German Foreign Minister Warns Against More Russia Sanctions

Frank-Walter Steinmeier argues it is not in Europe’s interest to bring Russia to its knees.

German chancellor Angela Merkel talks with her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and other colleagues in Berlin, December 17, 2013
German chancellor Angela Merkel talks with her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and other colleagues in Berlin, December 17, 2013 (Bundesregierung)

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warned against imposing more sanctions on Russia in an interview that was published on Friday, saying bringing Russia to its knees would not make Europe safer.

“I can only warn against it,” Steinmeier told Der Spiegel.

The diplomat pointed out that Russia is already paying the price for invading Ukraine in the form of falling oil prices and a collapsing currency. He argued, “It cannot be in our interest that this spirals out of control.”

Earlier in the week, German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose conservatives are the senior partners in the ruling coalition with Steinmeier’s Social Democratic Party, insisted the sanctions would not be weakened.

Speaking to lawmakers in Berlin ahead of a meeting with other European leaders in Brussels, Merkel said the territorial integrity of Ukraine had to be restored. “As long as this goal is not achieved, the sanctions will stay,” she said.

European Union leaders agreed on Friday to keep existing sanctions in place and said they were ready to “stay the course” if Russia did not pull back from Ukraine.

European countries imposed economic and financial sanctions after Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March. They strengthened the embargo after separatists fighting in the southeast of Ukraine with Russian weapons shot down a commercial airliner with hundreds of European passengers on board.

The punitive measures have contributed to the Russian ruble losing more than half its value against the American dollar since the start of the year.

Oil prices have also dropped far below the $100 per barrel Russia needs in order to balance its budget. The Russian central bank expects the economy will contract between 4.5 and 4.7 percent next year if oil stays below $60.

Whereas the otherwise cautious Merkel has emerged as a key nemesis of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s policy in Eastern Europe, the Social Democrats have traditionally been more Russia-friendly. Their former leader, Gerhard Schröder, once famously described Putin as a “flawless democrat” and chairs the company that operates the submarine Nord Stream pipeline that delivers Russian natural gas to Germany.

The cooling in German-Russian relations preceded the crisis in Ukraine.

Last year, Merkel lashed out at Russia’s treatment of nongovernmental organizations, some of which were banned in the country, saying economic progress could only happen “most successfully when there is an active civil society.”

It wasn’t until large street protests in Kiev forced Ukraine’s relatively pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, to resign in February, after he had unexpectedly pulled out of an association agreement with the European Union, that Germany took a more active role. However, its attempts at mediating between the Ukrainian government and the opposition bore little fruit.

German gets roughly a third of its natural gas from Russia while German exports to the country were worth €36 billion last year. Lobbyists claim up to 300,000 German jobs depend on the trade.