Wolfgang Ischinger: Mr. Putin is challenging the very bases of the vision of European integration
The Ukrainian Week talks to Wolfgang Ischinger, German diplomat who was the Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for National Dialogue Roundtables in Ukraine, on his work, European and Ukrainian co-existence with Russia, and security threats of the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia
U.W.: What was your strategy as a co-moderator and as an OSCE representative during the roundtables here in Ukraine?
First of all, the round tables are something which should be and which is in the hands of Ukrainians. The OSCE and I as a representative of the Chairman-in-Office are here to help, to support, this process and to give it some international visibility and legitimacy. I argued in favor of as much inclusiveness of these roundtables. I argued in favor of including of as many societal groups, as many different groups from civil society as possible, and not only elected politicians, but also other groups, including the church, of course. I believe we had some degree of success in creating an atmosphere of a dialogue, in creating a platform where citizens or representatives of citizens could be assured of being listened to by the senior representatives of the Ukrainian government. Finally, I also argued in favour of Prime Minister and members of his cabinet participating personally in the round tables, because I thought if they were not there, some groups might think that the government is not taking the round tables as seriously as it should do. I am delighted to see that the Prime Minister was personally present at each one of the events that we have been able to organize so far.
U.W.: You said about as much inclusiveness as possible. In the current situation, we have Russia which is very much connected to it. I have read that you invited Russia too. But I haven’t seen them. Did they refuse to come?
I requested that the parties which met in Geneva in April the 17th, that is the US, Russian Federation and the EU, should also be invited to the round tables as observers, but participants are the people of Ukraine. This request was accepted by the Ukrainian organizers of the round table. Russia did not participate in the first event here in Kyiv, but it did participate in both subsequent round tables in Kharkiv and Mykolayiv. So, we had representatives of the Geneva parties as requested at these two final roundtables. Now, quite frankly, I would have liked to see even higher-ranking representation of parties to the Geneva talks, in particular as far as Russia is concerned. In Mykolayiv, for example, the American Ambassador came from Kyiv, the EU Ambassador came from Kyiv, and Russia was represented by its consul from Odesa. That is fine, but it was not quite what I had hoped for. Still, I have to admit that they don’t have their ambassador here in Kyiv at this moment.
U.W.: Some experts say that just because Russia was not represented at the first roundtable, and was represented at a lower level during two other roundtables they have less legitimacy for foreign countries, because it leaves the impression that Ukraine has an internal conflict without any instigation from outside.
My impression has been that statements from the Russian government, statements made by President Putin, statements made by Foreign Minister Lavrov, for example, have indicated in recent days that what used to be full-scale skepticism regarding the roundtable idea changed somewhat. I saw a number of statements that were not unfriendly vis-à-vis the roundtable idea, so I believe that we were not unsuccessful in advocating Russia’s participation, and Russia did participate. But you are right, of course, that Russia has said and believes that this is the Ukrainian problem and that they have little to do with it. However, that is the Russian position. I am not here to defend or to explain why that is the Russian position.
U.W.: You were appointed by the OSCE, but you are the German diplomat, first of all, so do you refer only to the OSCE or to the German government too in your work during those roundtables?
Clearly my mandate is to represent the Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE, but you should not think that in executing this mandate I make 20 phone calls a day to the Chairman-in-Office. Of course, I know what he wants me to do. He wants me to help create meaningful roundtables and that is what we have done here. Am I also in touch with my own government? Yes, of course. One German diplomat given to me by my government who knows this country has been with me all along. I could not have done this job without this additional support which I got from my government.
U.W.: I read your article written together with other diplomats where you appeal not to make Ukraine the next Berlin Wall. What did you mean by that?
