Walter J Lindner talks about the Russian aggression on Ukraine, Germany’s lessons from history, putting pressure on Putin and the role of civil society. He was in conversation with Shubhajit Roy, Deputy Chief of National Bureau, The Indian Express.
Shubhajit Roy: Did the Russian aggression against Ukraine come as a surprise to Germany?
It came as a surprise to many of us. Nobody would have thought that President Vladimir Putin would brutally attack his neighbours. Let’s call a spade a spade, he lied to everyone. First they said, “We will build up troops of 50,000 (soldiers) around Ukraine. Don’t worry, nobody wants to invade, this is just for manoeuvre reasons.” Then he said, our troops are there as peacekeepers. A peacekeeper doesn’t bring bombs and doesn’t shell civilian houses. They bring, not water and not food, but death and destruction. The latest lies are about blaming the victims, that they are the ones who have taken hostages. Anyone can see that there is Russian aggression on a neighbour, which has a democratically elected government and parliament, is a member of the United Nations, and is not a small country; it has 40-plus million people. We are still in shock. Who would have expected this from a leader of a global power?
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Shubhajit Roy: What is Germany’s assessment of why Putin is doing this?
Germany and Russia have a very strong relationship. Without Mikhail Gorbachev there wouldn’t be a
reunited Germany. And what’s happening with Putin now, the war of Putin, I have no idea.
Shubhajit Roy: Do you think Germany is so overly dependent on Russia for its energy needs that it had tied Germany’s hands in the past.
It is true that we import a lot of our energy from the Russians. But I don’t think this has had too much influence on our political decisions. Since the Crimean occupation (in 2014), we have reduced our imports from Russia. We will be reducing it more. We also have to reduce the influx from Russia. Being the economic powerhouse in Europe, the sanctions from the German side are very drastic. We have put a freeze on the pipeline — Nord Stream. We have decided to increase our military budget and export weapons. We have never exported weapons into zones of tension. We have said this in the United Nations and in the German parliament. Democracy has its price and we are willing to pay it. Which means that inflation might go up, prices might go up. You can’t get freedom and democracy for nothing. We have lived in a peaceful time for 70 years. Two to three generations have taken things for granted and Putin has made us open our eyes, and to keep that peace, there might be a price.
Shubhajit Roy: There’s also India’s dependence on Russia for its defence needs. Could India have done something different?
I’m a German ambassador here so I’m not the one who gives unwanted advice. Every country has a different history and different dependencies on neighbours. India has brilliant diplomacy, excellent diplomats. I was in New York for three years and some of the best and skillful diplomats were Indians. They know what to do and how to judge this. But I’m sure everyone in the world agrees that we cannot have the law of the jungle prevailing.
Anyone can see that there is Russian aggression on a neighbour, which is a democratically elected government, is a member of the United Nations, and is not a small country. We are still in shock
Krishn Kaushik: Do you think Russia’s concerns of the eastward expansion of NATO is legitimate?
I don’t want to go into a historic evaluation of who said what after the reunification of Germany. The fact is that NATO is a defence alliance. It’s not threatening anyone. And what happened after the (Berlin) Wall came down is that those countries who became independent, and were previously with the Soviet, had their own choices to see to which alliances they belong to. These countries opted for being members of the NATO and European Union; with Georgia and Ukraine, it was a bit different, because they were still having border disputes. So, it was never on the actual agenda to make them members of NATO. The discussion was not even on the table. To justify this kind of breach of international order, you need a fake narrative. So, they’re kind of bending history. And in this fast-living world, all these fake narratives have the tendency to prevail and influence people. If we let this happen, we all suffer.
Krishn Kaushik: Are we moving towards a more militarised world?
I grew up in a left-wing environment. We were protesting against the Vietnam War — make love, not war. Weapons are not a good thing. The world has to be a better place and fewer arms would be better than more arms because there are so many challenges. You have climate change, overpopulation, poverty reduction, there are so many things to do. We need money for this. So, what do we do? We have to spend more money for the military which instead should be spent for poverty reduction or on infrastructure. But Putin forces things on us. And that’s another thing which I don’t accept because he changed the world.
