A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

“Russia Wants to Destabilize Europe”


On the eve of the Munich Security Conference, the CDU’s new leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer talks foreign policy with BERLIN POLICY JOURNAL.

© REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, as a Saarlander, you’re well known for your dedicated, pro-European stance. But you’ve yet to make a name for yourself in the realm of foreign policy—is it a subject that interests you? Foreign policy was what led me into politics in the first place. Back then, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the debates over the NATO double-track decision.

Today I find that there are still axes about which we should be concerned. Let’s call the first of these the European axis. It remains firmly in Germany’s national interest to ensure that Europe has the power to act. The second axis is a functioning transatlantic axis. At the moment, however, discussions between the United States and Europe, Germany in particular, have grown harsher and more difficult. A major challenge for us is to preserve this alliance and this friendship, because it’s just as important as ever. It’s a real warning sign when a survey of German nationals indicates that they now have greater confidence in the presidents of Russia, and even China, than in the President of the United States.

But you yourself have said that you find Trump and Putin equally difficult. Doesn’t that sound a little like you’re equating the two? No, it’s not a case of equating the two. In terms of attitudes, values and historic solidarity, I’m much closer to the United States—regardless of current political discussions. What I meant by that was that both nations have their own challenges in the present climate. For the US, the challenge lies primarily in the fact that, for the time being at least, we have a political administration that is disengaged to some extent from international agreements. This path of action has a considerable effect on geopolitical matters.

By contrast, Russia is a much larger and more significant neighbor to Germany—but also a more problematic one. Russia has its own agenda. And this agenda evidently includes an attempt to destabilize Europe and, consequently, Germany. It seeks to use its weaker neighbors to boost its own strength. This is counter to European and German interests. 

Since we’re on the subject, I should also mention the challenge posed by China. China is governed by a very powerful regime, whose values differ clearly from ours. It wants to implement its own rules in the world in the long term.

Let’s take a closer look at the USA. Aren’t the Germans deluding themselves with their skepticism over Trump? After all, the American tendency to withdraw into itself was evident under Barack Obama, too—he himself failed get the Paris Climate Accord properly ratified. There has certainly always been a tendency towards national introversion in American politics, including under Obama. Over the course of history, we see both of these orientations—international engagement and withdrawal—at war with each other. What’s new, however, is that under Trump international policy is viewed as big business. The same can be said for the relationship with Europe, and with NATO.

Do you think that it is possible to come back from this? Some will say, of course, that the US is certain to continue down this road. Do you think it can be rectified? For the time being, I still can’t see any extensive debate in the United States which might indicate a change of course. That’s why Germany and Europe are needed—it’s why we have to assume more responsibility. The entire debate revolves around security and defense policy. It’s a matter of our standing in a changing world. We must ask ourselves whether we’re content to simply be one of the strongest economies in the world, or whether we want to take on more political responsibility. What we’re facing is a very difficult discussion about domestic policy.

So in your view, Germany is not just a “big Switzerland”? No, Germany could never be a “big Switzerland”. Germany has to seize more responsibility. We are now a very strong centre in Europe, that’s something I noticed in Brussels. Germany has the capacity to take on the diverse interests of its smaller European partners as well and ensure a balance—and this is what is expected of us. But we have to play a greater role in defense. The Two Per Cent debate is more than just a matter of money, it’s also a question of quality. We have to discuss cyber security, infrastructure and its protection, as well as equipment and sheer manpower. It makes no sense at all to increase NATO troops, if you can’t move them around Europe in an emergency because its streets and bridges are not equipped for the job.

Doesn’t that sound like a diversionary tactic, part of the 2-percent-goal that Germany has not reached? Particularly as the German government is only aiming for 1.5 percent by 2024. We want to stick to the Two Per Cent target but a percentage of GDP alone is not particularly conclusive in itself, as in periods of economic recession you could point to rising rates without additional money. With steady GDP growth, 1.5 percent is already a considerable but necessary effort. A government must of course deal with other requests for expenditure in its budget. But, as I say, we also need to have a debate about quality. You might look at the calculations for other nations: to some extent this will be for nuclear forces, and partly for maintenance of expensive overseas bases.

Why won’t you give any exact numbers—wouldn’t that be a more honest approach? As things stand, wouldn’t 1.5 percent of the budget for the federal armed forces equal around €60 billion? I have no problem at all with giving clear numbers. The numbers manifest at the latest during medium-term financial planning and in the budget. In this respect, however, I’m reminded of the responsibility of parliament: alongside the federal armed forces, we also have a parliamentary army which can only be put to work following resolutions made in the Bundestag. However, as budgetary legislator, the Bundestag must also ensure that the federal armed forces are sufficiently equipped to return from deployment in generally good health. Otherwise you would have to hold an honest debate and call, essentially, for the dissolution of the armed forces.

Why does it seem to be so difficult in Germany to have an open debate about foreign policy and security? Perhaps it has something to do with our history. But times have changed: Europe and Germany stand at a crossroads. Do we want to play an independent role globally? If so, we have to make greater efforts in this vein—and this applies particularly to Germany. Especially since we, unlike almost any other nation, rely heavily on a stable international situation for our exports. As I say, there is no longer a classic difference between domestic policy on one side and foreign policy on the other. As we’ve seen with migration policy, destabilization in the area surrounding Europe will sooner or later impact upon politics at home. That’s why it tends to be aggravating when debates follow the familiar pattern of one side supporting arms and the other supporting poor German pensioners. This kind of debate has little to do with a responsible German politics.

