Tu, 29.11.2022
Ambassador Heusgen doesn't want to offer podium for Putinist propaganda
Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
Evelyn Kaldoja
, välisuudiste toimetuse juhataja
Ambassador Heusgen doesn't want to offer podium for Putinist propaganda
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Unless Vladimir Putin is ready to withdraw from Ukraine, he shouldn’t be offered a podium at the next Munich Security Conference, says the conference’s new chair Ambassador Christoph Heusgen as a response to a hypothetical question what would he do should the Russian wish to speak at the event.

One thing that Estonians don't seem to always understand, is Germany's take on Russia. Could you explain it?

You have to understand where Germany comes from. Germany was responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War. And we are also to blame for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, what happened to the Baltic countries at the time, we are responsible for more than 20 million dead Soviet citizens in the Second World War.

So there is a lot of feeling of guilt towards Russia because of our aggression. And then we are now mourning the death of Mikhail Gorbachev who allowed German reunification. Some in Russia would probably say it was a weakness, but we would say that Gorbachev made it possible. Without Russian consent, reunification would not have happened.

In 1953 in East Germany, in 1956 in Hungary, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia the Russian army intervened to stop pro democracy movements, preventing the break up of the Warsaw Pact. This time around Russia allowed German reunification. So there's also this feeling of gratitude towards Russia.

Against this background, of course, we have seen how from the 1990s, when the relationship was good, basically in the 2000s-2010s under Putin Russian policy changed. But there are many in Germany who still have a nostalgic view of Russia. For these people, the 24th of February came as a shock - because what they always thought about Russia or what their imagination about Russia was, it fell totally apart.

And the reaction of Germany was the speech that chancellor [Olaf] Scholz gave on the 27th of February, where he was very clear about what he called the Zeitenwende - a change of time, about supporting heavy sanctions against Russia, about delivering weapons to Ukraine, about stopping the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline, about Germany investing an additional 100 billion Euro into its armed forces. That was a very clear response. That’s what was clearly seen as a breaking point in history.

But you can still feel – and this is probably your impression here of Germany – that there is still a kind of nostalgia or the thinking that somehow we have to get back into a working relationship with Putin’s Russia, that Russia remains an important partner. In some parts of the political scene, in the some parts of the population, you find this thinking.

This is a kind of nostalgia, and this is something that we have to take note of. At the same time, we also make it very clear that what Putin has done is a breach of civilization, he has violated not only the Minsk agreement and the Budapest Memorandum, he has broken all relevant international covenants from the UN Charter to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the OSCE Founding Act to the Charter of Paris. He has committed a fundamental violation of international law.

And you cannot go back to business with somebody who has committed such a breach, someone who has not honored agreements he had previously signed up to. Putin‘s or [Sergei] Lavrov's signatures are not worth the paper their signature is put on.

Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

You mentioned German guilt. Germany has been apologizing ever since the World War II ended, and the people who were personally responsible for Nazi crimes were punished. When you look at the Russians or Soviets from German perspective and the things they did – also to Germans – doesn't it seem unfair, that they have never apologized and never tried to be accountable for what they did?

Accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes is something very serious. People who commit these kinds of crimes have to be held accountable. If they are not made responsible, they will repeat them. And also, they give a bad example to others.

You mentioned the Nuremberg trials. They were very important and set a very important precedent. It was taken up in the creation of the International Criminal Court. And I agree with you that President Putin has to be brought to justice.

What has happened to Mr. [Slobodan] Milosevic or Mr. [Charles] Taylor is highly relevant – the international community has to see to it that also Putin’s breaches of international law, his murder of thousands and tens of thousands of children, women and men, don’t remain unpunished.

Could it be that since the Soviets were on the winning side of World War II and never punished, they kind of got the feeling that they can do all sorts of things without never getting caught?

I think Russia went through a period when they were aware of the crimes they have committed under Stalin. And this very important organization Memorial was founded which did a very good job in really making public the crimes that have been committed in the SovietUnion under Stalin. And now Putin closed Memorial; he rehabilitated Stalin!

I think that if Putin and his regime get away with their serious breaches of international law, if they get away with their bombing of civilians and civilian institutions, with killing people in Mariupol and many other Ukrainian cities and villages, if they get away with their support of the Assad regime in Syria, if they get away with the deliberate bombing of Syrian hospitals documented by the New York Times, if they get away with the atrocities which the Russian Wagner group is committing from Central African Republic to Libya to Mali – if they are not held accountable, they will interpret this as an open invitation to commit more war crimes. So we have to call a spade a spade and have to put it on the table.

