances is a long one, from NATO interventions in the Balkans and Libya to the termination of arms control agreements.
The termination of arms control agreements is the opposite of security, but we have also seen the fielding of missiles on the Russian side that has led to this. The result is an erosion of security for all sides. This is precisely why one of our proposals is to finally reopen the discussion on arms control agreements, but also to speak about perceptions of security. The basis for these efforts is the Charter of the United Nations, the CSCE Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris and the understanding that the threat of force cannot be used as a political instrument and that the sovereignty of each individual state must be respected.
If we look at the comments made in recent days, it seems as if some members of the Social Democratic Party dream of a world without NATO, at least in the long term. Is that a dream that you share?
A world without war or weapons, so a world without militaries, would be the perfect world. But unfortunately we’re still a long way away from that. Unfortunately, not only are we continuing to see military threats by other states around the world, but we are also seeing countries commit terrible crimes against their own civilian populations. I rather doubt that I will live to see the perfect world. But that is why disarmament is one of the key issues for me as the new Minister. We want to improve control of arms exports and we are advancing proposals to move towards a safer world when it comes to nuclear disarmament, too.
Lithuania is currently under enormous pressure from China because it has expanded its relations with Taiwan. Why is Germany not doing more to back Lithuania up in the face of this superior power that is using their close economic ties as a way to apply pressure?
The most important thing for Lithuania, as I discussed with its Foreign Minister last week, is for European companies not to withdraw from the country in fear of China. After all, the aim of the Chinese retaliation is not just to prevent Lithuanian companies from being able to export – far from it. It was an attempt to divide Europe and deter other countries from producing in Lithuania. And this strategy did not pay off, because we as the European Union and Germany as its strongest economy made it clear that no single country can be shut out within Europe. This shows how important it is for us to act as one within the European internal market. I am very pleased that we in the EU are now launching an economic instrument to protect against this kind of coercion. I also made it clear to the Chinese Foreign Minister, when I spoke to him a few days ago, that blackmail cannot be used as an instrument in relations between Europe and China.
Angela Merkel worked hard on an investment agreement with China. Is that over now?
As long as China continues to sanction Members of the European Parliament, the agreement is a farce. I also have reservations about its content – firstly, because it does not comply with the principle of reciprocity, meaning that it does not create a level playing field for European and Chinese businesses. Secondly, because compliance with the ILO’s core labour standards must be not just promised but guaranteed, particularly with regard to the prohibition of forced labour.
Ms Baerbock, to finish with a personal question – do you still go on Twitter? After your trip to Moscow at a very challenging time, many people’s lasting impression seems to be one slip of the tongue at the press conference. Does that bother you? Or do you not engage with social networks at all these days?
If I worried over hashtags about a slip of the tongue or my coats, that would be a sign that I was in the wrong job – or had too much time on my hands.
Interview conducted by Daniel Brössler and Paul-Anton Krüger.