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Henry M. Robert

On historical responsibility and mistakes

Ernst Reichel is sure that Germany will not change its attitude to Ukraine after the parliamentary elections
7 September, 2017 - 11:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

Ambassador Ernst REICHEL is the first head of Germany’s diplomatic mission to Ukraine, who communicated with participants in the 15th Den’s Summer School of Journalism.

The dialog was interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Germany is the strongest economy in the European Union. Secondly, the country is a participant in the Normandy format which aims to settle the Donbas conflict. Thirdly, Germany is holding parliamentary elections in late September, where polls suggest the current Chancellor Angela Merkel may win and form the cabinet for a fourth time.


Ernst REICHEL: “Let’s start with the upcoming elections in Germany. The first thing I want to say is that in the past few years there has been a lot of volatility in Western societies in the way voters expressed their political will. The expected election results have changed dramatically sometimes in a very short period of time. You can see this in the United States, Austria, and the Netherlands. In parallel with this volatility trend we also had a tendency towards populism and, in some cases, extremism in the electorate.

“The pendulum seems to be swinging back from more extreme to mainstream political positions. In Germany, what we are seeing in the polls is that the right-wing populist party Alternative fuer Deutschland, which was at a certain point between 13 percent and 15 percent is now back to roughly 8 percent.

“The polls in Germany have been very stable for quite some time. They indicate roughly that the outcome of the next elections is likely to be similar to that of the last elections.

“We are likely to have more parties in parliament. There are four parties in the Bundestag now: the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and the Left Party. We are likely to have six parties in parliament, according to the polls. It looks like two more parties will enter the new parliament: the Liberal Party, a very traditional German party that dropped out from parliament last time, failing to gain 5 percent (now, according to the polls, they are at 7-8 percent), and the Alternative fuer Deutschland.

“In Germany, as usual, we will need a coalition government. No party wants to enter into any kind of coalition with Alternative fuer Deutschland, and the chances of the Left Party are also limited.

“Therefore, there is a possibility of a ‘grand coalition’ between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals is also a possibility. But the question is whether they will have enough votes in parliament to have a two-party coalition.

“There is also a hypothetical possibility of a Christian Democrat and Green coalition – something that has never existed before, but nowadays the Green Party has become much more mainstream and established in the way they look at politics.”

Mykola SIRUK: “What does all this mean for Ukraine?”

E.R.: “I am very confident that Ukraine doesn’t have to worry about the German elections. The chances are very high that Angela Merkel will return back into office. Also if she doesn’t, there is a broad foreign policy consensus in Germany, especially in regard to Russia and Ukraine.

“Out of the six likely parties in our parliament, we will have a far right and a far left party that are taking a pro-Russian position. All the rest agree on the foreign policy in regard to Russia and Ukraine. So if the two extremes win 8 percent of the votes, it means that the remaining 84 percent of the votes will reach a foreign policy consensus and the possible coalitions are also very likely to pursue the same policy as the current government does.”


Oleksandr SAVCHENKO, Senior Lieutenant in the Armed Forces of Ukraine: “The official bilateral documents signed by Ukraine and the EU have no provision that would promise Ukraine EU membership if it meets all the criteria. Some experts claim that Germany opposes this provision in bilateral documents. Would you comment on this?”

E.R.: “First of all, Article 49 of the EU Treaty contains a general perspective for every European country to become member of the European Union. Besides, it has always been the EU’s good practice to take a step by step approach.

“First the Association Agreement was signed and has provisionally been in force and has finally entered into full force in September. Besides, the EU has decided on visa liberalization with Ukraine.

“And I expect the EU to continue down this path. Now Ukraine has to be patient and ambitious. The association agreement needs to be fully implemented by Ukraine. That is still an outstanding task for Ukraine. Ukraine needs to focus on the implementation of the reached agreement and then consider the next steps.

“Besides, the attitude in the EU about enlargement is very cautious, not very favorable. It has something to do with the refugee crisis.”

M.S.: “There is a Ukrainian saying: ‘Who knocks on the door will have it opened to them.’”

E.R.: “Yes. But there are cases when there is too much knocking at the moment where you are likely to get a negative answer. In this case a negative answer may harm both sides. Whereas if you wait a little bit for circumstances to get better, your chances of receiving a positive answer are significantly higher.” 


Liubov RYBALKO, Odesa Ilia Mechnikov National University: “There is a group of people in Germany known as Russlandversteher (translated as ‘those who understand Russia’). One of them is the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Now that Russia has attacked Ukraine, have the members of this group changed their opinion about Russia? How would you explain this phenomenon?”