Shubhajit Roy: Moscow’s policies are very clear, where it allows it to use nukes to end conflict. Where do you think this is going?
So far, there was a kind of a taboo to threaten countries which are not in possession of nuclear weapons with nuclear weapons. We know what the repercussions of world wars have been. A third world war will be the end of us all. It’s irresponsible behaviour to threaten a nuclear world war which will end the planet. Who is he to do this?
Shubhajit Roy: As a diplomat, what do you think it will take for a ceasefire to come in place?
This is a lesson which we have learned in Germany, living on the edge of the Cold War with the Berlin Wall. In Berlin, where I live, there are still reminders of the Berlin Wall as a remembrance for our future generation. We have to always keep channels of communication open. We have called it the Ostpolitik, which led to the disappearance of the Wall. Negotiated ceasefire would be the just thing to do, of course. But let’s not comment from the outside. The Ukrainians are under threat of death and life and have to do this negotiation.
Liz Mathew: Do you think other countries should also change the contours and terms of diplomatic relations with countries in the new world order?
Shall we already call this a new world order? Shall we give Putin the right to define a new world order? Will a new world order be defined just by Putin and no one else? I think it’s important that the whole world says ‘no’ to Putin, with one voice. I think that’s a common understanding which we want to achieve in the world. I’ve talked to people who were in the UN meetings. Except a few of the diehards, like North Korea or Syria or Belarus, nobody is defending this. Sanctions are working already. Let’s hope that this contributes to changing Putin’s mind.
Shahid Judge: Is this going to test the heft the West has in international politics and economy.
I wouldn’t say this is a test for the West; it’s a test for the world. I don’t want to see it as a confrontation between East, West, North, South. No, it’s not. It’s between Putin and most of the rest of the world, except those five countries, maybe. If you see the situation in the voting patterns in the Security Council, the Russians were the only ones with a veto against their own condemnation. And they had the presidency of the Security Council. By the way, it shows how outdated the Security Council is, it doesn’t reflect the realities of today. So that’s why they had to move this from the Security Council to the General Assembly. If you see, there were 141 (countries condemning Russia). That is big in historical terms.
Sourav Roy Barman: What explains the difference in reaction of European nations to refugees from Ukraine, who are being welcomed, and those in 2015 from Syria and Afghanistan?
I wouldn’t share the view that this is a similar situation like 2015. What we have now is the aggression of one country towards another country, which is a democratically elected country. The United Nations Refugee Coordinator is expecting millions of people to flee from Ukraine. So that would be a massive movement. That’s why the European countries are saying, okay, you can come from Ukraine and even choose where you want to go in Europe, there will be no visa issue. It’s our answer to this brutal violation of norms. Our answer is: We are human, we take them in and we support them. Look at the support activities everywhere in Europe. Civilian groups, civil society, are collecting stuff, so are students in universities, wherever you go, football clubs, similar. They’re all supporting the freedom and independence of Ukraine. Maybe that’s why it’s not really comparable to what happened with the refugees who were running away from Iraq or Syria.
Harikishan Sharma: Like Putin, there are strong leaders in other parts of the world. Do you think that they can also commit such mistakes?
Putin here is acting as an authoritarian, autocratic person. So, you’re right, this might be a stimulus for others. That’s the additional danger, that this will set a precedent and then we will have the law of the jungle in international relations and nobody will win from that.
Anil Sasi: How much of a surprise was the Sunday (February 27) Reichstag session? Was it expected that the action would be as severe (against Russia) on weaponisation, the energy aspect and the sanctions?
Honest answer, I didn’t expect it and many didn’t expect it, because it’s a watershed. For Germany, it was maybe the biggest leap, because it is the European powerhouse and the financial and economic sanctions we are talking about would, of course, only make sense if Germany goes along. I think it was the call of the hour of our historic responsibility to make this leap. And we did in the face of the threat, which came there, and it shows the seriousness of this threat. And when he (Chancellor Olaf Scholz) presented this package of our reaction, there was a standing ovation afterwards, from left to right.
Raj Kamal Jha: Why is Putin using the term ‘de-Nazification’?
