Andrew Neil talks to a man once described as Europe’s most powerful ambassador about Germany’s shifting security policy and why he would still invite Russia’s foreign minister to the Munich Security Conference
Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory. A series of in depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events, and to influence our understanding of them.
This week I’m joined by a man whose been described as Europe’s most powerful ambassador. Wolfgang Ischinger was chair of the influential Munich Security Conference from 2008 until early 2022. A forum he transformed from an annual gathering of foreign policy wonks into a year-round traveling circus that attracts global elites and world leaders. He’s also been Germany’s ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. In the interview we discuss his country’s historic shift in security policy since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how committed it is to it, and his career as a powerbroker around the world.
This is The Backstory from Tortoise.
Andrew Neil: Wolfgang Ischinger, you wrote that Chancellor Scholz’s address to the German Parliament on February 27th was a watershed in German foreign policy: billions more for defence, sanctions against Russia, even weapons for Ukraine. But since then he’s been rowing back on a lot of that, is it really such a watershed?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, it is. A significant number of established beliefs, traditional beliefs, fundamental elements of German foreign policy, were kicked overboard by that speech. No weapons into crisis [00:33] is one of them; no weapons deliveries certainly into Ukraine, that was a firmly established principle and certainly, within the governing party, the SPD, the appreciation of raising the defence budget in any significant manner was not well developed so Olaf Scholz did throw overboard a significant number of established convictions and I would not actually agree with you that he has not followed up. I think what we’ve seen in the two months following that speech is that Olaf Scholz is not really a particularly gifted communicator, I would certainly grant you that. He could have done significantly better in communicating that, not only to the Germans but to the world and certainly to the Ukrainians, that Germany has been one of the principal money-givers to Ukraine for the last eight years. That seems to have totally disappeared from our radar screen.
We have actually offered weapons and all sorts of military equipment and here again, I would grant you that Germany didn’t lead but sort of came late, came after others had cleared the air, cleared the way for it, etc, so you can, I think it’s fair to say that Germany was struggling with these decisions, which is not surprising if you know where we’ve been coming from. So, Germany has been communicating badly but our performance, I would claim, is not quite as bad as it sounds.
Andrew Neil: Well, let’s look at that performance because my question wasn’t about the speech itself, I understand the content of the speech was a watershed, it’s what’s happened in the two months since, does that really amount to a watershed? After all, the Chancellor himself went through the list of weapons for Ukraine and he personally removed every item of heavy equipment that Kyiv had requested, including tanks and artillery. He cut a package that was worth about a billion euros to about 300 million euros; I mean that’s hardly a watershed.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Again, I would grant you that we were hesitating and this Chancellor is known for his habit of not making announcements until he can really declare that he has studied all the details. I’ll give you an example; he would not announce that we would deliver such-and-such equipment unless he knows that we can also deliver the ammunition in meaningful numbers or the spare parts, etc. So, I would insist it is more a communications issue but I think it is also of course an important issue for a newly elected Chancellor of Germany to make sure that he can tell the Germans that he is reflecting with his partners and advisors about the question, how far is it okay for us to go, where would the point be where we would unnecessarily provoke some kind of escalatory reaction by the Russians. That certainly would reduce the opportunity for Ukraine to prevail. Finally, let me simply say, Andrew, of course don’t mistake me as the spokesperson for …
Andrew Neil: No, I understand that.
Wolfgang Ischinger: … Olaf Scholz’s government. I criticised this government for coming in late and for reacting not quickly enough and certainly for not leading but I would defend it when it comes to the question, are we doing a lot less than all the others are doing? Well, we are doing not a lot less, we are trying to do more. One of our problems, of course, is that the Bundeswehr, our army, our armed forces, have been so depleted over the last decade or more – and that is of course not a fault to be accredited to Olaf Scholz – that is the fault of previous administrations, previous defence ministers, previous Chancellors etc, that there is very little available that we can make available to Ukraine from our armed forces. We used to have thousands of tanks in the early 90s, now we have just a couple of hundred.
Andrew Neil: And the German Defence Minister said that they couldn’t send heavy weapons because it would leave Germany vulnerable, because you’ve got so few at the moment. Given that the Russian military is bogged down in Ukraine, what exactly is the current military threat to Germany?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, let’s be serious about this. There are obligations by all Nato members to meet the requirement standards that have been established by Nato, each country is supposed to make available to Nato such-and-such numbers of tanks, equipment, aeroplanes etc, etc.
