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'An Interesting Partner To Do Business With': How Germany Got Vladimir Putin So Wrong

Wolfgang Ischinger: "In retrospect, it's very easy to say how naive we were. How naive our leaders were at the time." (file photo)
Wolfgang Ischinger: "In retrospect, it's very easy to say how naive we were. How naive our leaders were at the time." (file photo)

A seasoned diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger served in a number of positions in Germany's foreign service from the mid-1970s, including as deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. From 2008 to 2022, he served as the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, which has gathered together high-ranking leaders, diplomats, and international-relations experts in the Bavarian city since 1963.

Ischinger spoke to RFE/RL's Georgian Service on the sidelines of this year's conference, which was dominated by the war in Ukraine, about the evolution of Germany's policy on Russia and why Berlin so badly misjudged Vladimir Putin.

RFE/RL: Let's start with a historical retrospective and this seminal speech of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference. Many now view the speech as a de facto reopening of the Cold War. Do you believe that? And, if yes, why was it not seen like that back then?

Wolfgang Ischinger: I was in the hall when President Putin made that speech. I was not yet the chairman of the conference, I was a simple participant. And I remember very well that when that speech ended, one of my friends who was sitting next to me, or behind me, said, "Oh, this sounds like the announcement of World War III." But that was meant as a joke. And I think, in retrospect, most, probably not all, but most of the participants at the time, the leaders thought that Putin needed to let off some steam and that maybe we can go back to business tomorrow.

In retrospect, that was a mistake. Because I do believe that Putin meant this to be a serious warning that his patience had run out. And that he had begun to believe that in order to defend the interests of Russia, the way he understood the interests of Russia, he needed to abandon a cause of partnership and cooperation and to start a more confrontational approach to the West -- certainly to NATO, to the United States, but also to the partners in the European Union and beyond.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in Munich, Germany, in February 2007.
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in Munich, Germany, in February 2007.

RFE/RL: I understand that this was before the invasion of Georgia, before the occupation of Crimea, and before this new invasion of Ukraine, but why wasn't Putin taken seriously enough by the Western diplomatic elite?

Ischinger: Well, you know, you have to go back. This was 2007. Go back seven years [before then], when he started as the new president of the Russian Federation. In these first years, I had a number of opportunities to see Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, in action. I advised and accompanied, several times, the German chancellor to discussions and meetings with President Putin, and in these early years, speaking of 2000-2001, President Putin appeared, at least to us Germans, as a really interesting partner to do business [with].

I'll give you an example. Some German companies complained that they were taxed by Russia in a way that prevented them from doing useful business. So when you raised these issues with Russian officials in the past, nothing ever happened. And there was frustration. So when the German chancellor raised such issues with Putin, Putin would say, "Consider it done." And he would give instructions for this process to be reexamined and for solutions to be found.

In other words, in these initial years, the impression was created that this Putin is a doer and a mover and shaker, and this is really quite interesting. And don't forget that he also appeared in the German Reichstag, in the German parliament, right at the beginning of his career, and gave a speech which many, maybe not all, but many considered to be a friendly speech, where he said, I want to have close relations with you guys in Germany and Western Europe. So, I think it became extremely difficult for people, for leaders in 2007, to understand that this was the beginning of a new era, a new era of behavior and philosophy and of [a new] approach by Putin.

Wolfgang Ischinger is interviewed at the Munich Security Conference on February 19 by Vazha Tavberidze.
Wolfgang Ischinger is interviewed at the Munich Security Conference on February 19 by Vazha Tavberidze.

RFE/RL: Regarding this remarkable example that you brought up of Putin sorting things out -- as you said, "consider it done" -- this would then translate into a Russian policy of establishing good relations, which would then evolve into a country being dependent on them in many ways. Did nobody in the German leadership remember the phrase, "beware of Greeks bearing gifts?"

Ischinger: It's very easy today, in the German discussion, to argue how stupid we were. How is it possible that we were stupid enough even to sell our gas-storage facilities for Russian gas? How is it possible that anyone could have decided to sell [that]?

There was widespread silence, or even widespread agreement, that this sounded like a defensible and sound approach.

Well, you know, there were very interesting theories being discussed in Berlin and beyond at the time. One of the theories was: Alright, how can we make sure that the Russians will not use gas as a weapon whenever something is going to come up. So the idea -- the very smart-sounding idea -- was: Alright, we invite the Russians to invest downstream, [meaning] on the West German, Dutch side. [So,] not only upstream, where there is the pipeline from Siberia, but downstream, where you turn the gas or the oil into products, so that Gazprom would have an interest that these installations would actually work and produce a profit, etc.

Shared interests, investing Russia in the operations, not only [Moscow] gaining profits from the transport of the gas out of Russia, but making a profit through the refinery operations downstream -- that was the very smart idea. It was considered to be a very smart idea, 10, 15, 20 years ago.

