German Ambassador: Minsk peace process to continue even if there is no political settlement
An exclusive interview with German Ambassador to Ukraine Anka Feldhusen for Interfax-Ukraine.
Q: The disengagement of forces has recently begun in Petrivske. How do you assess the whole process of pulling back troops and weapons in Donbas?
A: The Normandy talks are a long process. All measures, including the disengagement of forces in Donbas, are steps on the way to peace. From the very beginning, President Zelensky said he wanted to try to give a fresh start to the peaceful settlement of the conflict, to revive the negotiation process. For this purpose, during negotiations in Minsk, as well as at the level of advisers in the Normandy format, disengagement at three sites – the village of Stanytsia Luhanska, and the towns of Zolote and Petrivske – was agreed on.
We welcome all steps to resolve the crisis. I travelled to Zolote together with other ambassadors – local residents there were happy that the disengagement had taken place. So I hope this is just the beginning, that there will be new sites along the contact line where a pullback of forces will take place.
Q: Yet, every day we hear about new acts of shelling. What, in your opinion, is an obstacle to a full ceasefire? Will the disengagement help resolve this issue?
A: I try to communicate a lot with Ukrainians. In these conversations I feel they are tired of the war that has been going on for over five years – longer than World War II on Ukrainian territory. Therefore, I feel this fatigue everywhere and understand that people want the bloodshed to end. It may also be a reason for disengagement to start in other areas and for the long-awaited ceasefire to finally happen.
Will disengagement end the shelling? Alas, I just can't know this. We all know who the aggressor is, but we don't know what they think. However, while I cannot talk to people living in the occupied territories, I still think they experience the same kind of fatiguefrom the war.
Q: In your opinion, what was the motivation of the people who opposed the withdrawal of troops, including those who were present in Zolote?
A: I understand that there is a widespread belief among the population that the sacrifices and lives lost should not be in vain. Yes, if someone's family members or friends were killed in this war, these people do not want a compromise.
But those people who protested against the withdrawal of troops in Zolote definitely want the cancellation of the peace process for political reasons. I think we need to clearly distinguish between ordinary people and such groups. Of course, political manipulation has always happened and will happen in the future, not only in Ukraine – and what happened in Zolote was an obvious act of manipulation. When I was in Zolote, I was able to personally see that, as the agreements stipulate, the police, not so-called separatists, patrols the ground, and that civilians live there and they live more peacefully now.
Q: The security component must be followed by political solutions. How realistic, in your opinion, is it to implement the Minsk agreements?
A: The Minsk agreements were agreed during a phase of intense fighting. It was a compromise that could be reached at that moment. Now, of course, conditions differ from before, but the Minsk deal still provides a structure that could help find a solution to the conflict. I believe in this, so do my colleagues.
Right now, the parties to the Trilateral Contact Group and the Normandy platform are debating what to do next. Of course, much depends on Russia, as well as on what Ukrainian society will agree to. For example, the law on Donbas' special status expires this December. We do not know what will happen then. This will be determined by the Ukrainian people through discussions and finding compromises. It's not easy, but it's the only way now.
President Zelensky's team clearly states that they want to make more progress in the peace settlement process. Now they are taking and are proposing small steps that will test Russia’s willingness for peace. I think that's good.
Q: In your opinion, how has the approval of the Steinmeier formula affected the peace process? Did you expect any part of Ukrainian society to react negatively to it?
A: In my opinion, this reaction in society is primarily due to the fact that people do not know in what context this formula was found. I would like to remind them that it was proposed about three years ago by Frank-Walter Steinmeier [the then Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany] when there was no progress in the negotiations.
There are many broad provisions in the Minsk agreements, such as amnesty, local elections or the special status law, and the Steinmeier formula was an attempt to suggest smaller steps, that is, to determine what should happen first and what should happen next. In doing so, it never intended to change the overall order of the peace process.
I want to emphasize that this formula can only be implemented when we get to the election process – when all the conditions are ready for it. I think the election is a long way off, and there are other steps to be taken first.
Q: It is believed that Ukraine should consider withdrawal from the Minsk agreements and look for other platforms. What do you think about this?
A: Such ideas have always existed. Thinking about a Plan B is never bad. In my opinion, the Minsk process will continue even if there is no political settlement, because within the Minsk platform, steps can be taken to improve people's lives. There are still subgroups on humanitarian and economic issues. The economic part is coordinated by our former ambassador to Russia, Mr. Ulrich Brandenburg. Within this subgroup, they are really very active in seeking solutions to make life easier for people.
For example, it is possible to discuss the question of simplifying the crossing the contact line - small things that can be of tremendous help to people. This, for me, is the main reason why Minsk will last even without a political settlement. It is a practical and convenient site for everyone to talk to each other.
Q: Do you support the idea of restoring economic, humanitarian ties with the occupied parts of Donbas?