Andrew Neil: But Germany has not done that for years.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, yes, of course we have and we’re even taking the leadership of the forward deployed taskforce and for doing that, Germany needs to make sure we have the necessary number of equipment, of weapons, of tanks, etc, etc, for our armed forces to deploy for our own defensive purposes and for the defence of Nato. So, it is a meaningful discussion to have and we deplete our resources because we believe that our security is currently being defended in and by Ukraine. Well, to a certain extent I would say that’s true but how far are we going to go responsibly in drawing down our own military resources that are supposed to defend Nato as such and our partners and ourselves? So, this is not an easy decision to make.
Andrew Neil: I guess the thing that surprised me, as someone who watches German politics, admires German politics, is that when even the Greens want to take a tougher line, even the Greens want to send heavy weapons, then surely the Chancellor should get on with it.
Wolfgang Ischinger: The Chancellor has a party establishment behind himself which is not identical to the Green Party spokespersons. You are absolutely right, it is almost a miracle that the Greens who found it almost impossible to support our military, remember in Kosovo in 1999 when Germany participated in the Nato intervention in Kosovo, the Greens had an extremely hard time agreeing to our active air participation. We did participate and the Greens hesitatingly accepted it. It is almost a miracle to see how far the Greens have come around, some of the spokespeople of the Greens are amongst the fiercest proponents of delivering more and more heavy weapons, etc, etc. So, that is, if you ask me, a fantastic development of the Green party but the Social Democratic party, which is of course a much older party, finds it far more difficult to review their long-time, of course, pacifist tradition, the idea that has been a trademark for the Social Democrats. We will through Ostpolitik create stability and peace in Europe without weapons.
Andrew Neil: Die Welt, one of Germany’s most respected newspapers, says that Mr Scholz’s delay, prevarication in these matters, is, quote: ‘The most dangerous miscalculation in the history of the Federal Republic’.
Wolfgang Ischinger: That is a slight exaggeration. We have communicated extremely badly; many of my Ukrainian friends shake their heads so we are lagging behind but we are catching up, we are trying to catch up and I think there is a growing consensus in Germany that those are making the right point who argue that our own defence, our own security, I mean of Western Europe, is currently being defended in and by Ukraine and that is why Ukraine deserves to be protected and supported as best we can and I think that is a growing consensus. Finally, let me make this point: whether Germany or any other European Nato partner delivers 20 more Gepards or Marders or other types of equipment is not going to change the final outcome of this conflict. What really matters …
Andrew Neil: Well, it might.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, what really matters is what the big guy is doing, what the United States has been doing in terms of making funding available. For years, for years, not only since 24 February, for a long period of time, so I think the decisive element in this support activity by Nato, by the West, is what the US is doing. I think where Germany can maybe start leading more than it has been in this weapons delivery affair, will be the question of what exactly are we the West, in the European Union etc, what are we going to be able to do once the time has come to start rebuilding the destroyed cities the destroyed infrastructure, etc, of Ukraine? Can we put together a huge programme that actually works and then will be made available quickly in order to help Ukraine recover from the devastation, from the destruction? I think that’s the kind of stuff where we will see that Germany can take and probably will take a lead.
Andrew Neil: I think the reason why people in Germany and people in other European capitals, who are Germany’s friends, are exasperated, is that to a big extent it is German money that has built the Russian war machine because of the oil and gas that you buy and you are still buying that oil and gas and so you are still financing the war machine of the Kremlin but you’re not moving quickly to help the Ukrainian war machine fight back. I think it is that distinction, that difference that exasperates people.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, you know, once again I’m not the spokesperson for the current German coalition government but I think what you are saying now is quite unfair really. We have made significant strategic mistakes in the past; I’ll grant you that. Our dependence on Russian gas and oil, especially the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, was surely with hindsight today, a major strategic error.
Andrew Neil: But you were warned of that at the time. Many voices warned you at the time that this would increase your dependence on Russian gas and yet even after the annexation of Crimea by Mr Putin, you went ahead with Nord Stream 2. You don’t need hindsight to have known that was wrong.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, I would agree with you. I started criticising the Nord Stream 2 pipeline at the beginning, you know, five, six years ago and I thought it was no longer appropriate to even increase our degree of dependence on Russia but let’s not forget once again that while Germany is of course the biggest country that relies so heavily on Russian gas and also, to some degree, on Russian oil, it is certainly not the only country in the EU. It is now agreed in Germany, nobody will dispute what you just said, that this was a strategic error but in order to understand why this was deemed at the time the right thing to do was the conviction that prevailed throughout the German political establishment that because the Soviet Union consistently, even at the height of the Cold War, delivered gas and oil reliably without ever using it as a political weapon, and then of course the Soviet Union participated in granting reunification and then we had, together with our allies, the idea of partnership with Russia.
