Interview: The Hindu (Kallol Bhattacherjee)
The Hindu: What was the first item on the agenda of talks in India?
Jean Asselborn: First item was Ukraine. The war on Ukraine began on February 24 but it really changed the world as it is an aggression against the rules of the international law. If this is tolerated, it can happen in other parts of the world.In my assessment, Ukraine is not the enemy of Russia, it is democracy that is the enemy. Democracy is where justice is fair and national and international rule of law are respected. Russia's enemy is the democratic system in which we live. That makes it terribly complicated also for the future. In foreign policy, a problem is solved by a set of options. But here no one knows what is in the mind of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. If he has Ukraine then countries like Georgia, Moldova, and even the Baltic countries could be in line. This is not just a fight for Ukraine but it is a fight for us in the EU and democracy.
The Hindu: Can EU guarantee freedom of smaller non-EU/NATO countries like Moldova?
Jean Asselborn: It is not possible to guarantee their freedom. That is the problem as Georgia and Moldova are not NATO members. Article 5 of NATO Charter is invoked if any NATO member is attacked but in case of Moldova that is not so. But we should not forget diplomacy even in this situation. Before January 24, we offered Russia to speak about the security architecture. Everyone agreed that Russia should be on the table but Mr. Putin refused. The NATO had no intention of attacking Russia and no country of NATO had this in mind.
The Hindu: After the 2007 Munich Conference, did Europe misjudge Russian intention?
Jean Asselborn: We never wanted Russia to end dialogue and diplomacy. We created a NATO Russia council way back in 1997. The aim was to have a better relations with Russia. Even after Georgia in 2008, the NATO and Russia came together to discuss. Russia objects to the NATO's expansion but those who have been members of the European Union [EU] since 2004 can't be rejected if they want to be members of the NATO. After that date only Macedonia and Montenegro became members of the NATO. There was no plan to push a button and make Ukraine a member of the NATO in 2022. The Russian justification of 'denazification' in Ukraine is crazy. No one believes it. They attacked because of Ukraine's democratic status.
The Hindu: The criticism of Western sanctions is that they are also hurting other economies like India.
Jean Asselborn: Sanctions always have collateral damages. We know this. But if we cannot respond militarily, the sanctions are the only way to respond. The sanctions are the consequence of the war in Ukraine and it's not the other way round. Without a response like sanctions, the world will pass on to the strongest armies. All the medical equipment are excluded but we are targeting the hi-tech sector, coal and gas of Russia. There is no alternative to sanctions.
The Hindu: But how will the EU stop sanctions from hurting even its own member-countries, especially in the energy sector?
Jean Asselborn: Germany is implicated here. Germany is the engine of growth in the EU and they had strong energy ties with Russia. For decades they have used Russian gas. We now have one choice to diversify in the first step and then to go carbon-neutral as soon as possible. We in Europe are in a very difficult transition period.
The Hindu: Why not try peace talks instead of looking for long term energy solutions?
Jean Asselborn: That is what we were trying in the beginning. UN Security General Antonio Guterres said, "You have to stop this war.” But [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov said, "It is too early.” That is not easy. I really don't know how Moscow functions. I really hoped that Mr. Lavrov could stop this because he is a diplomat and he knows what international law is and how the UN functions.
The Hindu: You belong to a generation that bore the brunt of the war in Europe. Are these signs that nationalism is rising in Europe?
Jean Asselborn: It makes me feel horrible. A lot of illusions went away because of the war in Ukraine. We had the illusion that because of principles of the UN, tanks and missiles would not return to Europe. Before the World War II we saw nationalistic tendencies rose in Europe that is why it is important that Marine Le Pen did not win in France. Mr. Putin has attacked a country saying they, the Ukrainians, have no right to live as Ukrainians. We are seeing pictures of Le Pen, and many others across Europe with ideological links with Mr. Putin. Sometimes diplomacy is not enough to stop a war.