Wolfgang Ischinger is one of the world's most authoritative specialists in international security issues.
A top diplomat, former state secretary of the German Foreign Office and former ambassador to the US, he has headed the Munich Security Conference since 2008 - this is the world's most important security forum, attended by state leaders and dozens of ministers every year.
It is no surprise that his views are highly valued. Of course, this does not mean that one needs to unquestioningly agree with him. The disputed "plan to end the war in Ukraine", presented in Munich at the MSC this year, is an example that best proves it. However, his views surely cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to Ischinger's perspective on Russia and the ways to counter the Kremlin.
Ischinger is also a member of the board of the Yalta European Strategy and attends the YES forum in Kyiv every autumn. This year it was only possible to speak to him remotely, via video conference, but this conversation turned out to be far from trivial.
The diplomat admitted that the Minsk agreements "are not the Bible" and implementing them in full may be not the best idea. He thinks that Russia has not fulfilled the conditions for the launch of Nord Stream 2, even though the pipeline should not be stopped through a government decision. And that Karabakh cannot serve as an example for Donbas.
But we’ve started from changes arising from election of the new US president.
"The US is not a 'patron of Europe'. Time has come to realize this"
Joe Biden has won the election and will most probably become the next US president. What does this mean for the world?
This changes a lot! After his election four years ago, President Trump has pursued a course which did not put multilateral cooperation at the centre of US foreign policy. If we were talking about the foreign policy of Portugal, Cyprus or Algeria, it would also be bad, but it would not affect the global environment that much. But when the US - a superpower with the most powerful army in the world - abandons the tradition under which it is the US who leads the world of alliances, partnerships and cooperation, that of course matters.
But I think that starting from January 2021, as soon as Biden assumes the presidency, we will see the return of a foreign policy based on multilateralism. And this will have enormous implications.
This in particular means that the Biden administration will not consider the European Union as its foe or adversary but see us as a reliable and important partner.
Did the US under Trump consider you a foe?
Yes, and he admitted that himself. He said so in an interview - I have seen that. In addition, he considers my country, Germany, an unhelpful ally because we have low defence expenditures and also because the German automotive industry sells too many cars to the US, etc.
I hope that this will change and we will again see the US seeking to lead alliances.
We will see an America which wants to be more present in Europe than has been the case. We will see its readiness for alliances in Asia - unlike Trump, who rejected the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement. In a nutshell, we will see something more similar to policies of Obama or Clinton.
Second, which is the most important thing for the Germans and, I think, for Ukrainians, is that in the post-war times the US has been the "symbol of the West". The West is a group of nations committed to human rights, freedoms, rule of law and democracy. Those who behave decently, respecting others, respecting minorities. Frankly, in the last four years, I was not able to say to my children or my grandchildren that this is about the USA. As in, "look at Washington, this is what we stand for".
I also hope to see a US which will stick to agreements, not act the way it did when it withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement, dealing a huge destructive blow to global cooperation.
But before all these considerations, one needs to add a very big "but".
In 2021, the US will not be the all-powerful force it was 60, 40 or even 20 years ago. So we, the Europeans - including both Germany and Ukraine - will need to get ready to step up our own contribution to international cooperation.
We should not hope for the US to come and solve all of our problems for us.
We need to become more autonomous, taking our security and interests into our own hands. But obviously cooperating with the US on this path.
The idea that Europe must be ready to guarantee its own security has indeed become popular under Trump. But are you sure that this will remain so under Biden, and that the wish to rely on the 'good old US' will not come back?
Unfortunately, this threat exists and it makes me very concerned. This is why I will do everything in my power to remind all political players that there is no path towards an imaginary transatlantic paradise.
The US is not a "patron of Europe" which should care about our problems. We need to start dealing with our security, economic and other issues on our own, without abandoning relations with the US, however.
I hope we will be realistic enough to understand that.
And what about the idea to create a "European army"? Is it still relevant, or is it better to count on NATO?
The vision of a European army is nice, and I share this vision. But it has a flaw: this idea is absolutely unrealistic in practical terms today.
We cannot agree on it within the EU, we cannot even come close to this agreement, because each country has a veto right in foreign policy and security.
But that does not mean that the EU should not invest effort and money in the development of its own military capabilities. Just think about it, we are the biggest trade bloc in the world but we have no power to have a proper influence on regional or global crises.
I will remind you that we were totally incapable of doing anything to end the war in Syria. Over nine years we could only watch refugees from Syria heading to us, to Europe! It was us who carried the burden caused by migration and refugees but were unable to do anything to end that catastrophic war.
This needs to change. The EU must be able to defend the interests of its 450 million citizens.
"Conditions to launch Nord Stream 2 have not been fulfilled yet"
There has been an irritant in the US-Germany relations - sanctions against Nord Stream 2. Do you think there will be a change under Biden?
This is a good question.