Let’s not forget that on the floor of my conference, the Munich Security Conference, in February of 2009, that was a year after the Russian war with Ukraine, the Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden at the time, pushed what he called the reset button with the Russian Federation in order to launch new set of negotiations. In other words, we were all singing from the wrong song sheet at the time and maybe the Germans were particularly late in beginning to understand that Mr Putin had entirely different intentions. I certainly share the view that we should have recognised years ago that this was not going to end well and that we should have diversified more but let me also say that when Nord Stream 1 was discussed, 20 years ago, I was at that time a senior official myself in the German government, not one voice that I remember came up and said this is the wrong thing. Everybody agreed that it was a good idea to involve Russia, even in the downstream oil and gas business, because Russia, now that the Soviet Union had disappeared, was going to be a benevolent partner for us. It took too long but …
Andrew Neil: That might have been a reasonable view 20 years’ ago, I understand that, or it may not have been but the fact is that Angela Merkel and many others were still prepared to do business with the Kremlin and Mr Putin, even as Russian tanks went into Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine. Even when it was clear that what you thought 20 years ago wasn’t true, you still did it and it wasn’t just Angela Merkel, although she was mostly in the public eye associated with it. Is this not a crisis for the whole governing German political class now? Even Gerhardt Schroeder, perhaps your country’s most famous Putin apologist, he said, we all went along with this for 30 years, you were all in it, you were all complicit.
Wolfgang Ischinger: That’s not quite fair, at least historically not quite correct. In 2014, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and after the beginning of unrest and Russian involvement in Donbas, America told Europe ‘You handle it yourself and you negotiate with Putin’, which is what Angela Merkel and President Hollande at the time, started when they went to Minsk and started the Minsk Process with full support from everybody else. I do not recall any single voice from within the European Union or within Nato, certainly not from the United States, that said in 2014 or 2015, just abandon the negotiations and lets just throw sanctions at the Russian. Today we know it was an unfulfillable hope but the hope was that in fact we would be able to find a negotiated settlement, certainly for the Donbas problem and maybe in the longer term also, for the Crimea problem.
Remember the sanctions debate which we had in 2014/2015, Europe was at that time – and I want to defend the German track record – Europe was led by Angela Merkel’s determination when it came to the sanctions. Everybody thought at the time, the EU will fall apart over the sanctions issue. Not every country, including Italy it said, would support these types of sanctions which we started to approve in 2014 and 2015. We did hold the EU together; these sanctions never fell apart and why didn’t they fall apart? Because Angela Merkel’s government was strongly leading this effort. Now …
Andrew Neil: Excuse me, as you went for these sanctions you were also making plans to buy more Russian hydrocarbons, billions of euros of more which far outweighed any sanctions that the Kremlin would face. I guess my point is that the predicament you find yourself in now is entirely of your own making. You didn’t have to become reliant on Russian hydrocarbons, you took decisions that made it so. When your assumptions about Mr Putin’s Russia turned out not to be true, you doubled down, even after the annexation of Crimea, even after the occupation of the Donbas and I guess that’s why people think now that it is incumbent on Germany, as it is on all of us but especially on Germany now, to do more than it is to help Ukraine and to get off the Russian hydrocarbon drip-feed more quickly than it is.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Your honour, your honour may I respectfully disagree? Andrew Neil: Of course.
Wolfgang Ischinger: You speak, what you say seems to imply that by approving of this Nord Stream 2 project, even after the Crimean annexation, Germany increased its dependency. The fact of the matter is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is now dead in the water, not a single ton of oil or gas has flown through this …
Andrew Neil: Of course, but only because of invasion of Ukraine.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, okay, I am simply saying that there is no increase of the available transport lines from Russia to Germany over the last decade or so. The only pipeline that exists is Nord Stream 1 and as we speak, let’s look at the facts, as we speak the Russian Federation, Gazprom, delivers gas and oil to pipelines transiting Ukraine. Ukraine gets the revenue from the transit fees as we speak, today, tomorrow, next week. Germany pays for the gas and has actually negotiated successfully with Russia a year ago, a year and a half ago, that Russia would continue to use the trans-Ukraine pipeline at least until 2024 so simply to say the German side has not entirely ignored the Ukrainian aspect of the problem, sometimes I ask myself why hasn’t somebody discovered the idea of maybe blowing up the pipeline that runs through Ukraine, therefore depriving the Russians from the revenue? The fact of the matter is that Ukraine does receive the transit fees, which are quite substantial, as we speak. So, things are slightly more complicated than simply German business disregarding the interests of others and stupidly relying on Russian supplies.
