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Baerbock: Russia's buildup 'hard not to take as a threat'

Darko Janjevic
January 18, 2022

While visiting Moscow, Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov Russia's deployment to the Ukraine border had "no understandable reason."

Germany s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock L and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov
Baerbock met Sergey Lavrov at her first official visit to MoscowImage: Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS/imago images

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock held talks with Russian colleague Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Tuesday, seeking to ease tensions amid fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.

Baerbock's first official trip to Russia comes just a day after talks in Kyiv about the crisis.

What did the ministers say about Ukraine?

At a joint press conference, Baerbock said that the Russian troops' buildup near Ukraine had "no understandable reason" and it was "hard not to take as threat."

"There will be no security in our joint European home if there are no rules everyone can rely on," said the Germany foreign minister.

"And we have no choice but to follow them, even if there is a high economic price," she added, in a reference to possible sanctions discussed by Western nations.

Russia currently has an estimated 100,000 troops stationed on its border with Ukraine. Moscow has also been demanding that NATO drastically scale back its military buildup in eastern Europe and wants to secure a pledge from the trans-Atlantic military alliance that it will never accept Ukraine as a member. But Russia denies seeking a pretext to invade Ukraine or planning an attack.

Lavrov seemed to strike a conciliatory tone at the Tuesday press conference, saying that the talks showed there was a possibility of slowly moving in a positive direction. He also decried the damage done by anti-Russian sentiment in Brussels and "the group of anti-Russian countries in the EU."

As expected, Baerbock called for "bringing new life" to the talks in the so-called Normandy format, which includes Ukraine, Germany, Russia and France. Her Russian colleague, however, said that German officials should pressure their partners in Kyiv to have Ukraine "finally fulfill the obligations they had taken on" in previous rounds of the now-stalled talks. Such obligations include implementing a special status for parts of the pro-Russia Donbass region and opening the door to local elections in the area.

Lavrov noted that he and Baerbock agree that there was no alternative to the 2014 Minsk agreements, but also said there "unacceptable attempts" to shift the blame on Russia for them not being implemented.

What about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and other issues?

Lavrov also urged a resolution to the standoff surrounding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is still under inquiry by a German regulatory body. 

"We addressed the attention of our German colleagues to the counter-productivity of attempts to politicize this project," he said.

"This is the biggest commercial project of the last decade, aimed at providing energy security for Germany and all of Europe," he said.

In turn, Baerbock said Berlin needs a "reliable Russia" in order to "supply Europe with gas in the coming years."

Somewhat surprisingly, Lavrov also mentioned the Balkans, where a pro-Russian Serb leader was recently sanctioned by the US.

"We and Germany both have a joint interest for the situation in the Balkans to develop according to a positive scenario," Lavrov said.

In Moscow, Baerbock directly referred to the case of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the shutdown of Russia's most influential NGO "Memorial." 

Later, Lavrov urged Berlin "not to discriminate" Russia's foreign broadcaster RT while answering a question about Germany refusing RT's broadcasting permit.

He also seemed to indicate this dispute might affect German media in Russia, nothing that "if it is necessary that we must take countermeasures, no matter how much we want to avoid it."

What did Baerbock say in Kyiv?

Baerbock had spent the previous days in Kyiv, where she said Germany would "do our all to guarantee Ukraine's security."

She also said any attack on Ukraine would come with a high price for the aggressor.

However, Berlin has been vague on the actual steps it was taking to help Ukraine. Unlike the United States and the UK, Germany has refused to supply the ex-Soviet state with defensive weapons. Baerbock, instead, has offered to boost Ukraine's cyber defenses.

Heading into the talks, Baerbock said that relations between Russia and the new government in Berlin are "also important to me, personally."

"There is no alternative to stable ties between Moscow and Berlin," she said.

On Tuesday, Russian Parliamentary Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin accused NATO of looking for a pretext to "occupy" Ukraine.

"It is perfectly obvious that Washington is attempting to justify its expansion and moving NATO troops towards Russian borders," he told Russian lawmakers.

Heading to Moscow, Baerbock said Berlin wanted stable diplomatic relations and was "ready for an honest dialogue over steps for more security for everyone in Europe."

"Our framework are the fundamental principles of our order of peace and security," she wrote on Twitter.

What is Berlin's stance on Russia?

Despite being new to her position, Baerbock has already shown herself willing to draw clear lines when it comes to Russia, including last month's expulsion of two Russian embassy employees. Baerbock declared the two personae non gratae over an assassination in a Berlin park, which a German court linked to the Russian state, and she decried the 2019 killing as "murder by state contract."

She also took a clear stance on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which connects Russia and Germany, saying that the pipeline should not be allowed to operate if the crisis in Ukraine escalates.

However, the government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems to be split on the issue. Last week, Germany's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said the project "should not be dragged into this conflict."

Ukraine opposes the pipeline because it would allow Russia to bypass its neighbor when exporting gas to buyers in western Europe, thus potentially reducing Kyiv's international significance and potentially depriving the impoverished country of transit fees.

But Germany is facing an energy crisis and rising electricity prices, putting Berlin under pressure to open the valves on Nord Stream 2. Many Western politicians accuse Russia of trying to weaponize energy supplies against the European Union, which Moscow and its state-controlled gas exporter Gazprom deny.

What is Moscow's perspective on Berlin's role?

Speaking from Moscow, DW correspondent Emily Sherwin said that the Russian side would be "listening closely" and trying to get a feel for Germany's new foreign minister.

From Moscow's perspective, however, "Germany and even Europe basically have nothing to do" with Russia demands on security, Sherwin said.

"Russia has demanded that the US and NATO issue a written response on its demands, so it seems that Russia is only willing to talk to the US when it comes to these security demands and in a way, Europe is on the sidelines watching," she added.

The US and NATO have made it clear that they are not willing to directly interfere into a military clash between Russia and Ukraine. Media reports indicate that the US and its European allies are now mulling sanctions against Russian banks in case of an attack on Ukraine, possibly cutting them off from the international SWIFT payment system. But such a move would also damage Western economies.

From the Russian perspective, "the West really has no leverage" on Moscow, said Sherwin, nothing that Russia has "become used to sanctions over the last few years."

Much the same view was expressed by DW correspondent Aaron Tilton.

"I think this was more a cordial, polite visit among neighbours than really one where Moscow was hoping to hammer out some kind of permanent deal regarding NATO and the Ukraine, because really at the end of the day they think that Joe Biden, the man in the White House, is really the person they should be talking to when it comes to NATO and NATO's expansion eastwards," he said.

Edited by: Rebecca Staudenmaier