Foreign Minister Steinmeier 'Russia is Playing a Dangerous Game'

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to SPIEGEL about military escalation with Russia, which he describes as the "worst crisis since the end of the Cold War," Vladimir Putin's long-term goals and how NATO is adapting to a difficult new reality.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: "I don't have a crystal ball."

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: "I don't have a crystal ball."

Interview Conducted by

SPIEGEL: Minister Steinmeier, do you understand why people might currently be afraid of a war breaking out with Russia?

Steinmeier: We all sense that the events of the last few months could lead to a break, to a crossroad for Europe. I understand why that might scare people -- nobody could have foreseen how quickly we've slid into the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Those who can remember the fall of the Berlin Wall know what we've accomplished over the past 25 years. The gains we've made almost everywhere in Europe in terms of peace, freedom and prosperity are now at risk. That's why it's important we take every measure to prevent things from getting worse.

SPIEGEL: For a long time, a military escalation between Western and Eastern Europe was considered out of the question. Is that certainty still valid?

Steinmeier: I don't even want to think about military escalation between the West and the East. One thing, however, is clear: If the wrong decisions are made now, they could nullify decades of work furthering the freedom and security of Europe. Nobody of sound mind can seriously want that. Because we would pay the price for it in Europe -- all of us, without exception.

SPIEGEL: Is the Russian leadership playing with fire?

Steinmeier: It is, in any case, playing a dangerous game with potentially dramatic consequences, for Russia in particular. The financial markets are already reaching their verdict: Moscow stocks and bonds have fallen sharply. The outlook for growth has disappeared. Many Russians are openly cheering their leadership on while simultaneously withdrawing as-yet unknown amounts of capital out of Russia. And this doesn't even take into consideration the investments that Russia so urgently needs from outside the country for its modernization. This nationalist exuberance could lead to a swift hangover.

SPIEGEL: Why is the situation in East Ukraine so opaque and chaotic?

Steinmeier: In 1991, Ukraine inherited a difficult legacy with its independence. It's on the border between East and West, with regions that have completely different histories, with a plethora of unresolved ethnic, religious, social and economic conflicts. It doesn't surprise me that when the pressure in the pot rises, it would erupt. Now there are people on location there during this crisis who aren't revealing their true motives or deeds to us, and others who are playing with loaded dice.

SPIEGEL: Do have a notion of what Vladimir Putin is planning on the short and long term?

Steinmeier: It's anyone's guess whether the Kremlin has a master plan or if the Russian leadership is making decisions as it goes. But it seems clear to me that when President Viktor Yanukovych fled in a panic from Kiev on Feb. 21, it set off a dynamic whose consequences we must now deal with. That this course of action has -- at least in the short term -- wide popular approval, complicates matters.

SPIEGEL: Would the German government and NATO be well-advised to revisit their strategic defense planning and armaments priorities?

Steinmeier: There is no military solution to the conflict in the Ukraine. Even if it can sometimes be frustrating, I am firmly convinced that only tenacious diplomatic work can bring us any closer to a solution. That's why I'm arguing -- with all of my strength -- that the OSCE should get the chance to fulfill its mission as part of the Geneva Agreement. Of course, that doesn't preclude us members of NATO from incorporating the latest developments into our communal planning. That's a matter of course. That was already the task of the foreign ministers at the most recent NATO Council. And now that will be implemented.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it's more likely that Europe or the United States will come out of this conflict geopolitically strengthened?

Steinmeier: I don't have a crystal ball, unfortunately. But I caution against looking for winners and losers in the middle of the crisis based on concepts from the 19th and early 20th century. Spheres of influence, geopolitical regions, hegemony, aspirations to dominance … those aren't part of our foreign policy -- though we would also be well advised to take into account other people thinking along those lines. Whoever thinks war allows for lasting victories these days should take a look at European history books and learn their lesson.