This was written in March. Clearly, we wanted to make sure that everybody understands that dividing Ukraine or using Ukraine as a dividing wall between East and West would be the exact opposite of what Europe needs. Europe needs to be a continent free of dividing lines; free of walls, and hopefully the Berlin Wall was the last one we had to tear down. That was the message. Now I think that Ukraine has a good chance of being seen as a bridge in the future and not been seen as a wall, and I believe there is also excellent chance for Ukraine, leaving aside the problem of Crimea for a moment, to retain its territorial integrity. I have been impressed by the fact that I have not met a single serious person during these many days here who has actually advocated a division of the country. Almost everybody I met spoke up in advocating the undivided unity of Ukraine. What I did find was sometimes harsh criticism of the current constitutional arrangement, of the method of government, of corruption, of other deficits in terms of good governance. So, criticism of Kyiv. But criticism of Kyiv is not the same as separatism.
U.W.: Timothy Snyder says that Russia, while instigating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, at the same time threatens the whole Europe. What is your opinion on this and how do you as chairman of the Munich Security Conference would see the future security of the EU in these terms?
I have worked in recent years with Russian, American, European leaders and intellectuals, former officials, like former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov, former US senator Sam Nunn to describe a Euro-Atlantic security landscape which should be homogeneous where it would no longer matter whether you are a member of NATO or not. That is our vision of the future, because I believe that deep down, the fundamental security issues of Russia, of the West, Western Europe and of Ukraine have a huge amount of things in common. Unfortunately, we are currently in a situation where this vision of a coherent “common home” as Mikhail Gorbachev put it has tended to disappear again. We are, unfortunately, drifting back to a situation where we have a confrontation. At least a political confrontation, not a military confrontation between the West and Russia, with Ukraine being right in the middle which is absolutely unfortunate . I hope you agree, I don’t see a single reason why we should be blamed for it. All we have tried to do in Western Europe was to try and reach out and offer to Ukraine the same status we believe every European nation should have, namely, the freedom to choose. If Ukraine wishes to be a non-aligned country, fine, that’s for Ukraine to do. If Ukraine wishes to become the member of EU, that’s fine, it is a legitimate desire. If Ukraine wishes to become a member of NATO, that should also be accepted as a decision of Ukrainians. So, I don’t think we have to be blamed, I believe that Russia has decided at some point that for Russia’s security, to be safeguarded, a status of Ukraine that kept it away from the West was important.
U.W.: According to polls, the level of support of NATO membership in Ukraine rose strongly after the annexation of Crimea. However, there are many talks in the EU, and, especially in Germany, that Ukraine can’t be taken to NATO, because it will make Russia insecure. What is your opinion on this? Can Ukraine enter NATO if people of Ukraine support this?
This is a complicated question that you ask. There is no simple answer. First, part of my answer is that NATO should invite as future members only countries that have a clearly defined, fully developed national consensus that this country wishes to be a member of NATO. It is not good if NATO membership question becomes a source of controversy in a future NATO member country. In case of Ukraine, my impression is that for many years now some Ukrainians have been advocating NATO membership, but other Ukrainians have totally rejected it. And I believe, as long as there is no full national consensus, NATO membership should not become an issue that is tearing apart Ukrainian society. So I think, that Ukraine is not quite ready for NATO-membership. That does not mean that I think that Ukraine should not have the right to say that we want to be NATO members. But that is something all Ukrainians should agree on.
Second, NATO member should make sure that they do not make the country’s security worse when they do invite it to join them. Do I believe that Ukrainian membership in NATO would guarantee the improvement of Ukraine’s security situation? Well, only if Russia decided that this was not dangerous for Russia. Unfortunately at this moment that is the exact opposite of what Russia believes. Therefore, I believe we would risk creating the additional confrontation within Ukraine and Russia. You have intense historical, political, economic, social and other relationship within Ukrainians and Russians. Would Ukraine benefit from the closed border, gun towers and tanks from both sides? Probably, not. So, I appreciate the wisdom of Ukrainian leaders who have decided at this juncture, at this moment in history – not to apply for membership in NATO. I think it is a sensible course given the reality around us, but I insist that if Ukraine develops, if we can also convince Russia to regard NATO more as a partner, not as an adversary, then, of course we could have a situation where Ukraine could benefit fully from becoming a NATO member.