The former Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel has warned of another effect: could increased military spending on Germany’s part spook its EU neighbors? Which is true, Gabriel’s warning, or the words of former Defense Minister Volker Rühe, who claimed that the Federal Armed Forces should be the strongest army in Europe? Well, I think we’ve some way to go before becoming the strongest army in Europe (she laughs). Nor is that my goal. Gabriel’s warning is false on two counts, because we’re not talking about a competition between separate national armies. We’re talking about the armed forces that are involved in alliances like NATO, which are, in many ways, closely entwined with Europe. And my express aim is that we work to develop an additional European army in the long term. In my view, there is no danger of Germany becoming a threat in itself.

Do you think the integration of Europe should entail France expanding its nuclear shield across Germany and the EU, as suggested by the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger? We certainly have a new situation on our hands, what with the suspension of the INF Treaty. But all efforts should aim first of all towards achieving an agreement in the remaining six months. We would actually require a treaty that includes not only Russia and the United States, but also other powers such as China or other nations with nuclear weapons. Apart from that, I would leave no option off the table and I would not commit myself to any specific option from the outset.

You say you would leave no option off the table. Do you mean you would consider nuclear arms for Germany? No, never.

You accused Russia of seeking to destabilize Germany and the EU. Shouldn’t the government be taking an entirely different approach to dealing with Moscow? First of all, Russia is a very large, diverse country with wonderful people and an incredible amount of potential. At the same time, you have a Russian government in place that takes drastic, uncompromising action in its own country and denies other peoples the right to self-determination—the conflicts in Georgia and East Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea have shown this. We have to be clear about this. If Russia is using factories of trolls to run campaigns of misinformation in the West or influence elections, we can’t sweep that kind of thing under the rug.

Many are now complaining about the EU’s economic sanctions. But the critics have yet to name an alternative. They do not believe that we must accept Russia’s actions, which flout international law, but neither do they offer any ideas for other sanctions. Since we have ruled out military intervention, I support keeping the sanctions in place until a smarter solution presents itself.

But doesn’t the Nord Stream 2 pipeline fly in the face of this? In my view, Nord Stream 2 poses a conflict of interests. It’s an economic project that was set in motion a long time ago under a different German government. Besides, we maintained economic relations with Russia during the height of the Cold War, also in cases of energy provision. These were stable. So really, it’s a matter of interests—Germany’s interests, of course, but also those of Ukraine and the people of Eastern Europe. Then there are partners like the US, which is certainly pursuing its own economic interests. It is of course legitimate to question whether Germany is making itself too dependent on Russian gas. We are currently also building LNG terminals—potentially for American gas. In this respect, I don’t think dependency poses a considerable risk.

As controversial as the pipeline is, one has to be realistic and say that it is inevitable. There are contracts and permits to think about. I have no time for politics which makes vigorous pronouncements to the public about what should be done—all the while being quite aware of the contractual situation.

But the US is still stepping up pressure to complete the pipelineeven with the threats of sanctions. Threatening each other with sanctions is not the best way of dealing with partners and friends. The US has its own economic interests, which are legitimate. And it is concerned that Germany, one of the strongest economies in the world, is too dependent on Russia. But Washington needs to hear Germany’s reply: we are in the process of diversifying and we have other sources of supply. And we have the experience from history that tells us that Russia has always been a reliable gas supplier, even at the height of the conflict.

But isn’t Nord Stream symbolic of the fact that you do not always pay due regard to the interests of the smaller EU partners you described earlier? For myself and many others, Nord Stream 2 is not a project which is close to our hearts. But the fundamental decisions at the heart of the project were made in the past. The project cannot simply be reversed. We also have very legitimate economic interests when it comes to energy supply. The consultations in Brussels have shown that no-one is desperate to get his or her own way. The fact remains that keeping an eye on the interests of our European neighbors and implementing said interests have always been and remain a constant in German foreign policy.

Does China pose more of a challenge or an opportunity? We have always viewed the social market economy as both an economic model and a model for society. This model proved its superiority in the old system conflict with the communist states. But China is one of our competitors, one that is economically successful without sharing our social model. And that is a huge new challenge.

I am not afraid of China. However, we certainly need some kind of strategic industrial policy in this competition between systems.

Take the EU resolution on Siemens-Alstom. Bearing in mind all the European and national competition laws, you can understand why the EU Commissioner for Competition came to the decision she did. But it’s a stretch to say that China will not have risen to become a significant competitor in the rail sector in Europe in the next eight to ten years. That’s why I think the words of the Minister for the Economy, Peter Altmaier, provide an absolutely necessary and long overdue opportunity for reflection. I am firmly convinced that we need a different strategic position in industrial policy at one point or another. This is in no way related to my support for the development of state-owned enterprises. That is a discussion which is considerably overhyped.

Do you worry that Europeans will eventually be crushed between the two superpowers of the USA and Chinaor that they will have to pick a side? We Europeans are at a crossroads. If we are no longer able to assert our own politics and values, we run the risk of becoming a pawn in the games of one nation or the other. To prevent this, we need a united Europe which has the power to act.

A different question for you: where do you draw the geographical limits of Europe and, by extension, the EU? When you see two of the founding EU nations, France and Italy, working together now, you realize that the more pressing problem surrounds the quality of our community, rather than any question of geographical dimensions.

The interview was conducted by Andreas Rinke and Martin Bialecki.

NB. This is a translation; the interview was conducted in German.