UARU
Julian Röpcke on German-Ukrainian Relations and Normandy Four Meeting
17 October, 2019

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister in 2016, was biased toward Russia when he proposed the Steinmeier formula, said German journalist and political editor of BILD Julian Röpcke in an interview to Hromadske during the Riga Security Conference. Germany’s current government, he stressed, has a neutral position when it comes to relations to Russia and Ukraine, which some of partners in Ukraine don’t understand. 

Ukraine is not a priority for Germany right now, said Röpcke, as the country is facing more pressing internal issues such as right-wing extremism. Germany’s position on Ukraine is unlikely to change, he added, even after the new parliamentary elections in two years as there very likely will be another CDU-led government. What can change are the nuances, depending on who will become the next German Chancellor. 

First of all, let me ask you about your expectations of the upcoming Normandy Four meeting and about the so-called “Steinmeier formula.”

First of all, of course, it is very good that there is Normandy Four meeting on the highest level, because we have seen meetings on the foreign ministry level, on the directorial level but not on the leaders of state level for many years now. So this is very good that those people are talking to each other again. However I think that the preconditions set for this meeting are a little bit...Because as you mentioned the Steinmeier formula to be implemented, that was a precondition, which was, I think brought up by Russia. That was not officially stated, but Germany said it was a precondition for us and for others, so probably it was Russia. And as you know the Steinmeier formula leads to many discussions in Ukraine, even protests on the streets. And I think is that it is not clear what does it mean, because what it says is that there should be disengagement of forces, there should be regional elections and there should be special status. These all are the points that are included in the Minsk agreements, but they are in the context of wider Russian-Ukrainian peace process, meaning the withdrawal of the foreign forces, meaning Russian forces, meaning the withdrawal of heavy weapons from Ukrainian territory, not only from a certain corridor along the front, and of course regaining sovereignty of Ukraine of its borders. All these things are not talked about in the Steinmeier formula and that is why there is a big uncertainty. And Zelensky government has to say “yes, Steinmeier formula, but elections according to Ukrainian law, control of our border.” And let’s be serious, if you have elections according to Ukrainian law and control of Russian-Ukrainian border from the Ukrainian side, this is the fulfillment of Minsk. So the question is whether it is meaningful or not to say that Steinmeier formula has to be implemented first and then we go to meet. Because the Steinmeier formula can only be implemented, I think, according to most Ukrainians, even the president knows this, if so-called Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk don’t exist anymore. And this is not a given. That is why I think that this precondition is sort of tricky and sort of cheating the partners in the process. However, if everyone agrees that this formula is implemented or agreed upon, and that is why they meet again on the highest level, that is a good thing.

So you basically think that this Steinmeier formula is a trap in which Ukraine is forced to act first?

I think that our foreign minister then in 2016 Mr. Steinmeier, because of party politics, because of domestic affairs, because of his good relationship with Russia – he is an honorary doctor at the University of Yekaterinburg for example, was biased. I think it was biased. And I think it was not really thought through. And it only picks out numbers of the Minsk Agreement which are to be fulfilled by Ukraine. And that is why I think it is impossible to fulfill by Ukraine, because then the other side doesn’t have to do anything. But I also think that Ukrainian government sees this. And Ukraine’s government clearly said that “we need control of our borders, we need Ukrainian law to be implemented before these elections can take place.” You could be right that it is a trap, but I don’t think and I don’t hope for Ukraine that it is stepping into this trap.

Do you expect that at this Normandy Four format there will be pressure from the part of Germany and France on Ukraine in order to somehow bring peace and solve finally this Ukrainian issue some people in Europe are already fed up with? Do you expect that there will be this significant pressure? “Solve it at any cost.”

I think there is always pressure when those four nations meet because it is about war which is ongoing. We just yesterday heard about Ukrainian soldiers killed… and more than 200 this year already. So there is a war going on and there should be pressure on everyone. However, one side’s pressure on the Ukrainian side might be increasing, not only because of Germany. Germany right now has a government and position which is quite neutral between these two countries, between Ukraine and Russia, you can like this or not. Because Ukraine says “it should not be neutral, it should be on our side, because we are part of Europe and we are attacked.” But I think what is a bigger problem right now is France. France wants a restart with Russia, France wants to get rid of sanctions. And of course France is pressuring Germany to have their stance at the conference and to act together to have some sort of breakthrough. However, as long as Russia does not fulfill its obligations under Minsk, as I said before, withdrawal of all forces, giving back the border to Ukraine, and that means effectively the end of two so-called People’s Republics, then there should be no relaxation in sanctions. This is my personal opinion.

So you mention these French efforts to somehow bring Russia back into the orbit, to reset relations. How was this initiative by President Macron received in Germany?

Germany for a couple of years now is the main force behind prolonging sanctions against Russia in Western Europe. Of course there are countries in Eastern Europe, here in Latvia these sanctions may not be lifted even until Crimea is given back. Which is, as we all know, very uncertain that this will happen before these sanctions are released, and even after these sanctions are released. I think the German position has not changed much. It is tough to say, but we have other problems than Ukraine. We have internal problems, we have refugee problems, we have problems with right-wing extremists and these problems cannot be not solved or solved if something happens in Eastern Ukraine or if Russia withdraws. So I think there is no difference there. Also, as you might know is in the process of finishing Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia and it seems totally independent from whatever happens in Ukraine. So my point is that Germany has no intentions right now to change its politics. I don’t see other governments, I don’t see other ministers that are more pro-Russian. I think our position is constant. France’s position is changing apparently. There was talk that Mr. Macron wants Mr. Putin back in the G7. That was talk about this. It is not clear if Mr. Trump invented this or if this really happened, but there are other signs. Just lately French foreign minister has been in Moscow discussing and laughing and having fun with these people there that are not only responsible for the war in Ukraine with 30,000 deaths, which are also responsible for the war in Syria, where Russia killed more than 7,000 people since its start in 2015 and displaced more than 3 million people, of which many are in Europe and in Germany right now. So I think France wants to take the initiative, which is what Mr. Macron often tries – just let’s think about European army, for example – but it does not often materialize. I think there is motivation in France to take over the initiative, maybe even to pressure Germany, but I am not sure that it is working.

