German President Steinmeier on the War in Ukraine "I Still Hoped that Putin Possessed a Remnant of Rationality"
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we took a look back and found that in the course of your political career, you have met personally with Vladimir Putin in Moscow at least seven times. In hindsight, was there something about any of those encounters that could help explain the current situation?
Steinmeier: My first encounter with Putin was in 2001 when he held a speech in the Bundestag. He spoke German – the language of Goethe, Schiller and Kant, as he said in his address. His central message was that he wanted to join Germany and Europe on the path to freedom and democracy. That speech gave me hope, and for the German government, it meant a responsibility to contribute to improved relations.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2022 (April 8th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
DER SPIEGEL: But that speech took place more than 20 years ago.
Steinmeier: Exactly. That Putin from the year 2001 has nothing in common with the Putin of 2022, who we are now experiencing as a brutal, entrenched warmonger.
DER SPIEGEL: Over the years, have you seen a change in character in the Russian president?
Steinmeier: For me, personal character is not as important as perceptions of Russian policy. And that perception – with me, as well – has changed over the years. I recall my last visit to Moscow, which was also my only visit as the president of Germany. It was actually a nice occasion: I took part in the ceremony marking the return of the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg to the Lutheran Church. That was in October 2017. During that visit, I met again with Putin. It was a frosty conversation. Animosity to the West, and especially to the U.S., had become his dominating ideology. That was an extremely bitter realization.
DER SPIEGEL: One which wasn’t obviously reflected in your political approach to Russia. Why did you continue seeking closeness with Moscow for so long?
Steinmeier: Which closeness are you referring to? I haven’t been to Moscow since 2017 and haven’t spoken to either Putin or (Foreign Minister Sergey) Lavrov. I changed my approach to Russia after the annexation of the Crimea, if not before.
DER SPIEGEL: Putin is waging a war in Ukraine, has apparently had civilians murdered and has threatened the use of nuclear weapons. You saw all that coming?
Steinmeier: No. I have been a witness to the changes in Russia’s political course. But, to be honest, I still hoped that Vladimir Putin possessed a remnant of rationality. I did not think that the Russian president would risk his country’s complete political, economic and moral ruin in the pursuit of an imperial delusion. The attack has shaken me.
DER SPIEGEL: What prevented you from seeing Putin’s true face?
Steinmeier: His face hasn’t always been the same. But we also aren’t able to choose with whom we must deal. I consider myself to be among those who have worked hard to ensure that war never again returns to Europe. That effort was not successful. Were the goals therefore misguided? Was it wrong to work to achieve them? That is the debate that I, that we must now hold.
DER SPIEGEL: Where has German policy, under your active participation, demonstrated clear resolve in the approach to Moscow? When was an effort made to establish clear limits for Putin?
Steinmeier: The annexation of Crimea and the ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine marked a turning point. And this turning point had far-reaching consequences. As NATO foreign ministers, we established the 2-percent defense spending goal following 2014 and agreed on measures aimed at deterrence and mutual defense. That included air policing in the skies above the Baltic countries and, later, NATO maneuvers in Eastern Europe – steps that were considered to be excessive within elements of the European and German public and which I had to defend within my own party.
DER SPIEGEL: At the same time, you warned NATO at the time against "saber rattling" toward Russia. Looking back now, do you wish you hadn’t said that?
Steinmeier: It was taken out of context even then. I was involved in pushing for policies aimed at strengthening NATO and I helped ensure a majority for them in Germany.
DER SPIEGEL: The Ukrainian view of your role is rather less grand.
Steinmeier: If that is indeed the case, it would make me extremely sad. It is likely that no other country has occupied me in my political life to the degree Ukraine has. During the German presidency of the Council of the EU in 2007, I launched the negotiations for an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine, and then had to watch as Russia sought to destroy it in the ensuing years. When I returned to the Foreign Ministry in December 2013 after four years in the opposition, disgust in Ukraine with President Yanukovych was just reaching its climax.
DER SPIEGEL: That was during the Euromaidan uprising, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets of the capital in opposition to Kyiv’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement – a protest movement to which the pro-Moscow government responded with violence.