I will start by saying that I do not think sanctions are a panacea. Sanctions are an instrument which we use when we do not have a better method to express our dislike. This is why I fully support the imposition of sanctions on Russia because of their actions in Ukraine and towards Ukraine; I fully support the sanctions against those in Belarus who are oppressing the opposition.
But imposing sanctions on friends and partners of the US in Europe is a terribly bad idea. And I hope that the Biden administration will stop even considering such actions.
And before you ask, I would like to state that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline may not have been a bad idea but I need to admit that my country, Germany, was very bad at consulting partners before launching this project.
We should have worked closely not only with the Russians. We should have come to Kyiv, to Warsaw, to the Baltic states. We should have tried to agree on a package that would have taken Ukrainian, Polish, Baltic and other interests into account. This is a point of self-criticism that I have.
I hope that this story will teach us that such decisions on energy are also very important foreign policy decisions, which means they need to be discussed with our friends and partners.
We, the Germans, did not do that and deserve to be criticized for it.
The US is talking about sanctions against Gazprom, not against Germany. In Congress, they were supported by the bipartisan majority, and I doubt that it will change its opinion to the opposite under Biden. What do you think - if the US does not back off, will the pipeline be built anyway?
The pipeline is now 95% completed. I do not think it is a good idea to stop at this stage the project which cost Western investors (and I emphasize that we are talking about German, French and Austrian companies, not just Gazprom) billions of euros.
But there is another thing to which I will draw attention.
At this point, I do see how the German government could participate in celebrating the completion of the pipeline - whenever that may happen - in a situation where we have unresolved issues in bilateral relations with Russia.
I am talking about the poisoning of Navalny, the murder (of former Chechen field commander
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili) in the very centre of Berlin, obviously committed by a Russian special agent. There are also other political problems dividing Berlin and Moscow, including Donbas, Crimea, or Russia's actions in Syria such as genocidal bombings. And as long as this exists, I cannot imagine the government taking part in such events.
I will also remind you that not all legal problems concerning this pipeline have been resolved as of now. EU regulations require gas operators to carry out unbundling, meaning the division of production, transit and supply of gas. As far as I know, the Russians have not done that yet.
This means that the conditions for setting Nord Stream 2 into operation have not been fulfilled.
But despite this, I do not think that it would be a smart or fair step to stop the construction of the pipeline through a government decision.
"I am not sure we want Russia to disintegrate"
What is Russia to the West - to the EU and to Germany?
Let me put it this way: Russia is our huge neighbour. It is also a part of Europe, which has played the role of a threatening military power over many recent years.
Obviously, I know how much Ukraine suffered from the use of Russian military power in your territory. But I think that we tend to overestimate Russia. Its GDP is smaller than Italy's. So we should not turn Russia in our imagination into a giant, when according to economic indicators it is a very small player.
Russia says that it is concerned about the security of its western borders. But I hope that one day politicians in Russia will start to realize that Ukraine and the EU states which it borders on are not the enemies. That we do not even consider an attack against it.
The Europeans, together with Ukraine, must tell the Russians one day: your western borders are the safest ones! You could expect danger in the east or south but we, the Europeans, are your best neighbours, and we offer you great cooperation opportunities.
Sorry, but I cannot agree with the idea that Russia and us are partners rather than enemies. For Ukraine, Russia is an enemy which has occupied our territory. And it happened not because Russia felt some sort of danger on the Ukrainian border. Considering this, I would like to ask you: do you see a realistic way towards the de-occupation of Crimea and Donbas?
(Thinking) You know, over the past five years I have been hoping to see significant progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Unfortunately, I have to admit now that I do not see a realistic way - the one that would satisfy my Ukrainian friends and bring a final peace agreement.
But I believe that Ukraine could bring back territories through economic and social recovery of the state. If your government manages to successfully overcome massive corruption, if you create a situation where Ukrainians (in government-controlled territories) will live in prosperity, then those living in Donetsk and Luhansk will realize that staying under those strange regimes is a bad decision.
Bringing Donbas back would not depend on a military (operation and) victory - which, by the way, I do not think will happen - but on the attractiveness, the prosperity of the rest of Ukraine which would become a magnet and attract Donetsk and Luhansk towards reintegration.
So I would advise my Ukrainian friends to develop strategic patience.
But this conflict resolution will not come overnight.
However, if Ukraine develops in the right direction, in time these two regions will come back on their own free will. And Ukraine, as a stable and peaceful country, will be able to fully participate in international formats. While having stable relations with Russia, I hope.
You did not mention Crimea in your answer. I think you did that on purpose.
True, I did not mention Crimea, but regarding Crimea I would also advise you to have strategic patience.
Your friends in the Baltic states were under Soviet occupation for 50 years, but restored their independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They pursued strategic patience.