E.R.: “I think some people have changed their opinion and some have not. I spoke about the far right and left parties that are likely to get into parliament. These people can be considered as Russlandverstehers, if you like. There are also individuals in other parties who think differently about Russia and Ukraine.

“Most of the people you could consider as Russlandverstehers live in a world where the Soviet Union still exists. They have not fully understood that Ukraine is an independent country with its own rights. They believe that somehow Russia has a traditional right to determine what is going on in Ukraine and that the West, like in the days of the Cold War, should be very careful not to oppose Russia on matters that pertain to the territories of the former Soviet Union.

“But this position is shared by a minority in Germany because the events that began in 2013 have made it obvious to many people in Germany that Russia cannot expect to be taken as a strategic partner, as it was at least partly considered before. There have been grave breaches of international law by Russia. This has considerably changed the opinions of people in Germany.”


Oksana SKILSKA, Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv: “There was recently a debate in the Bundestag on the historical responsibility of Germany before Ukraine. A well-known US historian, Timothy Snyder, took part in the discussion. In his speech he explained why Germany must feel responsibility before Ukraine, not only before Russia. As is known, Russia is stealing all the achievements of the Soviet era. Is Germany aware of this and does it feel responsibility before Ukraine?” 

E.R.: “Our German discussion about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed during World War II is based on a historical situation in which the crime of aggression was committed by Germany against the Soviet Union.

“Now that we have a different historical situation that includes an independent Ukraine, I agree that it is important that we in Germany realize that responsibility does not end with Russia. We bear responsibility before all former Soviet Republics, and Ukraine, if you look at it in per capita terms, has suffered the most, alongside with Belarus.

“It is right to focus more on this and I am glad to see that this is getting a lot of attention. I think Timothy Snyder is an excellent historian who deserves every attention he can get.”


Anton SESTRITSYN, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada: “In 1994 Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security guarantees. In 2008 Ukraine was denied the Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO Summit in Bucharest because of active lobbying by Germany and France. Since then Russia has occupied a part of Georgia, annexed Crimea, and started war in eastern Ukraine. Looking back, is Germany aware of the mistake it made in 2008?” 

E.R.: “Whether or not the decision back in 2008 was a mistake depends on a hypothetical consideration: what would have happened if Ukraine had received the MAP in 2008?

“I do remember that situation quite well. In those times Russia signaled clearly that granting the MAP or eventually the NATO membership would mean to cross a ‘red line’ and would cause severe consequences.

“This was a very difficult decision to make. It may be too simple to say that Germany made a mistake. Imagine that the MAP had been granted to Ukraine in 2008, and Russian consequences had followed. In such a situation, granting MAP could have been considered a severe mistake by Germany. One has to understand that the situation back in 2008 was different than it is today. We didn’t have the same experiences with Russia which we have today.

“If you speak about the present I can understand that Ukraine has put this question [receiving the MAP. – Ed.] back on the table. It will be up to NATO member states to think about that. What will play an important role in this case is whether Ukraine accepts NATO standards and organizational principles, which it has promised. But in this case, too, Ukraine must follow a long path of reforms. The common position of NATO member states is that this is what Ukraine should focus on.” 

A.S.: “During a press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, President Poroshenko announced that Ukraine had started a discussion on acquiring the MAP. According to Ukraine’s President, NATO took this very seriously. What do you think of this? Is it a timely discussion?”

E.R.: “As the NATO Secretary General has repeatedly said, it is up to both sides to determine whether Ukraine receives the MAP, that is, Ukraine and the NATO allies.

“I can’t give you at this point any specifics on what NATO considerations are. One thing I can say is that like the EU, NATO has a set of expectations towards Ukraine before it grants status change. The President has adopted the so-called Strategic Defense Bulletin which contains the obligations Ukraine is taking on to reform its security apparatus. One of them is establishing civilian control over the military. There are also a lot of other tasks that lie before Ukraine, which, if you take into consideration the internal political situation, will be not so easy to fulfill. Before one can speak seriously about what NATO is willing to grant Ukraine, Ukraine needs to follow up on the commitments it has taken upon itself.”


Vitalii KUDYRKO, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv: “Not so long ago the US Senate proposed an additional package of sanctions against Russia. However, Germany and Austria expressed their discontent with this proposal. Why does Germany think that sanctions should not be increased? Are there other methods to make Russia change its aggressive policies?”

E.R.: “Germany fully supports the sanctions which we have all agreed on together with the other Western nations. It has always been important that the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans remain committed to sanctions and united in their solidarity.

