Ceremonial head of state’s mea culpa reflects the shock Putin’s war on Ukraine has had on the ‘old ways of thinking’
There must be no peace with Russia as long as Russian troops remain within Ukraine’s borders, Germany’s president said on Friday, in an impassioned state of the nation speech about Berlin’s foreign policy.
“In the face of evil, goodwill is not enough,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s ceremonial head of state, said in a public address outlining his country’s place in the world.
Germany was facing its “deepest crisis” since reunification, he said: “Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine has reduced the European security order to ashes.”
Steinmeier spoke shortly after returning from Kyiv — his first visit to Ukraine since the war began in February. At one point during the trip he was forced to shelter because of a Russian air raid.
The speech underlines the shock Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has inflicted on decades of German foreign policy. Twice German foreign minister — including during Russia’s 2013 invasion of Crimea — Steinmeier was for years one of Europe’s most vocal proponents of compromise with Moscow.
“When we look at today’s Russia, there is no place for old dreams,” he said, speaking from his official residence, the Bellevue Palace.
The invasion “marked the definitive, bitter failure of years of political efforts, including my efforts”, he added.
Russia’s war was “despicable and cynical, lacking regard for human life”, he told an audience of dignitaries and young Germans that included Ukraine’s ambassador. The speech was broadcast live on Germany’s main television channel.
“A supposed peace that rewards acts like this, a peace that seals Putin’s land grabs, is no peace,” he continued, urging his fellow Germans — many of whom are deeply pacifist as a result of their country’s own bloody history — to face up to an “epochal shift” under way in Europe.
Settling with Putin “would mean a rule of terror for many people in Ukraine [and] would leave them at the mercy of their Russian occupiers’ arbitrary violence”, he said.
“Worse yet — a sham peace like this would only increase Putin’s hunger. Moldova and Georgia, as well as our Nato partners in the Baltic, live in fear . . . An unjust peace is no peace — it carries the seed of new wars within it.”
The 66-year-old president has been criticised by the Ukrainian government for his equivocation towards Moscow. In April he pulled out of a trip to Ukraine with fellow European presidents after Kyiv made clear he was not welcome — a snub that temporarily soured relations between Kyiv and Berlin and led to chancellor Olaf Scholz cancelling his own trip. Scholz eventually went to Kyiv in June.
“We must cast off old ways of thinking and our old hopes,” Steinmeier said on Friday. “We are not living in an ideal world. We are living in conflict.”
He also addressed the thorny issue of Germany’s military contribution towards Kyiv — which he described as “life-saving” — and said Germans needed to become more comfortable with being a military power in the future.
“For a long time we were able to rely on others . . . but now others must also be able to rely on us,” he said. “This society needs strong armed forces. And the armed forces need a society that supports them.”