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A man walks in front of a portrait of Vladimir Putin painted on a wall
Serbia is Russia's historical ally in the Balkans, as seen by this mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in BelgradeImage: Darko Vojinovic/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Heusgen: 'Russia is playing games all over the place'

Sabina Fati
November 29, 2022

As well as the war in Ukraine, Russia is using hybrid warfare in different countries to advance its interests, warns Christoph Heusgen, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, in a DW interview.


Christoph Heusgen, chair of the Munich Security Conference, has been in Romania for a two-day Munich Leaders Meeting. DW caught up with Heusgen, Germany's former ambassador to the United Nations, on the sidelines of the conference.

DW: In his opening speech at the Munich Leaders Meeting in Bucharest, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis pointed out that the Black Sea region has long been the main target for Russia's aggressive behavior. What should NATO do in the region from a military point of view, in order to discourage Russia?

Christoph Heusgen: The Romanian president is right. Over the last years, NATO hasn't concentrated enough on the Black Sea. We had all our eyes on the Baltic Sea, where we also see Russian aggression, but the Russian war against Ukraine has now put the Black Sea in the center of our attention. Yes, we have to be much more active in the region, but I think that it's a signal that we're having the NATO Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Bucharest, also the Munich Security Conference is hosting the Munich Leaders Meeting here for the first time. I think that the president's wish to draw more attention to the region is actually now being heard by partners.

DW Romania's correspondent Sabina Fati and Christoph Heusgen sit in a room doing an interview
DW Romania's correspondent Sabina Fati spoke with Christoph Heusgen in BucharestImage: Adelheid Feilcke/DW

Should Ukraine attempt to regain Crimea [which was annexed by Russia in 2014 — Editor's note]?

Crimea is clearly part of Ukraine, and Ukraine has every right to regain and reconquer its territory, so it's up to Ukraine to decide. Germany has tried very hard to resolve the challenges, which we had with Russia during its first invasion in 2014 and 2015, by diplomatic means. We tried with the Minsk agreement to get to a diplomatic solution. Now Russia has sidelined all these efforts — Russia has been very aggressive, Russia has been responsible for the death of tens of thousands of people.

When you look at Mariupol, how they've destroyed it, they have destroyed it like they destroyed Grozny [the Chechen capital which was nearly obliterated in late 1999/early 2000 on the command of President Vladimir Putin — Editor's note]. From this perspective, we have to fully support the Ukrainians and if the Ukrainians are able to reconquer Crimea, we should support them.

What does NATO have to offer Ukraine's southwestern neighbor, Moldova?

At this stage, we must support Moldova. What is happening to Moldova is very unfortunate. They are also a victim of Russia's aggression. They are victims, because so many people from Ukraine left the country and sought refuge in Moldova, who's been very helpful. [It is] one of the poorest countries in Europe. Most importantly, Russia is playing games all over the place, but they are increasing the gas prices by making life difficult for Moldovans. They are trying to blackmail, they are trying to regain Moldova in its sphere of influence and that's why we have to support Moldova by all means, but particularly now, by economic means. They need budget support, and we have to provide that.

Moldova fears a winter without Russian gas

Can the hybrid war for example, Russian propaganda and blackmail with gas be de-escalated or stopped altogether in Europe?

Over the last few years, we've seen that particularly Russia is using hybrid warfare to advance its interests. We have seen this, and we've talked to the Americans. They say that the election of Donald Trump [as US president in 2016 — Editor's note] was also at least partly the result of Russian interference. We see it all over the place and we have to be more vigilant. Sometimes we were too naive. When it also comes to media freedom, we are all in favor of it, but if propaganda is being used to a degree where there is no objectivity, but only the advance of a dictator's interests, of somebody who is committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, we have to stop it.

And is that possible?

I think you can do a lot. First, you should not allow propaganda, we have to fight that. And then we have to strengthen the resilience, and this starts with education. In today's world, we need to teach children at school how to deal with social media, how to distinguish fake news from news that are well-balanced and well-researched, so there's a lot of education that we have to do.

What should be done against Russia in the Balkans, where Serbia is its historical ally? But also in other Eastern European countries, where Russia is present and influential through propaganda and the Orthodox Church.

We see this and we have to be much more active, much more present there. Sometimes it really hurts seeing that people are praising Russia and even demonstrating in favor of Russia in countries where the most important investor, the most important trade partner is the EU. I think we must get much better in publicly demonstrating what Europe is doing. In countries where Russia is popular and where it is not condemned for what it is doing in Ukraine, we have to be more active, which is what we have to do also outside of Europe. One of the big challenges we are facing is that in many countries of the so-called Global South, when they look at the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, they are equidistant.

Firefighters walk over the rubble of a building
Russian rockets have been indiscriminate in Ukraine, hitting military and civilian targets, like this maternity wing of a hospitalImage: Kateryna Klochko/AP/picture alliance

And I think we have to make it very clear that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is not a continuation of the East-West conflict, but what we have is a flagrant violation of international law. According to the UN Charter, Russia is committing a breach of civilization and we have to make this very clear. But we can only do this if we as the European Union, as the individual states, are much more active in the countries from the Western Balkans to Asia, Africa, Latin America.

Heusgen: 'The Ukrainians must take the lead'

As a diplomat with vast experience, when do you think is the best time to begin negotiations and stop the war? 

As I said earlier, we have tried everything with Russia in order to resolve the Ukraine crisis by diplomatic means. Putin decided to take military actions. And I understand the Ukrainians that say: 'We cannot sign an agreement with Russia, because Russia doesn't adhere to any agreement it has signed in the past.' It was Russia that signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, when Russia said: 'Well, if Ukraine gives up the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory, we, Russia, guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity, sovereignty.'

At that time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was the UN ambassador and he insisted that this Budapest Memorandum becomes a document of the Security Council. You have to understand that we cannot ask the Ukrainians to sign an agreement with Sergey Lavrov, because we know that he is a liar. And therefore, what we need is first of all that the Ukrainians take the lead, that they decide when it is time to make an agreement. And when they ask for security guarantees, then I think we have to provide these security guarantees to Ukraine.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine

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