“But what the US Senate has done is a unilateral decision which was not agreed upon with other US allies beforehand. This raises serious questions about the cohesion of the Western alliance vis-a-vis Russia.

“Now we have two things here. Number one, what the Senate foresees is that firms located in third countries, which should not fall under US law, will be punished if they fail to apply the US-imposed sanctions. This is a case of extraterritorial application of sanctions and this is something that infringes on our sovereignty. Firms that reside in Germany, for instance, and do business from Germany, fall under German, not American, legislation.

“The other aspect concerns the burden sharing within the sanctions system. This was highlighted in the criticism. The bill passed by the Senate states explicitly that one of the goals of this legislation is to promote the sales of US gas to Europe. In other words, the US is trying to promote their trade interests by means of sanctions imposed on German and other European companies. That is of course not acceptable for Europe.”

Marina LIBERT, Free University of Brussels: “Germany is pushing very hard to get the green light from the EU for the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would make Berlin a major gas dealer in Europe and at the same time deprive the Ukrainian budget of 2 billion dollars from the transit of Russian gas. Is the German leadership aware of the danger of dependence on Russian gas? Will Germany and the EU compensate Ukraine for potential losses?”

E.R.: “The first thing to say is that, despite a widespread perception, Nord Stream 2 is not only a German project. There is also a big French company and a big Austrian company involved. It is sort of an informational shortcut: people think that if the pipeline ends in Germany, it is therefore a German government project.

“The truth is that this is a private project by private German companies. We happen to live in a free market society, which means that in principle private companies can carry out private economic projects and are entitled to receive a license they need, unless there are very compelling arguments against this license to be granted.

“The overarching principle is freedom of commercial activity. What the Ukrainian discussion on this topic suggests is that because Ukraine may lose gas transit income, the German government should forbid a German company to pursue a certain commercial activity.”


M.S.: “Poland is also actively opposing this project.”

E.R.: “Yes, there are also other countries that are against this project and could in some cases lose financially if the project were approved. This issue is subject to European Union law. The EU has studied carefully whether there is anything in the European law that stands in the way of this project. The result is that it does not contradict European Union law.

“At the same time, we understand very well what gas transit means for Ukraine, and if the Nord Stream 2 project is implemented. We have always said that we would have to make sure that transit through Ukraine is maintained. There are various ways of how this can be addressed.

“One thing is absolutely clear: we have no interest in destabilizing Ukraine or creating additional difficulties for your country.” 

Ilona LOZHENKO, Kyiv National Karpenko-Kary University of Theater, Cinema and Television: “What is your position about the fact that the German company Siemens has supplied Russia with gas turbines which were then relocated to the occupied Crimea? Putin has publicly promised Crimea energy independence from Ukraine. But it is common knowledge that Russia has no technological equipment to make this happen. Although knowing this, Siemens handed over the equipment to Russia. Is the German government going to make sure in the future that all German companies observe the sanctions regime?” 

E.R.: “As you know, the contract between Siemens and the Russian firm says that the turbines are to be delivered to Russia, not to Crimea. If it is true that the turbines were brought to Crimea by the Russian firm, it is a clear breach of the contract by that very firm.

“According to my information, the contract says that it is forbidden for the Russian firm to transport the turbines to Crimea. If that’s the case, then it is not Siemens but the Russian firm that violated the sanctions.

“I think the question has to be put differently: ‘Could Siemens have known that the Russians would violate the contract?’ As far as I know, this has never occurred in business relations with Russia before.”


Khrystyna SHKRIABINA, Odesa Ilia Mechnikov National University: “In an interview with Radio Liberty you said that if elections on the uncontrolled territories of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts were held in accordance with OSCE norms, these territories could acquire special status. What does ‘special status’ mean? Do you think it is possible to organize legitimate elections in the uncontrolled areas of Ukraine?”

E.R.: “The provision that there should be a special status is contained in the Minsk Agreements. What this entails in particular has not yet been fully agreed. But one thing is clear: the Minsk Agreements speak of local, not regional, elections. This indicates that federalization of Ukraine is not on the agenda.

“As for the local elections in the Donbas, what I have always said is that what matters is adherence to OSCE standards. This is clearly stated in the Minsk Agreements. What counts is free expression of the will of voters, the ability of all candidates to campaign freely, the ability of all voters to be informed freely and objectively. The entire set of OSCE election standards has to be applied to the Donbas local elections. It has not yet been decided in what way this should be achieved.” 