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Inglenda2 04/28/2014
1. Cold feet in Germany
Any government, which allows the country for which it is responsible to be dependant on foreign sources, for food and energy, can be forced into subservience. The crisis which can now be observed within the Ukraine, could well spread to other east European areas within the next few years. To observe how hopelessly weak the answer from the west is coming, is a shock to most ordinary citizens. However, Mrs. Merkel and Minister Steinmeier have little in the hand with which they could improve the situation. It was after all, Mrs. Merkel's predecessor and Mr. Steinmeier's party colleague Schroeder who has put Germany into a position where it can now so easily be blackmailed
erik.skjold 04/28/2014
2. US/EU/NATO is playing a dangerous game - and they started it...
As we know there must be 2 or more parts to any conflict. It follows that both EU/NATO under US direction have been more than eager to play a part in instigating (knowingly - or not) the current situation. Following the unification with DDR, NATO expansion in violation of agreements (as noted in Der Spiegel 2009.11.26 "NATO's Eastward Expansion: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow?") encircling and bringing NATO onto Moscow's doorstep must by anyone with slight common sense be understood as highly confrontational. Seen in the context of the NATO's unilateral abandonment of the ABM treaty and US persistence in deploying its "Missile Defence Shield" in Europe anyone will see that it is all instigated to render Russia defenceless. Stating "Spheres of influence, geopolitical regions, hegemony, aspirations to dominance … those aren't part of our foreign policy" insinuates that EU/NATO only have benevolent and charitable interests in their mind when incorporating 12 former Warsaw pact states into NATO, and most of these also into the EU. We all know this is not the case. If EU/NATO would have embraced Russia instead of picking off its allies the situation could have been very different. EU could have reached from the Azores to Kamchatka forming an unprecedented domain of free trade, stability and prosperity whereas NATO could have diminished its role leaving Europe to find its own ways without US hubris and guidance. That Steinmeyer abandoned his obligations towards Ukraine's the legal government and Presidency regarding the transitional phase, allowing the mobs of Maidan setting up an "interim" government consisting of several self-declared neo Nazi elements is troublesome to any European. To any German it should be particularly so. That Russia finds the situation untenable must be obvious, understandable and acceptable to any educated person with a reasonable perspective upon history and a minimum of empathy. The so called new cold war is not starting now - it started already in 1999 when the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were incorporated into NATO. What we are seeing now is an inevitable reaction to persistent provocation. Ascribing ideals of wanting to bring democracy and prosperity to Ukraine by ousting their elected leader's, ring false in anybody's ears, in particular ears who have heard similar claims in the run up to the bombing of Belgrade, the destruction of Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria. Having Herr Steinmeyer pointing his condescending finger at history stating "war is not the key to victory" must be extremely provocative to Russians having suffered three apocalyptic wars in recent history brought on by EU states, two of them led by Germany. I would like to bring to attention Willy Wimmer, a distinguished statesman, academic and German with an altogether better understanding and approach to the current state of affairs – and hope that his ideals may be carried forward in place of the provocative, war mongering attitudes which currently prevail within the ruling classes.
peskyvera 04/28/2014
3. optional
After living through two world wars, it is very hard to understand EU's stupidity - cheering on US/NATO in their expansion goal. Does the US/EU/NATO really believe that Russia will just lean over to be screwed? Think again. The US' goals are well know (obviously not by Mr. Steinmeier and co.): first encircle Russia and then encircle China. Are these 'leaders' dumb, deaf and blind? Have any of these 'bright lights' even bothered to ask: and what would China do? In 2008 the US took us to the brink of world-wide bankruptcy; now in 2014 the US is taking us to the brink of WW3. For heaven's sake EU: stop kissing the American behind.
woodyinparis 04/28/2014
4. Make Putin feel fear
What will really determine the outcome of this crisis are the personalities of the key leaders in power. If we had an aggressive American president whom Putin has already humiliated by giving asylum to Snowden, this would be a far more dangerous crisis to manage. He would have told Putin in the plain language he understands "you screwed me once this year now I'll screw you." This means dropping paratroops in Poland on exercise and sending several squadrons of fighters to the region. If the Chancellor was an aggressive leader she would be outraged over the treatment of her officers held by pro-Russian thugs. She would use language Putin understands and give him 48 hours for their release or German Typhoons would begin to arrive over the Black Sea. When dealing with a bully like Putin you must use language he understands, backed up by actions. Doing the usual diplomatic dance plays his game. Milk toast leaders back us into wars they mean to avoid. Your foreign minister is more about his egotistical approach that won't work rather than really scaring Putin because he must be made to feel fear.
peskyvera 04/28/2014
5. optional
And something else...Mr. Steinmeier isn't bothered one iota by the fact that the US toppled an elected government and replaced it with a neo-Nazi, extremist 'government'??? And this is what the EU is supporting? For shame, for shame.
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