A: Humanitarian ties should be restored for sure. Everything else is a question for the government and the population. People are important, they need help.
Q: You are working now at the moment when the new Ukrainian government is taking so many decisions. How often do you have contacts with government officials? And do you see the logic behind their decisions?
A: We really maintain an active dialogue with both the president's team and the government. I have already had the opportunity to meet with many ministers and have personally been to parliament several times.
It seems to me that President Zelensky's goals are very clear. I share the view that the fight against corruption should be a priority for Ukraine. It is clear that this is a long-term process, but the work of anti-corruption institutes is already being rebooted. So, steps are already being made in this direction. In addition, the government is actively working on economic reforms – Ukrainians deserve to live better.
You know that I am here for the third time and for me progress is obvious, that is, there is economic progress but the problem is that not all Ukrainians feel it.
In order to effectively address all the post-Soviet symptoms, the Ukrainian economy needs to develop, and investments must arrive. I am always happy to encourage German companies to come here, but Ukraine also needs to do its homework, in particular, to ensure the rule of law and pursue judicial reform. Because investors are scared when they don't feel able to protect themselves.
Q: Now Ukraine is on the verge of a very important land reform, critics of which in particular predict that foreigners will buy up all Ukrainian land. What would you tell them?
A: I think that in many countries there are great examples of how to organize land acquisition so as to prevent a total sellout to foreigners while ensuring openness of the market. I know this is a very sensitive reform for Ukrainians. I heard that President Zelensky stressed the need for a referendum on this issue. I can understand this, but I also hope that it will be possible for German farmers who have been working Ukrainian land for a long time, to buy this land.
Of course, we believe that the introduction of the land market is a very important step for Ukrainians, it will definitely be an impetus to the economy.
Q: A few weeks ago, you had a meeting with the head of the Office of the President in Ukraine. In particular, Andriy Bohdan assured that the government was not going to return PrivatBank to its former owners. Are you satisfied with such statement?
A: We have always thought that privatization of PrivatBank was correct. A stable banking system is very important, and we were certainly pleased with the position expressed by Mr Bohdan.
Q: There are thoughts and concerns about Ihor Kolomoisky's broad influence on the presidential team. Do you have this kind of fear?
A: I read the Ukrainian press, I speak to people, that is, I feel this concern. But I suggest looking at the facts. We will look at how decisions made by the government and parliament are implemented. After some time it will be possible to understand whether there was pressure in favor of anyone.
Q: Although the issue of Russia-occupied Crimea is raised at the international level, it is done in the context of human rights violations, militarization, etc., but not in the context of the end of the Russian occupation. Nor is Crimea on the agenda of the Normandy format or any other format. In your opinion, is it worth introducing a format for negotiations on Crimea?
A: I think we should not forget Crimea. But there is no shooting on the administrative border [between the occupied peninsula and mainland Ukraine] and this is the biggest difference between Donbas and Crimea. It is also, in my opinion, the reason why we should first of all seek some solution for Donbas – so that people stop dying there.
When Germany was still divided, our constitution had it written as a goal: “The entire German people is called on to achieve by free self-determination the unity and freedom of Germany.” We didn't know when the unity would happen, but we had a duty before our Constitution, we always had that goal. And the miracle happened in 1989. It seems to me that Ukraine could set itself such a goal and always remember it. Unfortunately, we do not know how soon this issue will be resolved. In the meantime, it is necessary for Ukraine to become successful and prosperous from an economic point of view – neither Crimea nor Donbas should be reasons for not progressing in the economic field..
Q: In your opinion, how could further gas transit shipments from Russia via Ukraine be guaranteed?
A: First of all, our German experts assume that Europe will continue to be in need of natural gas. As Germany will now phase out both nuclear energy and the use of coal, demand for natural gas will increase. Therefore, it will be possible to fill both Nord Stream 2 and Ukraine's gas transportation system.
Our Chancellor has already said that she understands that Nord Stream 2 has a political component. Therefore, Germany is very actively trying to support Ukraine in gas talks with Russia – not only in words but with concrete action. Chancellor Merkel has, for example, appointed Earl Bernard Waldersee as Commissioner for Gas Transit through Ukraine. He has been to Ukraine twice, as well as visited Moscow, Brussels and Vienna, where the Energy Community Secretariat is located. We very much hope and do everything we can to ensure that Ukraine has this long-term contract with Russia.
Q: You know that the continuation of gas transit for Ukraine is also a matter of national security. What are the grounds used by the German side in negotiations with Russia to continue transit through Ukraine?
A: We in Germany understand your position and I personally understand it. We assume that Russia wants to sell gas, because its economy is primarily dependent on natural resources. Since Europe is in need of this gas, Russia will hopefully use the Ukrainian territory to supply its gas.