Natalia SANDAKOVA, Odesa Ilia Mechnikov National University: “One of the Deutsche Welle articles says: ‘Germany has become a world champion in recycling.’ How can your experience help Ukraine?”

E.R.: “I can see you have done a lot of research. Of course, I am not an expert on recycling. A part of the answer is that we have experience, ironically, from socialist days.

“In the GDR some raw materials were very scarce, so they created a system of collecting garbage and filtering out those elements, which they needed. Metals for instance. Besides, raw materials in Germany are fairly expensive, so recycling is a good business. In a place where raw materials are cheap they are more likely to be wasted.”


Karina KHACHATARIAN, Sumy State University: “We have already heard from other ambassadors that Europeans know little about Ukraine. How do Germans perceive Ukraine? What can Ukraine do to better present itself abroad?”

E.R.: “I think my colleagues are right. Little is known about Ukraine and what is known is not always favorable. What is known is only a part of reality but not the entire picture. Many people in the West associate Ukraine with corruption and oligarchs. It exists, but this is not all that Ukraine is about .

“The job of popularizing Ukraine and presenting a fair picture of your country lies mainly with Ukraine. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine has made a decision to open the Ukrainian Institute in Germany. This is a good initiative.

“It is unfortunate that the foreign media mostly talk about Ukraine in the context of war. For instance, if an investor thinks about where to invest, they may come to the conclusion that Ukraine is where the war is, and it might be better to invest elsewhere .

“Ukraine has much more to offer than corruption, war, and oligarchs. This is something that Ukraine has to convey and explain abroad. People like me can contribute to that. I also think that visa liberalization will help project a truer and more balanced image of Ukraine abroad.”


M.S.: “As is known, German investors have set up a number of factories in the Transcarpathian region, which produce components for German cars. Does this mean that German businesses are not afraid of war? What are the obstacles to having more investments from Germany?”

E.R.: “Thank you for the question. It is very important. It is true that there are some German investments in the Transcarpathian region. They are so far not as significant as they could be. We can see a certain economic growth, but Ukraine still remains far below its potential.

“The main obstacle to foreign investment here in Ukraine is lack of the security of investment. If you have ‘raider attacks,’ if you have lack of protection by the security organs in the country, if you don’t have fair access to courts, then investors will hesitate to invest.

“I think the cornerstone of future reform is the creation of an adequate judicial system and independent investigative prosecutorial organs, which go after large-scale corruption and crime. The people who work against corruption and publicly disclose shortcomings need to be protected. This is something my colleagues and I as well as the entire international community vigorously keep arguing for. But it is obvious that there will be resistance against certain reforms.”

Maria NYTKA, Ivan Franko National University of Lviv: “Are you familiar with Ukrainian literature and art? Do you have any favorite authors or painters?”

E.R.: “I do not know as much about Ukrainian art and literature as I would like to, but I am trying to broaden my knowledge. I always enjoyed Ukrainian visual art. I enjoy contemporary writers.

“For instance, to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations, I invited Serhii Zhadan to speak at our event. I enjoy very much what he writes. I like him because he is a politically active and modern-day person who often participates in social debates. And sometimes I disagree with him, but this does not affect my positive impression. Serhii speaks excellent German and he is well known in Germany.”


Bohdana KAPITSA, National University of Ostroh Academy: “What media sources do you read to follow the situation in Ukraine? Which ones do you trust the most?”

E.R.: “As ambassador here, I am in a very fortunate situation because I have people who work for me who compose the news for me from all available sources. We try to distill the most important news to get a full picture.

“I wouldn’t like to be impolite, but, in my view there is little journalism in Ukraine which I would trust completely. If you allow, I would like to give you some advice for your future careers from a consumer’s point of view.

“Number one, check your facts. It is difficult in the age of the Internet and we are always pressed for time, but it is very bad when journalists publish things that are not true. Or sometimes the facts are true but they do not present a full picture.

“The second thing, beware of so-called experts. This is not only the case in Ukraine. There seem to be few quality journalists but hundreds of experts. I wonder how these experts know all the things they claim to know.

“My last remark may be less obvious. Try to be fair. Things are always more complicated than you can write in any article. There are always important details that are missing in articles. This happens even to the best journalist and media channels. My appeal to future journalists is: try to be as fair as you can and take into account all aspects. Read the actual statement and not only the headline, and take a critical approach to information. When you come up with a headline, make it reflective of the actual statement.”

We remind our readers that the Den’s Summer School of Journalism was held with support from the NATO Information and Documentation Center in Ukraine.

By Anton SESTRITSYN, Den’s Summer School of Journalism 2017. Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day