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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 4: Wolfgang Ischinger

Episode 4: Wolfgang Ischinger


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.

Next in this file

Inside the interview: Wolfgang Ischinger

Inside the interview: Wolfgang Ischinger

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador and chair of the Munich Security Conference from 2008 until 2022

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