"Russia has lost a lot of political capital in Germany"

In an interview with "Russia in Global Affairs" Wolfgang Ischinger assess the impact of the Ukraine crisis on German-Russian relations.

Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference (Photo: Kuhlmann).

Mr. Ischinger, to what extent, as you see, is the current crisis in the Ukraine rooted in the events which happened more than 20 years ago? Do you think that some mistakes were made both by the West and Russia during Perestroika and after the collapse of the USSR, which led to the present situation?


Many in the West certainly look back and wonder where they could or should have acted differently, but we should be clear about one thing: All our mutual agreements from that time, especially the Charta of Paris, the Budapest Memorandum, and so on are crystal clear on territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders. And even if mistakes were made also by the West, that would certainly not justify a violation of international law by the Russian Federation.


Why have NATO and Russia not managed to overcome mutual suspicion and mistrust for more than 20 years? Is this a dismal legacy of the Cold War period or simply lack of willingness to do it?


Legacies are not made out of cement, and we did make progress on overcoming it, for example with the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997, and more recently with the US-Russian "reset." Unfortunately, it is sometimes easier to cling to the past and look for negative signs than to see the opportunities for real and lasting change.


In his speech on the Crimea, Putin addressed the German people directly as the friend of Russia. From your point of view might this approach have been effective? Is Germany still regarding Russia as a special partner in Europe, and to what degree is thankfulness for the Wiedervereinigung shaping Berlin policy towards Kremlin 20 years later?


Germans continue to be grateful for the Soviet Union’s role in making unification possible, which is why Germans tended to favor engagement with Russia over the past decades. We will always be neighbours of Russia, but also of Ukraine.


Boris Yelzin once said that Kohl was his only real friend in Germany, later media has shown "warm" relationships between Putin and Schroeder. As you see, how many "friends" does Russia have today in Germany. Has the Crimean case dramatically decreased the amount of Russian supporters in the EU in general?


According to opinion polls in Germany, the attitude towards Russia has become much more negative over the course of the year 2014 as a result of Russian actions. Only around 20 % consider Russia to be a "trustworthy partner." Russia has lost a lot of political capital in Germany – capital built up over several decades.


The Kremlin thinks that NATO has broken its obligations given to Gorbachev that alliance would not move eastwards in exchange for the Russian troops withdrawal from the GDR. Do you think that it is true to say that NATO has taken on the rebound after the collapse of the USSR and acted unilaterally knowing that Moscow could not respond?


I understand where some of the Russian disappointment may come from, but it is not true that we violated agreements or that we wanted to exploit Russian weakness; the countries joining NATO acted out of their own free decision, and there was never a treaty prohibiting NATO membership of former Warsaw Pact states.


What was your personal impression of Putin’s speech in Munich 2007? Did you expect something like that from Putin at that time? Was it understood and did this speech change to some extent the Western approach towards Russia? If so, in what way?


Many probably did not fully understand the extent and meaning of the speech then. And during the Medvedev presidency the emphasis was on cooperation, think of the "reset."


Today Germany is considered worldwide as the major actor in the EU, however, some German experts say that German foreign policy and political theory is at the US outsourcing and still is shaped by Washington. Is it right to say so more than 20 years after 1990 and almost 70 years after 1945? Is Germany afraid of playing the political role equal to its economic might? Or it is only the matter of time?


It is a big mistake to believe German policy is defined in Washington. The US is a close partner, but in our partnership, there is no room for diktat.


How has diplomacy in general been changing for the last 20 years? What new elements or goals have emerged today in comparison to the past? Is modern diplomacy "better equipped" to beat back the challenges of the new 21st century?


We live in a world of increasing global instability. Our institutions - such as the UN - need urgent reform. Global governance, and diplomacy are in a serious crisis. The international order is at risk.


As you believe, what steps should be taken to alleviate tensions and restore trust between Russia and the EU and NATO today? Is it possible still to settle the dispute or both parties are not ready for compromise and we should expect the further escalation?


The Ukraine crisis is the central challenge. Resolving it requires respect of international law, and a willingness to cooperate and to talk honestly. I hope Russia will be ready to rebuild trust, and to walk together again.


This interview was first published in Russian on September 8 by "Russia in Global Affairs".

09 September 2014, by MSC / Russia in Global Affairs