Andrew Neil: You’ve had Russian Foreign Ministers, Sergei Lavrov, several times at the Munich Security Conference; do you ever achieve anything by having him there?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, let’s talk about the purpose of the Munich Security Conference. The Munich Security Conference is a private institution, it’s a foundation which I created a few years ago. So, we’re independent, we’re totally independent of any government including …
Andrew Neil: I understand that.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Our family comes from all sorts of companies and foundations and institutions from around the world so I have held the conviction that if this conference, this meeting, this annual meeting is supposed to make any sense, we need to have on stage not only the folks whose views we applaud but we need to have on stage the folks we don’t like at all.
Andrew Neil: I understand that, I was simply asking did it achieve anything? I’m not making a criticism about you having him there, that’s up to you and a conference that only had people who all agreed with each other would be pretty boring – I’ve been to many of them myself and they are boring – but my question is, did it achieve anything?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, the question is, is the participation of a Russian government speaker or two or three, is that supposed to achieve anything tangible at an event which is an informal event like the Munich Security Conference? My answer would be no and that’s not the purpose of it. I cannot claim that Mr Lavrov’s personal participation led to any change in Russia’s behaviour at all, absolutely, I have no illusions about this.
Andrew Neil: I understand that but can you see a time when he would be welcome back?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, again, let me take a step backwards. I have tried – so far without success – to invite a North Korean representative, senior, to Munich. My own government strongly advised me not to do that because they thought that if some North Korean personnel showed up in Munich, they would only use this platform for propaganda purposes.
A decade ago I heard the same complaint when I started inviting the Iranians and I’ve had the Iranian foreign minister or his deputy, etc, in Munich for many years. I defended this decision because if our government, including yours, negotiate day and night with Iran over this nuclear deal, why should we not allow the international foreign policy community to listen to the Iranian view if we listen to the Russian view, to the Chinese view, to the British view, etc? Let’s listen to what the Iranians have to say, that’s my conviction, that’s the purpose of Munich.
Andrew Neil: So, after that’s everything that’s been, would he be invited back? It’s a simple question, would you invite him back or not?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, I would invite him back not as long as the war is going on but the moment …
Andrew Neil: But afterwards, after all the rape and mutilation and murder and bombing?
Wolfgang Ischinger: The moment there is a ceasefire or a peace arrangement, whatever the nature of it may be, I would think it is extremely important to have the Russians, to listen to the Russians. I don’t think we can usefully … can totally isolate Russia, they are a permanent member of the UN Security Council and your Ambassador is going to be sitting with this person …
Andrew Neil: But we have no choice in that, all members of the Security Council have no choice. You have a choice whether you want to invite the Foreign Minister of a genocidal state to your conference. That’s your choice.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, we have had Foreign Ministers and even Prime Ministers of genocidal people, I’ve negotiated myself for months with Mr Milosevic and other people who were accused of genocidal behaviour and I would certainly not like or appreciate the presence of genocidal people but look, diplomacy is not the art of having lunch with your friends. Diplomacy is the art of negotiating with your enemies, trying to prevent future outbreaks of conflict.
Andrew Neil: I understand that but don’t we learn anything? I mean after 20, 30 years according to Mr Schroeder of trying to think that you could deal with the Russian bear, that if you got close to it you could control it or civilise it or stop it from invading other countries and that has been a total failure, as we can see every night on our TV screens. Do you still want to deal with that regime? I’m not saying don’t deal with Russia but do you still want to deal with the Putin regime after what’s happened?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, I certainly hope that the Putin regime will be gone before too long. I think this term runs until 2024, that’s two more years …
Andrew Neil: Well, he’ll extend that, you and I know that, he can extend it for as long as he wants, he’s already done that
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, do we know that? We don’t know what, do we? We’ll see what happens. My conviction is that we need to talk even to the worst enemies in this informal framework but we don’t need to give them a stage to propagate their infamous propaganda and their genocidal activities so for the time being I see neither a reason nor a necessity to organise meetings that would include Russia.