Steinmeier: The situation was dramatic. When I arrived together with my Polish and French counterparts, there were plumes of smoke hanging above the city. We kept receiving reports of a mounting number of deaths. We made our way through the barricades to the presidential palace, where the special police force was storing massive amounts of munitions and weapons. We almost unexpectedly got negotiations started between Victor Yanukovych and the Maidan protesters. We agreed on an end to the violence, the installation of a transitional government, the reinstatement of the 2004 constitution and early elections: a positive result, even if political developments in the ensuing 24 hours outstripped that deal.
DER SPIEGEL: The Kremlin seems not to have got the message. What remains is the image of an overly cautious Germany that is constantly afraid of provoking Moscow.
Steinmeier: If we could please stick to the facts: All of Europe was happy that Germany and France had taken responsibility for negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine itself, it must be said, asked for this Normandy Format. Moscow felt provoked by our actions and continually accused us of having brought about the end of the Yanukovych government. But it is certainly clear: Our dependency on energy imports from Russia was and remains a problem.
DER SPIEGEL: You are referring to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which you also supported until the very end.
Steinmeier: That was a mistake, clearly. For a long time, I quieted my concerns with the fact that plans for the pipeline were laid before 2014, and my focus was on dialogue. Now, not only has a multibillion-euro project failed, but our behavior has also resulted in a loss of credibility with our Eastern European partners. That hurts.
DER SPIEGEL: Putin appears to have interpreted this desire for dialogue as a sign of weakness and figured he had nothing to fear. Otherwise, he would never have taken the risk of launching this war.
Steinmeier: I don’t believe that Putin still calculates so rationally. I used to actually think that Moscow could very well be afraid of NATO expansion. Today, I know that Russia is actually afraid of the expansion of democracy and of desires for freedom and rights. The attack on Ukraine, the denial of its statehood, the slaughter and the endless suffering is a final break. And also a watershed. It has become clear through the closing of ranks in the West, the solidarity between Europe and the U.S., the decisiveness of the EU on sanctions and the clear NATO response.
DER SPIEGEL: There is that one picture of you and Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in which the two of you seem to almost be sharing a moment of intimacy, the way you grab each other’s arms. It has become a rather symbolic image for the problematic closeness between Germany and Russia.
Steinmeier: You think so?
DER SPIEGEL: It seems to exude a certain harmony.
Steinmeier: I think that our facial expressions in that picture don’t look at all friendly and cordial.
DER SPIEGEL: It’s misleading?
Steinmeier: There are other pictures out there. I remember a photo of me and Lavrov in a Geneva hotel in frosty tempers which was passed around at the time as evidence of a problematic working relationship. From the Iran negotiations, from the NATO-Russia Council or from the United Nations, there are likely thousands of photos of me with a wide variety of different gestures and facial expressions.
DER SPIEGEL: Photos can sometimes influence political developments.
Steinmeier: You could also say that politics are made with photos. But what does that mean for a foreign minister? Should we no longer hold talks? Should we no longer make appearances and negotiate? Here’s an example: Had we not managed to win over Russian support, China would never have supported the nuclear deal with Iran. These are challenging dilemmas. But we won’t be able to escape them in the future either. Each generation of foreign policy will have to decide anew.
DER SPIEGEL: Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk was recently sharply critical of you. He said you maintain a "spider’s web" of contacts to Russian and "hold the fort" for Russia in Germany. What is your response?
Steinmeier: Ukraine, which is the victim of a criminal, illegal attack and the population of which must suffer so much destruction and pain, has every right in the world to demand solidarity, assistance and support.
DER SPIEGEL: The Ukrainian accusation that you, as German foreign minister, spent several years pursuing a naïve approach to Russia is not one you are willing to accept even in light of Moscow’s brutal invasion?
Steinmeier: We should not do Putin the favor of taking the responsibility for his war of aggression. Separate from that, however, we must now, of course, take a precise look at where we made mistakes.
DER SPIEGEL: Who do you mean when you say "we"?
Steinmeier: Generations of politicians. I expressly include myself.
DER SPIEGEL: Many partners are frustrated with Germany because we are doing so little to help Ukraine . As the strongest country in the EU, are we not being too passive?
Steinmeier: I have respect for the decisions made by the German government. The word "watershed" has not remained a rhetorical formulation. The lasting commitment to the 2-percent target and the 100-billion-euro program for the German military mean a departure from common German practice. They mean equipment, rearmament and deterrence. Plus the weapons deliveries and the most severe sanctions that Europeans have ever imposed together: That is a watershed.