Some limited progress is being achieved now, which I think is very important on the crimes and atrocities committed, for instance, by the Assad regime. There are now criminals sentenced to prison, actually, in Germany, also. These are people who were indirectly or directly supported by Russia. But more has to be done.

Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Why hasn't anything been done? Is it just because the countries who stand on the side of democracy, rule of law and justice are just helpless? Because, well, they can't go and apply military pressure?

After the Second World War world, Europe and Germany, the world, decided this breach of civilization must not happen again. And we now have in Germany a very strong democracy with an independent justice system.

We enjoy the longest period of peace in the middle of Europe since the founding of the European Union. If we have a conflict, we go to the European Court in Luxembourg.

This was also the intention on the international scene: we had the Charter of the UN, we have the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and we said conflicts should be resolved there.

The difference is that within the European Union, and Germany and Estonia for that matter, there is enforceable law. At the UN there is no systematic enforcement of international law. And so far we have not been able to get enough political will behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable. We must not give up, we have to do it. I mentioned, there are examples where it actually worked.

Coming back to German foreign policy. And what is being done differently now if we compare it to the times before 24th of February? How strong starch has been that strong has been the change.

There has been a change. We have over the years neglected our obligation to reach the 2% goal set by NATO with regard to defense spending. The Chancellor is now committed to adhere to this. We have started a lot of military programs. We have stopped Northstream 2. We are committed to the sanctions against Russia. So this has changed.

Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

We are delivering weapons to Ukraine, something that was totally excluded by the government until even when we held the Munich Security Conference a few days before Putin started the war. So there is a change.

But, of course, as I said earlier, for many Germans their beliefs, all what they thought about relations with Russia fell apart. And it's not easy to actually follow through. So there is still some hesitation. But when you look at the opinion polls, sometimes the population is ahead of politicians, they clearly see that this breach of civilization has to be answered. And Germany is committed to this.

Also, when you look at the reception of Ukrainian refugees. I live in Berlin, we have tens of thousands of Ukrainians who come to Berlin. In my own house, Ukrainian refugees were received. I think this reception has been a warm one. So there is solidarity and many people realize that we have to support Ukraine because Ukrainians are not only defending there own countries, but all democracies in Europe against the Russian aggression. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Russia will not stop there.

Some people have been voicing critical opinions about Chancellor Merkel. When she left office, she was worshiped because of how she handled the financial crisis, how she kept Europe together, and so on. How strong are the voices that try to reevaluate her legacy? Should it be re evaluated?

You certainly remember the first invasion of Russia against Ukraine in 2014/15. It was Chancellor Merkel who kept the European Union aligned, who jointly with President Obama kept the transatlantic ties together, who gave a tough response by imposing serious sanctions. Russia was thrown out of the G 8.

She always fought to get everybody on board. In the European Union, as you know from today, not all countries are ready to adopt sanctions and she convinced somebody like Orban who already was in power then and who was very reluctant at the time and continues to be reluctant today.

To save time the chancellor took the lead. She took the lead together with François Hollande to see to it that the Russian offensive stopped.

She negotiated the Minsk agreement, she negotiated it in full harmony with the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

She was a good crisis manager. She did everything to try to get the conflict resolved by investing a lot of time and efforts into the Minsk agreements in the framework of the Normandy format.

She had to realize within the last couple of years that the fragile status quo, her efforts to implement «Minsk» were falling apart. I believe this had a lot to do with the fact that Putin since early 2020 was totally isolated. After the outbreak of Covid he became paranoid: Putin didn’t meet people from outside, didn‘t listen to outside views, and even his own advisors were only meeting with him after a week of total quarantine. So Putin was living in isolation, gradually believing in his own fantasies.

For me, the defining moment was the summer of last year when he published an essay where he claimed that there was no Ukraine or Ukrainian identity and that Ukraine was part of Russia. I think that was the moment when the alarm signals actually went off for many people.

But some still believed something could be achieved. As I said, Merkel tried everything to keep Putin at the negotiating table. And I think it was the right thing to do – to try and resolve the conflict in a diplomatic way. The Minsk agreement did offer the opportunity to get the occupied part of Donbas back in a peaceful way. But it didn't materialize. Putin didn't any longer walk the diplomatic path, he chose to use force to destroy Ukraine and incorporate its territory into Russia.

