Germany´s role in the Baltic Sea Region: Key note speech on April 22nd 2017

Botschafter Heimsoeth Bild vergrößern Botschafter Dr. Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth (© Auswärtiges Amt)

"Germany´s role in the Baltic Sea Region": Keynote speech by ambassador Heimsoeth on the occasion of the conference “Security Challenges in the Baltic Sea Region:
Historical Perspectives and the Way Forward” 22 April 2017 Stockholm

It is a particular pleasure to be here today and to speak with you about security in the Baltic region. I would like to thank the organizing committees for hosting this important conference and especially Mrs. Sirle Sööt for inviting me to join you here today.

But let me first warmly congratulate the Association of Estonians in Sweden (REL) on their 60th Anniversary. The large number of guests present today is proof of how much the work of your association is appreciated.

Strengthening the bonds between Germany and the Baltic States has been a very significant part of my career as a diplomat. I had at the chance to work with matters related to the Baltic Sea region on several occasions in my career. During my tenure as Baltic Sea Representative for the Federal Foreign Office and also while I was presiding the CBSS Committee of Senior Officials I could visit the Baltic States frequently and was able to experience first-hand how much the Baltic region has developed - especially in comparison with my first visits during the Soviet period in the mid 80s.

These last 25 plus years are 25 years of shared history with your European partners; it is a history that binds us together. However, as a historian I feel that it is important to remember that our close links do not reach back merely two and a half decades! An astonishing discovery just last month sheds light on this: Liudas Mažylis detected the original 1918 Lithuanian Independence Act in the archive of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin! Thanks to his research this essential piece of Lithuanian history will now be available for the general public.

But you all know we can go further back in history: when I think of Riga I think of the place where Kants ‘Kritik der reinen Vernunft’ was first published or Richard Wagner wrote his first success opera ‘Rienzi’. And in Tallinn the ‘Domberg’ and the brotherhood of Blackheads bring me even further back into our historic relations.

But we are here to focus on today’s actual challenges facing the region as a whole:

It is little more than 25 years ago that the division of Europe ended, the result of a development started by an uprising of engaged citizens against their communist regimes. This was the case in the former GDR, but also in the Baltic States.

The fall of the Berlin Wall heralded an enormous change, not only for Germany, but for the whole Baltic Sea Region, as the Berlin Wall was never just a division of Germany alone but a symbol for the division of Europe. With the Iron Curtain falling apart, the Baltic Sea was free to develop into a region of dynamic liberties cooperation and promotion of contacts.

The “Baltic Chain” in August 1989 reaching across all three Baltic States was a powerful demonstration  for what is possible as long as people stand together. The “Baltic Chain” and the fall of the Berlin Wall are  impressive examples of European values at work.

After the German reunification and after the Baltic States regained their independence, diplomatic relations between our countries were swiftly reestablished, which was also intended as a strong sign of support for the Baltic Nations. Since then, Germany has always supported the Baltic States in their economic and democratic development. Your achievements are exemplary and deserve great respect. Today, the relationship with the Baltic States has a special place within the German foreign and security policy. You can take the fact that many German politicians are visiting the Baltic States on a regular basis as a strong evidence for the importance that we attach to a continued high ranking dialogue between our countries. As our President Gauck put it during his last official trip to Riga 2 months ago: without talking much, we know we have the same values.

The Baltic Sea Region as such changed its face after the demise of the communist system. “Soft” institutions were created like the ‘Council of the Baltic Sea States’ in 1992 on the initiative of Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Uffe Ellemann Jensen to promote cooperation in the region. Three years later the entry of Finland and Sweden into the EU started the political re – Europeanisation of the Baltic Sea Region.

But it was, of course, the entry of Poland into NATO in 1999 and the subsequent admission of the Baltic States in 2004 which truly led to the institutional framework we live in today. At the time it was the German Minister of Defense, Volker Rühe, who was, as I could witness myself, pushing for accepting Poland into NATO as well as supporting a potential entry of the Baltic States down the road.

Today, the Baltic Nations are as much as Germany part of the European and transatlantic family. We share the same values, such as fairness, tolerance, solidarity and, maybe most importantly, freedom. In the last years, these values have been challenged. And they have been challenged in a way that many of us never have thought possible. Let me share with you some thoughts on some developments in the recent past that constitute particular security challenges for us all in the Baltic Sea Region.

The European order of peace and stability has been damaged at its very foundation through the  illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s  actions in eastern Ukraine. These actions have led to clear reaction by the European Union and the transatlantic alliance.

I believe that the Russia actions of spring 2014, which went against the Charta of Paris, the Budapest Memorandum and international public law, came at a turning moment in German post war politics. At the 50th Munich Security Conference, beginning of February 2014, the German Federal President, Joachim Gauck, the Foreign Minister FW Steinmeier – today’s president – and the Minister for Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, all made the point that Germany has to lead a more active, visible Foreign Policy, taking on more responsibility in international affairs.

The clear positioning of Chancellor Merkel after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and her active role in the Donbas crisis a few months later could be seen in this light – but we also have to note the inaction on the side of the powers which signed and deposited the Budapest Memorandum on the withdrawal of all nuclear warheads from Ukraine.

But, considering Germany, it would be a mistake to focus on Chancellor Merkel alone. Even though in the early weeks after the annexation we still heard the voices of the “Russland – Versteher” trying to find some reasoning in the Russian actions, we can see in Germany today that a broad majority of the political – “Die Linke” left aside – have realized that we cannot assess Putin’s Russia along the lines we were used to, we are not faced with the Russia we hoped for.

