The new German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, sought to reassure a nervous Ukraine that she will not allow Germany to compromise on the basic principles of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty when she meets the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow for the first time on Tuesday.
Baerbock, a member of the Green party, said on a visit to Kyiv she was ready for serious dialogue with Russia about mutual security, but was not willing to backtrack “on basic principles such as territorial inviolability, the free choice of alliances and the renunciation of the threat of violence”.
She said Moscow, which has massed troops on Ukraine’s borders, would suffer if it launched an attack. “Each further aggressive act will have a high price for Russia, economically, strategically, politically,” she told a news conference with her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. “Diplomacy is the only way.”
Her visit is being watched warily by European, UK and US administrations for signs that Germany may revert to its traditional role of seeking independent dialogue with Russia in preference to firmness.
Baerbock is seen as part of younger generation of German politicians strongly committed to projecting human rights in foreign policy and determined to take Germany away from its historic willingness to compromise with Moscow, but the SPD-led German chancellery is thought less inclined to break with the policy of the former German chancellor Angela Merkel. It will be deeply frustrating for some other western states if Germany continues to act as a drag anchor as Europe and the US have been making strenuous efforts to present a united front inside Nato.
Her visit comes after three high-level diplomatic meetings last week ended with Russian troops still on Ukraine’s borders, but no definitive sign whether Putin would risk a military incursion or instead start talks with the US about arms control in Europe, a more limited agenda than his call for a redrawing of the security architecture of Europe.
Parts of the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk have been controlled by pro-Russian separatists since 2014. Despite the Minsk peace plan negotiated under Franco-German mediation, the conflict continues and the terms for elections in the regions are disputed.
Baerbock said in Kyiv she would explore in Moscow if there could be a return to the four-way Normandy format negotiations with Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France that have been on hold for a long time. There has been talk the US may join the talks to restore some energy into them.
“I want to find out on the ground whether there is a willingness to find solutions through diplomatic channels – above all, to breathe life into the Normandy process again and finally make progress in implementing the Minsk agreements,” she said.
“The most effective lever we have to back Ukraine is the unanimous commitment of the EU, the G7 and Nato that any further aggression would come at a high price for the Russian regime […] And we mean that very seriously,” she said.
“No country has the right to dictate to other countries which direction they may take, which relationships they may have and which alliances they may enter into. Ukraine’s sovereignty can and will never be subject of negotiations.”
She rejected calls for Germany to supply arms to Ukraine, citing a “historical responsibility” for Germany not to export weapons to conflict zones, but said Berlin was willing to provide technical expertise to help Ukraine defend itself from cyber-attack.
Andrij Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, said earlier in comments to the dpa press agency he found the ban “very frustrating and bitter […] the world is currently facing the greatest danger of a huge war in the middle of Europe, the worst since 1945.”
The debate in Europe on Russia and Ukraine is playing out on three levels: the continued political viability of the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Germany given Europe’s gas shortages; whether Germany should relax its ban on sending weapons to Ukraine; and finally, the extent of the economic sanctions that should be placed on Russia if it did invade Ukraine.
Baerbock is aware that Joe Biden last week fought off a Republican attempt in the Senate to slap sanctions back on Nord Stream 2, which bypasses Ukraine, largely because he wanted to stay in harness with Germany. If there is no reciprocation from Germany, the Biden team will have to review its strategy.
The pipeline is complete but cannot be used since German and EU regulators have yet to decide if it breaches either German or EU competition laws. The delay allows the German coalition government to avoid an internal split on the issue, but it is clear the SPD want it to go ahead while the Greens, who are in charge of the foreign and climate change ministries, do not.
Yuriy Vitrenko, the head of the Ukrainian energy company Naftogaz, has claimed Germany would have economic advantages if Nord Stream 2 made it the most important distribution point for Russian gas but the whole point of the pipeline was for Putin to punish Ukraine for choosing Europe over Moscow. “After we signed the Association Agreement with the EU, Russia decided to build Nord Stream 2. So that we lose revenue from gas transportation. If Germany benefits economically from Russia’s punishment of Ukraine – do you call that fair?” he asked.
The claim by the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, that the project is purely commercial is not shared in Poland, France or the UK.
Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, said Europe needed to be less dependent on Russian energy. “Our economies must not depend on the geopolitical considerations of Russia, Ukraine or other parts of the world,” he said.
Baerbock, who at one point referred to the Russian regime, as opposed to the government, in her Kyiv press conference also repeated a German offer to help Ukraine develop hydrogen technology as an alternative to gas.