U.W.: Let’s go back to Timothy Snyder and what he says. He says that Russia with this aggression towards Ukraine also splits up Europe; that this aggression in a way undermines Europe from inside. Russia supports right-wing parties in the EU. Plus, EU member-states disagree on the Ukrainian conflict, and on whether they should overlook the annexation of Crimea and other issues, or react strongly against Russia. What is your position?
The one thing that I have regretted is that I did not have time to participate in the discussion last week here in Kyiv where Professor Snyder discussed these issues on a more philosophical and intellectual level. I have read Snyder’s works and I fundamentally share his concern that what we are seeing here is a very strange kind of group of bed fellows for Russia. Traditionally, you would have expected after the Crimean events the only people who applaud Russia’s actions would be former communist parties, traditional far-left parties. That would not have been a surprise to me, but it was a surprise to me that far-right parties in Western Europe which are anti-EU and nationalist far-right did. They seem to have chosen Mr. Putin as their hero, because he is also the advocate of nationalistic cause. That is dangerous, because it tends to weaken the fabric of EU integration. The more anti-EU political parties, far-right, nationalistic parties we have within the EU, the harder it would be to stay on course in terms of European integration. Yes, I do share Snyder’s concern that this is not only about Ukraine, this is about very fundamental questions of integration of the vision of Europe and that President Putin is challenging the very bases of that vision. So, what do I believe will happen? I believe this is not a war by tanks and airplanes, but this is a confrontation of minds and words. The idea of integration, the idea of not changing borders by force anymore in Europe, were violated here, but that does not mean that they are winning. I believe that we will win. Integration will win. The idea of a peaceful and border-free Europe will win. It may take time, but we will win.
U.W.: You have huge experience of peaceful negotiations, so I think you see that core reason of the confrontation of any of them. What is the core reason of such confrontation within Ukraine, except of Russia, of course?
I have learned to understand that many Ukrainians have deep disenchantment with the existing system of government. I understand that many Ukrainians, not only in Eastern Ukraine or the Donbas , hope for decentralized form of government, constitutional reform, and a system where there is not only a bunch of superrich people and many millions of relatively poor people. In other words, there are issues of constitutional reform, social reforms - we would call it federalism in Germany. We have 16 Länder which have their own financial administration, their own resources and handle many issues for people at the local or regional level. I believe that is not a bad recipe for Ukraine, but what Ukraine should still have, is a strong center. Astrong center that keeps the country together, a that can provide the source of national identity for all Ukrainians who have as I understand different languages, different ethnic and national backgrounds and different historical backgrounds. Bringing this people together is the big question in the future and I think it requires great political leadership. I hope Ukraine will be blessed by brilliant leadership, but it also requires a constitution that allows people to believe that they are in charge, that they are not governed by some invisible person in Kyiv, but they have a meaningful representation on the local level. In my view, decentralization is one of the key issues that hopefully will be addressed through the constitutional reform. And people have already begun to work on it, as I understand.
Wolfgang Ischinger studied law at the Universities of Bonn and Geneva and obtained his Degree in Law in 1972. He continued his education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard Law School where he studied law, foreign economic relations and history. From 1973 to 1975, he served on the staff of the UN Secretary General in New York.
From 2001 to 2006, he was the German Ambassador to the United States, and from 1998 to 2001, he was Deputy Foreign Minister in Berlin. Ambassador Ischinger has been the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference since 2008. Wolfgang Ischinger participated in a number of international negotiating processes, including the Bosnia Peace Talks at Dayton, OH. In 2007, he was the European Union Representative in the Troika negotiations on the future of Kosovo which led to the declaration of independence of Kosovo and to the recognition of Kosovo by most EU member-states