For the first 12 years of Angela Merkel’s tenure as chancellor, from 2005 to 2017, Christoph Heusgen was her top security and foreign affairs adviser. A diplomat by trade, Heusgen then graduated to the role of Germany’s UN ambassador in 2017 for a four-year stint.
This year, he will take over as chairman of the Munich Security Conference, replacing Wolfgang Ischinger.
DW spoke with Heusgen about Germany’s role in helping facilitate a solution to the current standoff at the Ukraine border, as well a number of pressing global security issues one month ahead of the event.
DW’s Michaela Küfner began her interview with Heusgen by asking if he thought Europe was on the eve of war: “I lived through the period of 2013-15, of Russian aggression, its invasion of Ukraine. So when you look at the situation today, you remember what happened eight years ago. And therefore, I do see that there is a danger of Russia invading again.”
Heusgen noted the speed with which the international community came together in the face of Russian aggression back then and underscored the effectiveness of international sanctions in tempering Moscow’s actions. Yet, he said this time Germany and its allies were more prepared.
“What we want this time, is to have this very strong, massive reaction on full display, so to speak, so that Russia knows exactly what will happen if they actually take the steps Putin indicated they are ready to take,” he said, referring to the Russian president.
The diplomat said the message should not be lost on Russia: “This demonstrates that there is unity in the German government, there is unity in Europe, there is unity with the US.” This is a shift from the past four years of US foreign policy, in which Western allies had difficulty deciphering jumbled messaging out of Washington, not knowing whether the traditional ally could be counted upon.
Europeans happy US is engaged again
Here, too, Heusgen underscored the importance of this return to predictability. “We’re very happy with the way our American friends are coordinating this, how it’s coordinated in NATO, we had the OSCE meeting. There is a strong reaction, and that is very important. What is happening is very impressive,” he said.
“What is important is nevertheless that we keep the US engaged in foreign policy as an important partner. And I see that happening with the Biden administration,” Heusgen said. “In the Ukraine crisis, you could see how much they reached out to Europeans, how much they tried to coordinate the action. And that is something positive. And the Munich Security Conference will be a reflection of this positive development that I have seen during these last weeks.”
Pressed by DW as to whether this newfound unity has already paid dividends, Heusgen replied: “Well, so far, Russia has not invaded. Actually, you heard the foreign minister of Russia saying last week: ‘Well, there is no talk about invading.’ So I think the Russians are impressed by how united the front is in confronting their very aggressive tone.”
What role does Germany play in Ukraine?
Having served as a top security adviser to former Chancellor Angela Merkel for more than a decade, Heusgen is clear: “Germany plays a very important role. We already did last time around, when, after Russia invaded Ukraine, it was Chancellor Merkel, together with [French former] President Hollande who got [Ukraine’s former] President Poroshenko and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to the table. We seeded the Minsk agreement, we stopped the aggression.”
Referring to the situation facing Germany’s current government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Heusgen said: “The German chancellor has actually said that all options are on the table, including the options of Nord Stream 2 [gas pipeline]. And this is very, very important that we clearly tell the Russians that, you know, there’s nothing off the table when they actually take the step and invade Ukraine again.”
Asked about his interpretation of Russia’s goals, Heusgen said he believed President Putin was afraid that the discontent of people in other post-Soviet countries such as Belarus or Kazakhstan could spill over into Russia, and that he was trying to “keep his people happy” with a “very nationalist course.”
A diplomat, Heusgen also noted the importance of offering Putin a “face-saving path” out of the confrontation he has sought with the West.
“For him, of course, to see Ukraine as a country that has now turned democratic, where you have democratic institutions, you had a democratic election, a change of president, and the country is better off than it was before. Of course, this is something he is afraid of,” he said. Thus, he added, Putin is trying to destabilize the EU and neighboring countries, “because he doesn’t want to see our model succeed.”
What does Germany stand for?
DW also asked Heusgen about Germany’s role regarding the ongoing Ukraine conflict and on the broader world diplomatic stage.
“Germany plays a very important role in the question of the Ukraine conflict. Germany overall has assumed a more active role in world politics, and people are asking for it. You mentioned that I was ambassador at the United Nations, and I realized there that, you know, for Germany, as the [world’s] fourth largest GDP, there are lots of expectations, we play an important role,” he said.
In the bigger picture, Heusgen said the question is, “What does Germany stand for?” And his answer is clear: “We defend a rules-based international order.”
The diplomat added: “This is also our position toward conflicts we see with China. You know, we are insisting on implementing the rule of law. So it’s not that we stay with one side or the other, but we insist on the respect for international law, for the UN Charter, for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is our position.”
However, Heusgen also let a hint of realism shine through in his interview with DW. “One of the conclusions from our engagement in Afghanistan — and this also applies to Mali: I think it’s important that we are there to help stabilize. But what you need is a partner. You need a national government that is also committed to the rule of law. That is committed to building independent institutions. If a government is not ready to do that, then it doesn’t make sense to stay there and support that government militarily, because in the end, it will not succeed.”