This development is regrettable because in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall whilst not always without tension, the perspective concerning Europe’s policies towards Russia has been positive. This applied to the bilateral relations between Germany and Russia as well as to the relations between the EU and Russia. The NATO – Russia Council was installed before the decision on the admittance of the Baltic States to NATO was taken. An enormous disarmament of NATO took place with a reduction of the different armed forces by 30 to 40%, more than two hundred thousand US troops left Europe, landbased tactical nuclear arms were removed.

Europe and Russia intensified their cooperation. I remember that while I dealt with the CBSS some considered Kaliningrad to be Russia’s geographical door to Europe, to the EU, some even saw the potential to become a Russian “Hong Kong on the Baltic”, and a pilot region for Russia-EU cooperation in the 2000s. Kaliningraders, living in the westernmost part of Russia and surrounded by EU States, would visit Berlin, Poland and Lithuania. A partnership seemed to be within one’s reach.

Today, the situation is unfortunately different. For the foreseeable future, the chances of a significant deepening of the relations with Russia seem to be rather low. Russia’s actions have led to a reconsideration of the security situation in the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad could have been an outstanding example for close cooperation but now we are monitoring with great concern what is happening there. A permanent stationing of Iskander missiles would be another troublesome backlash to Europe’s security. Concerns regarding security and integrity are understandably high within the political discussion in the Baltic States. “The trust is lost”, stated Prime Minister Straujuma in 2014 when Chancellor Merkel visited Latvia – and how should we not understand this.

However, a number of measures have been taken by partners in EU and NATO including Germany in order to strengthen the situation for the Baltic States. NATO had a strong role in this context in coordinating security ties between the NATO states. And fortunately also the coordination of Sweden and Finland with the Alliance is making progress. Finland keeps the door to NATO open and is keeping close contact with Sweden. At the same time NATO’s guarantee for the Baltic States creates a stability zone for the Baltic Sea Region, leaving no place for “grey” areas between the Baltic States and Russia.  Germany takes an active part in securing this zone.

An important element has been NATO’s air policing mission, in which Germany is, among other member states, assuring safety and security in the Baltic skies since 2005. Chancellor Merkel said while visiting Riga in 2014: “The duty to provide mutual support is not something which just exists on paper, but is also something which must be filled with life” – and I think Germany is delivering on that promise.  

During the NATO summit in Warsaw last year, the leaders decided to strengthen the Alliance’s military presence in the east, with four battalions in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania on a rotational basis [eFP deployment – “enhanced Forward Presence”]. Germany is willing to play a decisive role in the reassurance of our allies in the north eastern part of Europe. By leading the battalion in Lithuania, Germany has taken over an important responsibility. The German lead battlegroup is a capable and flexible fighting formation that can respond to a range of threats. Although not a primary objective for eFP, Germany values the opportunity to increase interoperability between allies as the multinational battlegroup will train and exercise with partners and host nations.

Germany’s commitment in Lithuania is a clear expression of a paradigm shift in security thinking. It will not remain a one-off campaign. We are in for the long run and we will continue to substantially participate in “enhanced Forward Presence”. Germany, along with our allies, will ensure a capable, credible and lasting posture of the eFP Battlegroup.

But Germany’s paradigm shift in security goes also beyond the Baltic Sea Region. The Federal governments White Book published last year shows that Germanys Defense spending will clearly be directed again towards purposes of National Defense. Had “out-of-area” been a key word for several years National and Alliance-area Defense will be the focus of much more ambitious goals for the future. German defense planning is based and will remain based on the NATO defense planning.

At the same time we believe that when it comes to providing military capabilities European nations have to grow together much more and much quicker. Germany is trying to do its part also in coordinating the further development and taking on a role as a stability and security anchor in Europe. In our view the time is over where individual countries could sit in a corner and hope that a storm will never come or that we could just duck and weather it out, is over.

Let me come to say some words on Russia. Russia has the potential to be an important political partner for Europe, as it defines itself as European and is also in a position to make a significant contribution to stability and prosperity in Europe. Due to its size, its huge reserves of raw materials, its substantial economic and military potential and, of course, its geographical proximity, the actions of Russia have an effect on developments in the rest of Europe.

We still feel that dialogue with Russia remains an important issue. Dialogue doesn’t mean giving in or giving up one’s position – but staying attentive to possible openings which may arise for steps forward. Dialogue in the context of a clear positioning – and this includes the upkeeping of sanctions as long as the conditions of their removal have not been met – can only be of benefit.

And we should stick to the position that solutions to problems have to be political ones. Security in the Baltic Sea area is of highest value and cannot be achieved if we don’t work together. This is the reason for us to stand together as partners. We are convinced that our strategy to demonstrate strength on one side and keep up the political dialogue with Russia at the same time will also in the future be appropriate and successful.

Let me finish by underlining that we need a sustainable, consistent policy to re-build trust and security in the Baltic Sea region. It is important to uphold a regional political dialogue with Russia. The Council of The Baltic Sea States, the Arctic Council and the Barents Arctic Council and the subregional institutions are important platforms which can and should be used to maintain the dialogue.

In times of crisis it is particularly essential to promote people-to-people-contact and engage with the civil society, as those ties often prove to be much more crisis-resistant than many other forms of interaction.

Notwithstanding all the risks that I have mentioned, let me just add the following: Even though conflicts crisis and uncertainty are presently dominating the news, in my view, the Baltic Sea Region is now stronger than it has ever been. Germany is and will continue to be a reliable partner for the Baltic States and all partners in the Baltic Sea Region and in helping create security in the area.

Germany will continue to strive for and support a close and strong relationship with all countries around the Baltic Sea but, of course, first and foremost with its EU friends and Alliance partners here I believe that only by working hand in hand, will we be able to find the right answers to preserve a united and strong Europe which enjoys peace, freedom and security in an increasingly changing world.

Thank you.