The diplomat and future head of the Munich Security Conference, Christoph Heusgen, explains why Russia’s President Putin is targeting Ukraine.
Munich – Christoph Heusgen was a diplomat for 41 years, in future he will take over the management of the Munich Security Conference (Siko). In an interview, the 66-year-old talks about the danger of war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s fears – and his plan for Siko.
Mr. Heusgen, the federal government is supplying the Ukraine with 5,000 helmets. Is that wise or embarrassing?
Christoph Heusgen: I think this fuss about 5000 helmets is exaggerated. For years, Germany has been one of the strongest supporters of Ukraine, both economically and politically. There is actually a fundamental question behind the criticism of the helmets.
It’s about whether we should deliver arms to Kiev. The government categorically rules this out…
Should Germany deviate from the principle of not supplying weapons to crisis areas? I believe that in the current situation we should make an exception on defensive weapons because we have responsibilities to Ukraine for a number of reasons.
Ukraine conflict: Diplomat Heusgen explains why Germany does not want to deliver weapons
The first Ukraine crisis in 2014/15 was already about the question of whether we should deliver weapons. The German government refused on the grounds that Russia would always be better equipped. The conflict can only be solved politically. We then chose the political path with the Minsk Agreement, but now we see that Russia does not want to continue along this path, on the contrary. It is again aggressive towards Ukraine and is looking for pretexts for renewed military intervention. That’s why we have to reconsider, and I think today that such an aggressive approach can also be countered by making defensive weapons available to Ukraine on a larger scale. This does not mean that we are deviating from the goal and the search for a political solution, but one cannot refuse protection on principle to a country that is threatened in this way.
But Berlin now says that this is not possible for historical reasons.
There is also a second historical argument: Four months ago, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in Babyn Yar near Kiev to commemorate the victims of German security forces who raged horribly there in 1941 and massacred over 30,000 Ukrainian Jews within two days. Before our history, we have a responsibility to help Ukrainians.
Future Siko boss Heusgen believes in a diplomatic way out of the Ukraine crisis
Do you still see a diplomatic way out?
Definitely, that must always be our goal. So far, the international community has done this in an exemplary manner. Unlike the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US government has initiated a voting process that is second to none. There have been bilateral talks, talks with the EU, within the framework of NATO, with the OSCE. The federal government did all this very well and pushed for people to meet again in the old Normandy format.
But so far without success.
Well, the Russian ambassador said on Monday in the UN Security Council that the war speculation was nonsense and that military intervention was not imminent. That shows that our unity is beginning to bear fruit. However, the Russian troops are still on the border with Ukraine: the all-clear signal cannot yet be given.
Would Ukraine join NATO the ultimate provocation? Putin has threatened war if that happens.
Accession is not on the NATO agenda. In 2008, as foreign policy advisor to the Federal Chancellor, I negotiated whether to give Ukraine and Georgia the “Membership Action Plan”, i.e. the preliminary stage to membership. Angela Merkel and others clearly rejected this, also because the NATO treaty states that a new member must contribute to the stability of the alliance. It was clear to everyone that admitting Georgia and Ukraine would inevitably have led to conflicts with Russia.
Ukraine crisis: “Putin has been pursuing a very consistent policy of repression since 2012”
But NATO has not yet ruled out membership.
That’s true and rightly so. NATO is sticking to its open-door policy, and Ukraine can theoretically become a member. But again: the topic is not on the agenda at all. Vladimir Putin artificially inflates something that does not occur in real politics.
What does Putin want to achieve?
You have to take a closer look at the mood in Russia. When Putin replaced Dmitry Medvedev and returned to the presidency in 2012, there were big demonstrations on Moscow’s streets, people were really upset. That was parallel to the Arabellion, the uprising in the Arab world. Added to this was the state crisis in Ukraine. Years earlier, Mikheil Saakashvili had replaced an authoritarian system in Georgia. Putin saw all this and noticed that he was slipping in the polls at home.
It’s been a long time.
But important for understanding. Vladimir Putin has been pursuing a very consistent policy of repression since 2012: Today there is no longer any serious political opposition. He has silenced the free press and civil society; A highlight a few weeks ago was the closure of the human rights organization Memorial, which was investigating the crimes of the Stalin era. Putin has ensured that there is virtually no opposition to him and his oligarchic system. At the same time, he relied on a kind of populist nationalism: Immediately after the end of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Putin annexed Crimea and his popularity ratings skyrocketed.
“Putin’s fear is breathing down his neck”: The future Siko boss Heusgen explains Russia’s Ukraine calculations
So everything is fine from his point of view. So why the aggression today?
The fear is still on his neck. He sees the big demonstrations and unrest in Belarus and Kazakhstan. And he is concerned that a functioning, democratic Ukraine could radiate to Russia. He has been systematically preparing his current campaigns since the summer of last year. And at a time when America seems fragile and Europe seems weak, he has now launched a trial balloon to see if he can tear apart the international community. He didn’t succeed – that’s why he has now started a tactical retreat. But we mustn’t say: That’s over.
The world situation is getting darker not only in Ukraine. Wouldn’t Munich Siko be more important than ever right now?
That’s correct. The good news is: We are now relatively certain that we can hold a face-to-face conference in two weeks. It will not be as big as it was in the past, but about a third or at most half the size it used to be. We still hope that we can help ease the situation.
Could Omicron still intervene?
Of course we’re holding our breath and keeping an eye on developments. But Prime Minister Söder lets 10,000 spectators into the Allianz Arena again. A lot less should be feasible in the Bayerischer Hof.
You will soon take over the management of Siko. Where do you want to take the conference in the medium term?
It is a wonderful thing for me to be taking on this role after 41 years in foreign policy. Wolfgang Ischinger and his predecessors made the security conference a global brand and I want to protect and further develop this brand.
You advised Angela Merkel for a long time, who was much more active in foreign policy than Olaf Scholz. Can the chancellor improve?
That’s a nasty question. During my time as a foreign policy adviser, I always cursed cross shots from outsiders because they didn’t know what was going on internally. I would say: every chancellor has his style. Olaf Scholz is traveling to Washington soon, has had many talks about Ukraine, and is planning a trip to Moscow. Incidentally, there is a good chance that the Federal Chancellor will come to the security conference in Munich. Then he will certainly use the opportunity to present his foreign policy vision.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is more active than her predecessors, isn’t she?
Attention: With your question you are criticizing the Federal President. Frank-Walter Steinmeier was a very active foreign minister, as was Joschka Fischer. We don’t even have to talk about Hans-Dietrich Genscher. That’s the league we have to think in. Strong foreign ministers are good for the country.
The interview is conducted by Marcus Mäckler, Georg Anastasiadis, Christian Deutschländer and Mike Schier.