Andrew Neil: Let’s assume that what Mr Scholz’s speech to the Bundestag on 17 February is a watershed, it’s where we began; where does that take German foreign policy now in the 2020s? Where does German foreign policy now go? What different direction do you see it going in?
Wolfgang Ischinger: I would mention two things: first, we will of course and we are in the process of doing that, we will change substantially our defence arrangements. We will be spending significantly more on defence going …
Andrew Neil: And there is consensus on doing that now?
Wolfgang Ischinger: I think there’s maybe not complete consensus, where in politics is there complete consensus?
Andrew Neil: No, but there’s a clear majority in the Bundestag?
Wolfgang Ischinger: There is a clear majority in the Bundestag, even the opposition strongly supports this so I think that is almost a given. Second, I would hope – and this is more a hope than certainty when I say that – I would hope that as one of the consequences of this disastrous experience of the Russian aggression, we would, Germany would make a renewed effort to help turn the European Union into a more respected and responsible foreign policy actor, including with the security and the defence component. I think this is absolutely, absolutely for our survival as Western Europe, absolutely necessary. Just imagine, Andrew, for a moment where we might be if Donald Trump had been re-elected and if Donald Trump had told the Russians why they should take, you know, you’ve taken Crimea, why don’t you take Odesa, I don’t give a damn?
Fortunately, we have at this moment an American President who is a committed transatlantic [33:56], he happens to be a personal friend of mine. I have great respect for Joe Biden but we have no guarantee that the next American President will share these types of convictions so …
Andrew Neil: Indeed, you might get Mr Trump back again!
Wolfgang Ischinger: Voila! Which is why we need to do a lot more to prop up European self-defence capabilities and I don’t think that the solution to that is by creating a strong German defence and a strong French defence and a strong Spanish defence, I think that we should pool our resources more in Europe.
Andrew Neil: Don’t you need Britain in that as an ally as well? It is still the most powerful military machine.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Well, I would hope – and I’ve said this, I’ve written about it as a former Ambassador to London – I would hope that we could overcome the Brexit created gulf between the EU and Britain and make arrangements for a renewed relationship in the area of foreign policy including defence. Of course, we need the UK; without the UK Europe is only half as much worth in terms of security defence as we would be with the United Kingdom, even if it is not going to be a member of the EU. As the closest possible partner and supporter, yes indeed.
Andrew Neil: And I think there is a constituency in that for Britain as well, even … Wolfgang Ischinger: I hope so.
Andrew Neil: Even among the Brexiteers I think there could be that but you let me finish on what I think is a very important, almost the defining question for you because you talk of the need for Europe to do more in its own defence. The Republic can’t always count on America, there is a pivot to the Pacific going on, it could be Mr Biden is the last Atlanticist President, we don’t know, but he might be but how do you do that? How does Europe, and particularly the EU, give itself far greater strategic defensive capabilities when it can’t even meet its current Nato commitments? It surely cannot do that without diluting its role in Nato even more, it can’t do both.
Wolfgang Ischinger: I think it can do both, I don’t think this is an either/or. I think that if for example, take the example of Germany; if Germany spends actually regularly 2% or more of its GNP on defence, that increased defence budget will allow Germany not only to meet Nato requirements, it would also make it possible for Germany to be a major contributor to a European base so we need to make sure that whenever there is no availability of Nato as the principal framework for our defensive arrangements, we need to be able to act on our own in order to defend our fundamental interest as Western European nations with shared borders and shared interests and we cannot – and you made the point yourself – we cannot eternally rely on the fact that for some reason the United States President will always, in all eternity, hold their protective umbrella over the entire number of European nations. That has been a wonderful gift to Europe, it has allowed us to grow over the last half century etc, etc, but we should not think that this is going to be a God-given arrangement and we should make sure that the European Union can build the capacity to defend itself.
Andrew Neil: Wolfgang Ischinger, thank you for joining us and maybe we’ll get a chance to meet in better times at the Munich Security Conference, thank you very much.
Wolfgang Ischinger: Thank you, I certainly hope so. It was a pleasure talking to you, Andrew, thank you very much. Bye-bye.
Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers on Apple Plus can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode which comes out every Friday during this series. It’s called Inside the Interview.
This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella. The Executive Producer is Lewis Vickers. Thanks for listening.