And we, the West, did not recognize the annexation of the Baltic states by the USSR that whole time - and just like that, we will not recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. And one day in the future, I am sure of that, negotiations on Crimea will begin. Maybe they would take years, maybe you would have to wait for President Putin to go, I do not know...
… In a nutshell, we would have to wait for Russia to dissolve - just like it happened with the Soviet Union.
I am not sure we want Russia to dissolve. But we want a change in the Russian tradition to believe that for their own security they need to have around them the states whose independence has been undermined. I think that this is exactly why they want to have to the west of the country the kind of Ukraine that would be dependent on Russia. Same thing with Georgia and so on.
I hope over time Russia will understand that this foreign policy is from the 19th century, not the 21st. This will not happen overnight. It takes time. But we will not abandon Ukraine during this time.
"Do not even think about it!"
You mentioned that a military solution is not an option for Donbas. But look at what happened in Karabakh - Azerbaijan has practically restored control over the lost territories.
Do not even think about it!
You really need to think about how to defend Ukraine so that neither Russia nor anyone else can violate your borders again. But do not even think about a military conflict to bring back Donbas!
Because the difference is huge! There, we are talking about two small Caucasus states, neither of which has a strategic significance for either Russia or the USA or any other global power.
Instead, the military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia - if it starts now or in a year or two - can only lead to disaster. So I am saying this: do not even think about a military path. Consequences for Ukraine would be horrible, you will seriously suffer. Maybe Russia will also seriously suffer, I do not know that - but for you, the outcome would not be good for sure.
This is why I advise long-term diplomacy.
Ukraine will bring Donbas back. Even in my lifetime, I am sure - even though I am much older than you are - we will see Ukraine united again, but it will happen not through a military path, but an economic one, which I have already told you about.
Ukraine is potentially a very rich state. You have a lot of highly educated people and you have an enormous potential to increase a per capita income. There are no objective reasons why it should not reach the level of Poland. And that would mean that people to the west of the dividing line in Donbas would have an income five or 10 times higher than to the east of this line. And this is the path that you should go down.
You recalled the Minsk agreements which are currently not effective. How untouchable is this format? Can one talk about replacing it, in particular considering the changes in the US?
I have great sympathy for creative rethinking of diplomatic decisions.
Besides, many of my friends in Ukraine see so many flaws in Minsk that they are casting doubt on the need to implement it.
So in case anyone can come up with a better formula that would replace Minsk - that would be great! Why not? It has been six years since Maidan, and surely there is room to look at the situation in a new way.
The Minsk agreements are not the Bible.
It is unlikely that they are the best solution for Donbas.
But unfortunately, as of now this is the only decision that has been agreed. So we in Berlin believe that efforts to implement Minsk should continue, but once a better idea appears - of course it will need to be changed!
"Russia is a neighbour that has too many problems"
You are following what is happening in Belarus. Is it realistic that that it could end in its annexation by the Russians? Because for Ukraine this carries additional danger, as Russian troops would emerge to the north of us.
I do not see evidence that the Kremlin really wants to integrate Belarus - especially since this step would entail additional problems for Russia. Because the people of Belarus will obviously not observe that in silence.
I hope very much that a way can be found to make Lukashenko understand: his legitimacy has come to an end, and it is in his own interest to propose a way to transfer power. And this transfer should not lie in Belarus becoming part of Russia.
Why do you think he needs that?
Because Belarusians are different from Ukrainians in 2013-14. There is no clear wish there to go to the EU or to Russia. On the contrary, Belarusians are quite neutral. For them, Russia is an important neighbour, which, however, has too many problems.
But Lukashenko may think differently - for example, if the Russians offer him a quiet and safe life. Like they did to Yanukovych.
Of course, it could be an option for them. He could buy an apartment in Moscow and live a peaceful life there. But I hope that Lukashenko will understand: by starting a transfer of power, he will no longer need to flee the country in a Russian helicopter.
Another important detail: many of my friends in Belarus have been very disappointed in how Russia behaved during this crisis. For example, when journalists in state media who backed the protests were replaced with Russians. They understand that it is Russia that stands in the way of self-determination, democracy and rule of law in Belarus.
Can the EU play any role in this process? Or can you only wait?
All attempts by European leaders to start dialogue have been rejected by the Belarusian leadership. Even though both Chancellor Merkel and the OSCE Chairman-in-Office and others offered mediation to find compromise. So we are not simply sitting and watching. The EU and its member states have been looking for ways to help.
But we need to respect the sovereignty of Belarus.
This is why we eventually moved towards sanctions, imposing them not only on senior officials but also Lukashenko himself. Because this is what is left for us to do - create pressure and advance the idea of a peaceful transfer of power.
Interview by Sergiy Sydorenko,
Editor at European Pravda
The interview was made possible thanks to assistance from the Yalta European Strategy Forum organized by the Viktor Pinchuk Foundation.
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