In retrospect, it's very easy to say how naive we were. How naive our leaders were at the time. But then again, at the time, I will say to you that I do not remember many voices in the context of German politics that raised their finger to say this is totally foolish, don't do it, remember Greeks bearing gifts, etc. There was widespread silence, or even widespread agreement, that this sounded like a defensible and sound approach.

RFE/RL: Over the years, as the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, you had to play the host to the creme de la creme of Russian diplomacy. How have these people changed? Or indeed how has your perception of them also changed after the Ukraine war?

Ischinger: Let me start with your final question. My perception of our Russian interlocutors, our Russian guests, has changed rather dramatically. Again, let me offer an example. In 2008 or so, President Putin gave up the presidency, handed it over to his interim successor, [Dmitry] Medvedev. And I think it was not only in Germany, but it was also in the United States and elsewhere, that people entertained the idea that Medvedev is a guy with whom you can work.

RFE/RL: More liberal.

Ischinger: Angela Merkel, who had been chancellor for two or three years at that time, had very interesting discussions with Medvedev about how we could conceivably work on the reconstruction of a more comprehensive European security architecture: Can an effort be made between Berlin and Moscow to resolve, for example, the unresolved Transdniester issues, etc. So, it appeared as if with Medvedev we would be in business, we could do things.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hold a news conference following talks in Hanover in July 2011.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hold a news conference following talks in Hanover in July 2011.

Now, when I look at what Mr. Medvedev has been saying publicly for the last year, I can't believe that that's the same person who invited myself and a group of leaders from the Munich Security Conference framework to his official dacha outside of Moscow, when we had actually organized an event in Moscow, I believe it must have been in 2010, or 2011 or so. And we had a very interesting discussion involving, on our side, among the guests, such experienced people as Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden, and a number of other current and former leaders. It seemed to be a time of partnership possibilities, partnership options opening up.

RFE/RL: And you were desperate to grab it?

Ischinger: Yes, absolutely. And I'll go even beyond that. A couple of years later, in 2012 or so, we began to think of how can we celebrate 50 years of the Munich Security Conference -- that was in 2013. So the idea was born: Let's edit a volume of intellectual and political contributions about the state of the world and European security architecture, etc. And when you look at this book, which was then published a year later, just before the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, it's hard to believe that we issued a volume that was titled: Towards Mutual Security. That was the vision, the dream, the wrong dream, as we now know, with interesting contributions from a number of Russian authors, intellectuals, people from the Russian Academy of Sciences, current and former Russian senior officials, etc.

So, absolutely, my answer to your question is that my view of my Russian interlocutors, guests, speakers, participants in Munich has changed, unfortunately, rather dramatically, has had to change rather dramatically over the last few years.

RFE/RL: I would like to ask also about Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, because unlike Medvedev, who wasn't a trained diplomat, Lavrov, like yourself, was a trained diplomat, and was considered by even his opponents to be a widely respected, canny operator. Is that what you see today?

Ischinger: I have to say, I'm totally frustrated and disappointed. Because...I've known Sergei Lavrov since the early or mid-1990s, 30 years. I first met [him] when he was the Russian permanent representative at the United Nations in New York. And he impressed me very much in those days, when we had to resolve the Bosnian and the Kosovo [wars.] He impressed with the fact that he was the only permanent representative of major countries who knew the rules of procedure of the UN Security Council by heart; he didn't even have to look it up. He was really up to it. Very smart, highly qualified, very quick, highly respected by all his peers.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

I am absolutely deeply frustrated, because I've seen him many times, worked with him on various things. I cannot believe that a man who is [from] my generation, [who is] way beyond retirement age...[has allowed] himself to be -- it's really a shame -- to be the mouthpiece of a murderous policy.

And I cannot believe that Sergei Lavrov is not, of course, fully aware. He is so smart and so intelligent and so experienced that he knows that most of the things that he's said, that he has had to say, for the last, not only for the last year, but even before, is blatant lying. How is that possible? So, I'm deeply, deeply, deeply disappointed and frustrated.

RFE/RL: The Russians weren't here this year. And let me ask you, do you see them being allowed back at the Munich Security Conference? As long as President Putin stays in power.

Ischinger: Well, I think the best answer I can give to this is that it depends on what's going to happen. Well, let me again be very clear. If -- and I don't think that's a great likelihood -- but if at some point going forward, there will be a process of serious negotiations, serious meaning not pro forma negotiations, but serious negotiations. In such a framework, I would see no reason why the Munich Security Conference audience would not have a great interest in understanding exactly what the Russian position and [what their] negotiating framework would be.

So, I think it depends on what's going to happen over the next period. If, as long as this war of aggression continues without any sign of Russia being willing to end this war by withdrawing their forces from a foreign country, it's difficult for me to see that we would reengage with Russia in these circumstances.

RFE/RL: Let me ask you about the Zeitenwende as well. (The so-called "turning point" speech given to the German federal parliament by Chancellor Olaf Scholz shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The speech was seen as heralding a change for Germany's previously cautious foreign policy, with Scholz announcing a huge increase in military spending.) And also, if I might ask for a short and blunt answer: Would that speech have happened had Ukraine surrendered in three days, as many predicted it would?