So Germany is reluctant?

Reluctant to any French efforts to change our approach towards Ukraine, towards Russia and towards Europe.

About the Trump-Zelenskyy call, that has been discussed a lot in the United States. There was a part in which they were discussing Europe and apparently not enough European support to Ukraine. Trump raised this issue and Zelenskyy agreed with him and they also mentioned Angela Merkel, saying that she is not doing enough. How was this received in Germany? And do you think it might have some negative impact on Ukraine-German relations?

Well, I think, as so often with Mr. Trump, it was not really clear what they were talking about. Because I think what Mr. Trump was talking about when he said “support” was money, because the U.S. is still the biggest donor in Ukraine. Just after this there comes the European Union and Germany, so we are giving a lot of money. And if I am not mistaken together the European Union and Germany, European Union also means German money – 20% in it, then we are even giving more than U.S. So I think this is what he was talking about because he wants to save money, wherever he is on Earth, he wants to save money. What Mr. Zelensky was agreeing to was the military support. “We are not getting enough support from Germany, from the European Union, from France because they are not helping us with building up our army.”

He mentioned sanctions.

He also mentioned sanctions, but I think a little bit later. He first said “yes, I absolutely agree. They are not supporting us enough.” I am 100% sure and then he was talking about sanctions. Yes, United States have tougher sanctions on Russia than the European Union, but I don’t think because of Ukraine, I think because of meddling in the 2016 elections. And Mr. Trump was always trying to stop these sanctions, not harden them, not make them tougher on Russia. And he even tweeted it: “I was forced to sign, because they are not getting along with each other.” He wants to get along with everyone, especially with autocrats, it seems. So I think he is the last one to say “we are much tougher.” Yes, U.S. is much tougher but not because of him. Because of him there would be almost total rehabilitation of Mr. Putin. And one more thing, talking about sanctions: the U.S. President has the authority to sanction companies involved in Nord Stream 2 since august 2017, he is not using this authority, because he says, there must be other ways or there must be no way. As long as we can send energy to Germany it is fine when Russia also builds some pipeline. So yes, they are tougher, the U.S. sanctions on Russia than German, than the EU. But the U.S., especially Mr. Trump is not in the position to say they are not doing enough on sanctions because he doesn’t want these sanctions.

So do you think this call, this conversation might have any impact on Ukraine-German relations?

No question. In Germany it was taken very negatively, this whole conversation. As I journalist I asked the Chancellery and the German Foreign Office. The Chancellery said “We don’t comment on this.” The Foreign Ministry said “it is not true. We are doing so much when it comes to maintaining sanctions, when it comes to giving money and also when it comes to other aspects other than military aspects, projects of the German Development Agency and so on, even in the war areas where IDP homes are funded by Germany and so on and so on. So there is a lot of German help. And it was not taken positively for sure. One more thing that was taking negatively was Mr. Zelenskyy’s claim that he has 100% control over the next general prosecutor. I think it was taken negatively not necessarily by our government, but by our pro-Russian opposition which is growing from left and right. They said see, it is a corrupt country, as soon as he is openly speaking about the things he says the judicial system is not independent and we will rule it, if this is true, then everything else can also be true: what Mr. Trump says about Mr. Lutsenko, about Mr. Biden or Mr. Shokin or everyone. So this sentence which, I think, he retracted later in this interview marathon he said he is independent, we have independent system. This was really damaging. And I also asked Ukrainian presidency if he agreed to publish this transcript before it was published and they are not willing to answer this question. But I believe they would not agree to publish this transcript and they know how harming it is for the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian credibility.

Do you think this situation, does it erode the support for Ukraine in Germany?

No, I don’t think that this transcript will lead to less German money for Ukraine. I don’t think this transcript of this telephone conversation, and we don’t know if they really said that will lead to Germany softening its stance on Russian sanctions. Because Germany is a very traditional country with very conservative government, not in a way right wing, but in a way that a lot has to happen for Germany to change its way, that is a good thing about Ms. Merkel, she is very consistent at what she is going, she is doing it for a long time and she is not giving up to loud screaming ‘let’s put it this way’ and to populism which tells her from all sides what she has to do. Although it is damaging for German-Ukrainian relations, it will not decrease German support.

You mentioned Angela Merkel. Soon Germany will be without Merkel. How will this new Germany look like and what might change in the relations with Ukraine or Russia? Or is it too early to tell?

Of course German-Ukrainian and German-Russian relations depend on the outcome of the next elections. As it looks now and we are still two years away from the next parliamentary elections, we will again have the CDU-led government because they are polling strongest, 27-28%. After them we are having Green party with 24%, and then other parties. Left extremists at 8% and right extremists at 13%, but there is no chance that they will make it. Under the current circumstances, we don’t know what will happen, if there is another refugee crisis, if Russia finds dirty videos of Ms. Merkel, something like that, then of course this could change, but if it goes along as it looks right now, we will have another CDU-government and the position will not change dramatically. However, depending on the new Chancellor, who will most likely come from the CDU, we could have a different nuances in this approach towards Ukraine and Russia. There are some which I think are very consistent, which are in this so-called Merkel camp and there are some others, who are more right wing, who would like to take over, who have a more radical view on refugee politics and also more critical views on sanctions. There are some right wing candidates who want refugees out but also have a tough stance on Russia, so it is really hard to say so far.