02.09.2022, TallinnMüncheni julgeolekukonverentsi direktor Christoph HeusgenFoto Mihkel Maripuu, Postimees
02.09.2022, TallinnMüncheni julgeolekukonverentsi direktor Christoph HeusgenFoto Mihkel Maripuu, Postimees Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

What about buying Russian gas? There was a promise to close German nuclear plants, which of course, now, as I understand, is off table.

You have to put yourself back to the year when the decision to build Nord Stream 2 was taken.

It was in 2015 after Fukushima, when in Germany the majority of society was against nuclear power. We had our commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. Green energy was not far enough advanced. Coal had to be phased out. The only viable alternative for the time being was gas, and Russian gas was the most convenient to get.

At the political level at the time you had a coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. The minister of economy Sigmar Gabriel who also was the chairman of the Social Democratic Party had been a close ally of former Chancellor [Gerhard] Schröder and he was very much pushing for Russian gas. You had industry pushing for cheap gas, you had the CDU governor of the region where Gazprom had its pipeline coming out of the Baltic Sea pushing for Nord Stream 2.

Then there was the argument that Russia over decades had always been delivering gas reliably according to contracts even in times of crises. Why should they change their behavior.

So that's the reason why this decision was taken. In retrospect it was the wrong decision, but one also has to say that no gas has flown through Nord Stream 2.

How did Baltic countries look from German perspective then? With their staunchly anti-Nord Stream stances, always raising the issue and so on.

Of course, these were foreign policy arguments which were brought forward. The United States also made the point. But United States at the same time also imported oil from Russia, about the same amount as Germany imported gas. Of course we knew that the Baltic countries were negative, but they were not listened to.

How crazy do Baltic countries seem now? For example, [during the latest Gymnich meeting] our countries were on slightly different positions with the Russian tourist visas – Baltic countries wanted to go cold turkey, Germany and France preferred a little bit more moderate solution.

I no longer work for the government. But the argument is that you want to give Russians a chance to visit Western Europe, to be exposed to the discussions here, to pick up different views, and therefore you don't want to close the door.

But I fully understand and personally share the other argument, which is very clear, saying that only a small percentage of Russians have a passport in the first place. Most of them come from the elites in St. Petersburg and Moscow. And when you're a citizen of a country, that wages war against another country, killing thousands of people, severely violating international law, you have to pay a price for it.

Of course, you can make exceptions for humanitarian cases, or for families or for people applying for asylum but I can follow the argument that speaks for a visa ban. After all: after the invasion of Georgia in 2008, after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of parts of Donbas in 2014/15 the same argument was brought forward: you have to expose Russians to different views and hope for a change of mind. At some point you have to come to the conclusion that this policy, the opening of Western Europe to Russians doesn‘t result into a positive change in the mindset of Russians.

02.09.2022, TallinnMüncheni julgeolekukonverentsi direktor Christoph HeusgenFoto Mihkel Maripuu, Postimees
02.09.2022, TallinnMüncheni julgeolekukonverentsi direktor Christoph HeusgenFoto Mihkel Maripuu, Postimees Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

What about keeping the opportunity for Putin? If he expressed wish to speak at the next year's Munich Security Conference – either via video bridge or some other way - would you give him the opportunity?

For right now, having worked with Russia for many many years, having seen the fact that Putin is not adhering to agreements he has entered into, personally I don’t believe that it is the right decision to give him a forum to again launch his propaganda. If he were serious in trying to say, “Okay, we are ready to withdraw”, that may be something different. But, if in February, when the Munich Security Conference takes place, the situation is as it is today, I don't see any logic in offering Putin a podium.

How would you characterize the platform Munich Security Conference offers? Does it try to be neutral? Or is it a western conference with a bit more diverse range of speakers?

The Munich Security Conference has its origins in the Cold War. It was very much a transatlantic conference concentrating on military issues. After German reunification it changed, it became more open to more participants, to more topics, not only military. And it was in particular my predecessor Ambassador [Wolfgang] Ischinger who opened the conference.

I would say today that the Munich Security Conference is a platform where different views can be and should be expressed and controversial topics are being discussed. We give a chance also to leaders from countries that we would not describe as democratic to express their views.

But the Munich Security Conference is a platform which also has a base. And this base is the rules based international order, which is for us a kind of compass when we design the program and the topics. That said, if you have somebody like Putin where it is clear he has no interest in adhering to international law, there is no interest to actually use the platform to come to an agreement, when the person comes to Munich for propaganda reasons only, I don't see a purpose inviting that person.