Ischinger: No.

RFE/RL: And now that this change has happened, is it here to stay? Or is it just to weather the storm and then we will see?

Ischinger: I think you ask a very important question. I would say that there are forces, there are elements in the German discussion that would like this drama to be a nonpermanent event and [then], hopefully, conditions will change quickly and we could then go back to the status quo ante.

Personally -- and I think most of the serious observers and participants in Germany -- look at this in a different way. I happen to believe that what happened a year ago with the beginning of this full-scale war -- I always insist that, of course, the war started much earlier -- but the beginning of the full-scale war, the open war, that was a year ago, and I think that actually initiated and provoked a change in a number of rather fundamental elements of traditional post-World War II German foreign policy, which are there to stay.

So, I think this is the beginning of a long-term revision process of reevaluating important elements of German foreign policy, including, for example, a long-standing conviction that Germany should never export arms to an area of conflict. Sounds nice, [but] makes no sense if a neighboring country of the European Union is being assaulted in the way that we've seen it happen.

RFE/RL: On that, I remember a quote of yours, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, if I'm not mistaken, when you said that the Ukraine war had thrown the German policy up the chimney, or out of the window, whichever it was. Could the same be argued about former Chancellor Merkel's political legacy when it comes to dealing with Russia?

Ischinger: Well, not really, or let me put it this way: Yes and no. I would give a lot of credit to Chancellor Merkel for having demonstrated a huge amount of patient insistence in her dealings with Putin. She knew, certainly after the annexation of Crimea beginning in 2014, she knew extremely well that [Putin] was not telling her the truth anymore. And many of us men would at that moment probably have said: "I'm not going to talk to this guy anymore, because he's constantly lying to me."

[Angela Merkel] bought time, and I think we should give credit to her and to the Minsk effort at the time.

She did the exact opposite. She knew he was not telling her the truth, but she went back again and again, trying to think of Putin as potentially an intelligent and rational person and that it might be possible to draw him back into nonviolent behavior, into a more rational relationship between Russia and the West.

I give her a lot of credit for that. And I would also say that if she had not made such a huge personal effort in the context of the "Minsk discussions" in February 2015 (on stopping the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, mediated by France and Germany) was at least possible -- she made it possible by talking for I don't know how many hours it was overnight with Putin -- to stop the Russian advance. And my own conviction, having spent time in Ukraine in 2014, [is that] I believe that if the Russian advance had not been stopped there, God knows how far they could have advanced because the Ukrainian military at that time was in bad shape.

RFE/RL: So, she essentially bought time?

Ischinger: She bought time, and I think we should give credit to her and to the Minsk effort at the time. Time was bought, and time was used then to reequip, to upgrade the [military] equipment, the training, etc. of Ukrainian forces, not by us, but by the Americans and the British, etc. So, I don't think that Angela Merkel deserves to be singled out, or her policy does not deserve to be judged wrong, totally.

But, of course, important elements of Angela Merkel's and of the German approach to the security issues confronting our continent have turned out to be erroneous, have turned out to be based more on hope than on the facts. And that is why the Zeitenwende announced a year ago by her successor requires more fundamental changes in German foreign policy than the foreign policy of most of our partners.

RFE/RL: However the war in Ukraine ends, do you see, at some point, normalization of relations with Russia? To use former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's argument that "Europe cannot afford losing Russia," maybe it will be some sort of "change through trade" policy 2.0? Or maybe, on the opposite end of the spectrum, we'll be seeing a Russian edition of "never again"? ("Never again" was a phrase common in German postwar politics that referred to both the Holocaust and fascism in general.)

Ischinger: It's very difficult for me to make an intelligent assessment of where we will be in one, three, four, or five years going forward. I will not exclude, depending on what's going to happen in Russia, I will not exclude that this is the beginning of a rather lengthy process of alienation and of enormous difficulty, in terms of rebuilding a relationship between Russia and the West. I do not personally subscribe to the theory that the only thing that needs to happen is that Putin goes. I think this is a larger issue.

RFE/RL: The system?

Ischinger: There's a systemic issue. I'm not a Russia expert, but what I've seen, especially over the last months, in terms of what the Russian population is exposed to every day, in terms of the television programs, etc., this is so totally poisonous. And this is, of course, only one element. So, I think this is a more fundamental systemic issue. And this is why I would be skeptical of the claim that all we need is for Putin to lose the 2024 elections and the new president to come in and then everything will be good. I think this is probably unfulfilable.

So, I look at this as more [of a] long-term process. This, of course, also means that for us in Western Europe, and for our friends in Ukraine, the defense effort, the political, military effort, needs to be considered not [just] a 2023 effort, but a 2023, 2024, 2025 effort, a longer-term effort, if we want to make sure that [these] kinds of aggressive military activities do not repeat themselves.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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