He draws on anything. What better use of the word ‘denazification’ because then everyone remembers World War II. He said denazification and demilitarisation. There are no NATO troops, there are just Ukrainian people there. You can see they’re going there with self-made Molotov cocktails and with lots of kitchen material on the streets. Where is the denazification? This is a part of the narrative he does and you see how often he has to repeat it. There are a lot of people in Russia, a vast majority, who are not feeling well with this, they might be ashamed of the President. People are going on the street in Petersburg, in other places. If you go out there, the next thing that happens is that you go to jail. Still, they go out, and still there are journalists who write about it. There is a brave civil society still out there.
Shubhajit Roy: With Russian dependence on China for its economy, do you think there is a great amount of leverage that China has?
Every country must see what kind of means they have to change Putin’s course. Every country has different kinds of history, relations, and dependencies with Russia. Every country should use its influence. Your Prime Minister has already talked to Putin several times.
But you asked the question whether Putin first consulted China or not. I don’t know. You have to ask him. What let him do that and who said to him, “yes, we agree” or not, I don’t know. This is a speculation. It’s Putin’s war so he’s responsible for it.
Krishn Kaushik: What are the red lines for NATO?
An attack on NATO territory is a redline, it’s in the NATO Treaty. And Ukraine is not a NATO territory.
Divya A: Will the relation between the people of Ukraine and Russia change with this situation?
If you know the history of Russia, there is Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. So, they’re brothers. I’m sure that’s what you see sometimes on the streets. There is no problem between the people. But it will of course, change their attitude towards Putin and his regime.
Shubhajit Roy: When chancellor Angela Merkel was around for more than 16 years, there was a great deal of stability. Now, we have the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Does the country feel the absence of Merkel?
Merkel left huge shoes to fill. But it would be unfair to expect from a new chancellor to have 16 years of experience. But he has been mayor in Hamburg and vice-chancellor and is an old hand. The way they are dealing with this crisis and how they reshaped German foreign politics, I think, has been pretty good.
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Raj Kamal Jha: You talked about the history between Germany and Russia. Chancellor Merkel had strong ties…Can there be a back-channel…you make it seem Moscow revolves around one man.
As we see the reactions of the nomenklatura in the Kremlin, they’re very focused on one person, it is pretty clear who calls the shots. The matter of the game is how do we make Putin stop. Through these diplomatic channels? If possible, yes. Whoever has an influence should do it. Or through social media, or through contradicting their false narratives, or through civil societies and sanctions. Whatever it takes, it’s necessary right now.
By the way, you didn’t bring up the question of any kind of mistreatment of refugees, who have a different skin colour? I say that for the reason that it could be fake news, it could be a kind of a narrative. But there could also be cases like these. Our foreign minister said in the General Assembly, “If there are cases like these, we take them very seriously.” And we take them up with Ukrainians and the Ukranians have also said if there are such cases, we are taking them up. This is the difference between a democracy and an authoritarian regime like Russia. We are not putting this under the carpet. All the information we get, we take them seriously, and we try to find out what’s behind it.
Shubhajit Roy: Germany has had relatively stable periods under long chancellor-ships. How do you see the trajectory of German politics ahead?
There was always a kind of a lower-intensity crisis like the Brexit, refugee crisis, and the economic breakdown, the bubble which burst, and then, you had Afghanistan. These days, I think being in politics means crisis management, wherever you are. I think that the result of our elections last year also reflects the situation in the world, which at that time, without Putin, was more focused on climate change. That’s why the Green Party did very well. And that’s why we have this kind of rainbow coalition, which means in the future not only in Germany, but in many European countries, climate will be a very important topic.
Shubhajit Roy: The India-German relationship in the last three years, you’ve seen it grow. What are the challenges that you faced in this relationship?
I think the challenges are to know how to get crises like Ukraine and such things out of the way because we have to focus on the real things which matter — cooperation between the two countries, economic growth, getting jobs, working on renewable energies and technic transfer and getting the students to Europe. There are so many positive things which we have to focus on, you should not focus on the war. We have 2,000 companies here, we have six Goethe institutes, the highest number of Indian students in Europe are in Germany, they’re not in the UK. France has 8,000 and the UK has 25,000. Germany has 30,000 students. We could do more.