DER SPIEGEL: Putin’s troops have apparently perpetrated horrific war crimes in Ukraine. Should Putin and Lavrov be dragged before the International Criminal Court in The Hague?
Steinmeier: Everyone who bears responsibility for these crimes must face consequences. That includes soldiers. That includes military commanders. And naturally also those who bear political responsibility.
DER SPIEGEL: Aren’t the atrocities committed in Bucha also a watershed, according to which Germany must completely reexamine and intensify its approach to sanctions?
Steinmeier: The images from Bucha are horrific, I can hardly bear them. It breaks my heart. They once again highlight what Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine means, the kind of suffering and death it is causing, and the displacement. That makes me incredibly angry and sad.
DER SPIEGEL: The emotions are one thing. A different question, though, is whether, and how fast, Germany is prepared to react harshly – with, for example, an oil and natural gas embargo.
Steinmeier: Given the recent developments in the European debate, the end of Russian coal deliveries appears to be within sight. My impression is that the German government is doing all it can to also significantly reduce imports of oil and natural gas. If the government’s sincere position, based on expertise, is that a sudden gas embargo would be irresponsible, one should not accuse it of cynicism if it acts accordingly.
DER SPIEGEL: You recently spoke of "hardships" that you say still lie ahead.
Steinmeier: They are unavoidable given the consequences of the sanctions that we have already implemented.
DER SPIEGEL: But doesn’t that also mean accepting the consequences of an energy embargo?
Steinmeier: Among the consequences is an honest admission that we aren’t talking about turning down the heating at home by 2 degrees or the 30-cent increase in gasoline prices. We are talking about potentially losing an entire commercial sector like the chemical industry, which is vital for manufacturing processes and products in all areas of our economy along with millions of jobs. That a government seeks to consider all these consequences is something we should expect of it.
DER SPIEGEL: Which makes the dependency that we have developed over the years all the more fraught.
Steinmeier: In reality, the current situation has its roots in the 1980s when we lost Britain as an important supplier of natural gas and Norway and the Netherlands could only partially compensate for the loss. The eyes of energy policy makers turned increasingly toward Russia at the time. It is true that we, that German governments, provided political support for the expansion of the necessary infrastructure. A lesson from that is that the foreign policy philosophy according to which political transformations can be achieved through trade doesn’t apply when dealing with autocracies. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have economic and scientific ties. But the hope that such ties will automatically change things for the better politically is misleading.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for our relationship with China, for example?
Steinmeier: There are areas where our dependency on China is greater than our fossil energy dependency on Russia. Europe imports 98 percent of its rare earths from China, 93 percent of its magnesium, 93 percent of its bismuth – I could go on. Those are vital raw materials for the production of semiconductors, the entire high technology industry. And the number of countries where they are found and mined remains small. There isn’t an easy workaround.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you appealing to the German government to become more independent of China?
Steinmeier: Of course, we have to reduce our dependencies, and that is also happening. There isn’t a single sector in Germany that isn’t looking at how to shorten supply chains, diversify suppliers and reorient logistics. But we will remain a rather unique country: We are extremely poor in natural resources on the one hand, but our products are present in almost every market in the world. You could even say: We actually live from dependencies. These dependencies will remain, not only when it comes to natural resources, but also when it comes to China’s role in the increasingly pressing fight against climate change. Yes, we have to draw lessons from the misjudgments in our relations with Russia. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves: Relations between democracies and autocratic countries, including Germany’s approach to China, will always be a balancing act between maintaining distance and engaging in cooperation.
DER SPIEGEL: You have just begun your second term as German president. What can you do help lead Germany through these times of change?
Steinmeier: The debate over the future of globalization, our responsibility and the systemic conflict between democracies and authoritarian regimes has only just begun. I will lead that debate.
Steinmeier speaking to DER SPIEGEL journalists Veit Medick and Melanie Amann at his Berlin officesFoto: Dominik Butzmann / DER SPIEGEL
DER SPIEGEL: How can this war be brought to an end?
Steinmeier: That is a question that is on all of our minds. I don’t find it helpful to provide clever advice from afar. One thing is clear: Our country stands at Ukraine’s side.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you planning on traveling to Kyiv in the near future?
Steinmeier: There is hardly any other capital that I have visited as frequently as Kyiv. And I will continue to do everything in my power to help Ukraine. Additional visits are very much a part of that.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.