In April, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted his own mistakes in Russia policy in recent years – now months later his closest confidant has also asked himself questions about his own responsibility for the relationship with Moscow.
The diplomat Stephan Steinlein had been office manager of the Chancellor’s Office Minister Steinmeier, later under the Foreign Minister State Secretary in the Foreign Office and after his move to Bellevue Palace Head of the Federal President’s Office with the rank of State Secretary. In March, the 61-year-old returned to the Foreign Ministry.
He did not give an interview to a German newspaper, but to Swiss media. If you read his answers in the “St. Galler Tagblatt”, he is trying to justify the Russia policy more than the Federal President did in April.
At the time, Steinmeier was under public pressure. The Ukrainian ambassador Andriy Melnyk had accused him in the Tagesspiegel of having “made a spider web of contacts with Russia for decades”. Melnyk went on to say: For Steinmeier, “the relationship with Russia remains something fundamental, even sacred, no matter what happens – even the aggressive war doesn’t play a major role”.
When asked whether he misjudged Russian President Vladimir Putin as an adviser to the foreign minister, Steinlein does not answer yes. Rather, he points out that the Kremlin chief has radicalized his attitude towards the West since his appointment as prime minister in 1999.
In hindsight, the ex-state secretary does not want to see any reasons why Germany should take a tougher stance on Russia. Steinlein argues that the EU imposed sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. It was also right to set up the Normandy format between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France at Kiev’s request, even if: “Today we have to say that these efforts have failed.”
When asked again whether Steinmeier and he shouldn’t have “touched Putin much harder,” the diplomat said: “In hindsight, you’re always smarter. What does grab harder mean? Not even trying? We tried as long as possible and not naively to prevent further escalation of the Donbass conflict. That didn’t work.” It bought Ukraine time “to significantly increase its defense capacities”.
The Steinmeier confidante agrees with his interviewer on one point when he wants to know whether Germany underestimated the warnings from Eastern Europe about the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and Russian imperialism. “Short answer: Yes,” he says, before announcing a longer answer and explaining that after a coordination process with Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine, the federal government has “very specifically ensured that the connections between the individual national networks are designed in this way that one-sided dependencies are eliminated and gas flows are made possible in all directions”.
The last government of Angela Merkel also tried very hard to ensure that Russia, despite the expansion of Nord Stream 2, had guaranteed the flow of gas through Ukraine and, in the event that this did not happen, announced the closure of the pipeline.
Does the Federal President share these thoughts? In April he said his adherence to Nord Stream 2 was “clearly a mistake”. And further: “We held on to bridges that Russia no longer believed in and that our partners warned us about.”
His assessment was that “Putin would not accept the complete economic, political and moral ruin of his country for his imperial madness – I was wrong, like others.” He now has to draw a “bitter balance sheet”: “We have failed in establishing a common European house that includes Russia. We failed with the approach of including Russia in a common security architecture.”
Diplomat Steinlein distances himself from calls by German intellectuals for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. There is currently no basis of trust for a diplomatic solution, one has to be prepared for a long-lasting conflict. Steinmeier had similarly emphasized that with a Russia under Putin there would be “no return to the status quo before the war”.
Steinlein – as the “t-online” portal recently pointed out – together with the diplomats Hans-Dieter Lucas and Markus Ederer had more influence on Russia policy than the current foreign policy advisor to the Chancellor, Jens Plötner, Melnyk and some German media alike identified and attacked as its mastermind.
The ex-state secretary is due to become German ambassador in Paris next summer, which will see him return to where he started his diplomatic career. The last GDR foreign minister, Markus Meckel, first sent the theologian to Strasbourg to study languages and then to the French capital, where he closed the embassy in 1990 after six weeks due to the accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic. He then completed diplomatic training in reunified Germany.