I put a lot of hope in the rejuvenation of the Weimar Triangle. I've been very much in favor of this format since its very origin in the early nineties, and I think this is now a new occasion to get it back on track - says Christoph Heusgen, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference

Christoph Heusgen is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference. He served as Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations between 2017 and 2021, and before that, since 2005, was the Foreign Policy and Security Adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr. Heusgen, the past 8 years haven’t been the easiest time for Polish-German relations. What are your hopes for our neighborly coexistence now that a new liberal government is at the steering wheel in Poland?

I put a lot of hope in the rejuvenation of the Weimar Triangle. I've been very much in favor of this format since its very origin in the early nineties, and I think this is now a new occasion to get it back on track. Especially given the threat that we’re now facing from Russia, I think a strong Weimar Triangle with a strong Poland is very important.

On the topic of Russia. EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borell recently said that "a high-intensity, conventional war in Europe is no longer a fantasy". Do you think a war between NATO and Russia is an imminent scenario we should be planning for? After all, it’s been over two years into the war in Ukraine and Russian troops are still struggling to take Kyiv.

Belonging to the older generation, I see a similar scenario unfold to what we have already witnessed during the Cold War. We’re dealing with a very aggressive Russia, and since the only language that Putin respects is strength, we should respond accordingly. What we need is a strong alliance based on a strong European pillar. What is being done right now is going in the right direction, but we must do even more.

For instance?

Most importantly, we need to make sure that all NATO members take seriously what they have committed themselves to, first in Wales and now in Vilnius, and spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. As I said, I think we are on the right track, but in the long term, when you look at the individual budgets of member states, including my own country, this is not guaranteed yet. We need to be serious about it, taking into consideration the reality of the threat that we are faced with. There are other countries in Europe besides Germany that haven't done their homework. Poland has done it, many times over. The Baltic countries have done it, too. They know exactly what kind of threat they are facing. But since we are in an alliance, all partners need to do their part.

Since you’re mentioning allied solidarity – another Trump presidency in November is becoming an ever more likely scenario. The Republican nominee has repeatedly questioned American commitment to NATO and is now being reported to have said that, if re-elected, he would end the war in Ukraine by offering territorial concession to Russia. Do you think that’s something Europe should support?

Well, if there’s one thing we know about Donald Trump, having witnessed his decisions as the US President already, it’s that he is erratic. Therefore, I think that right now we should not listen to everything that he says. But we definitely have to do our homework. We need to accept that the United States in the future will first take care of its challenges back home. Be it infrastructure, education, health, or the protection of its southern borders. Secondly, Americans in general see the biggest geopolitical threat coming from China. No matter who’s in power, Republicans or Democrats, they will concentrate much more on the Asia-Pacific region. So we shouldn't be looking at Washington all the time. We should look at Brussels. We should see how to take care of our own interests. And the better we do it, the more relaxed we can be about the developments in the US.

Answering the second part of your question. International law, which Russia itself recognized, is very clear on the topic of state sovereignty. You may remember the Budapest memorandum of 1994 where Russia guaranteed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine and its borders. Sergey Lavrov, serving as the permanent representative of Russia to the United Nations at the time, brought that up and made the memorandum a document of the UN Security Council. We should remind Russia that this is what they signed up for and therefore need to respect it. We should defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. I would not even want to speculate about the question you’ve raised.

And how can we make sure that our security architecture remains strong if Europe itself is so politically divided? I’m not even talking about the east-west divide here. There are internal differences between members of the V4 group, a format supposed to represent the interests of Central and Eastern Europe.

First of all, I hope that the Polish government - and Poland has always been the strongest partner in the V4 - will somehow be able to convince prime minister Orbán and prime minister Fico that the V4 countries have to stick together.

The format was born out of a mutual desire to promote democracy and the rule of law, and I think it would be good if these efforts were pursued with greater effort. Now how realistic is that? As a Pole, you probably know this better than I do.

In any case, V4 would only be kind of an informal subgroup to the bigger groups of EU and NATO. I don't see the east-west split as much as you seem to do it. When I look at our closest political ally since the end of the Second World War, France, I see a strong development in the French approach from a position that was rather skeptical about Eastern Europe to a position where now France appears to be a very strong partner of eastern Europe. Also,with regard to Ukraine, France has made proposals that go far beyond those coming from Berlin.

SoI think we have to really strengthen the spirit of community in the European Union, which goes from west to east, from north to south. I know there are some challenges, but this is what we have to do. And Poland, with a former president of the European Council as the new prime minister, knows best how to get support from everybody in the European Union for this common approach to the threats that we are facing.

So you see Poland as a bridge between East and West. I think I’m not only speaking for myself here if I say that I’m glad we are back in this position.

Yes, it's fantastic to have people like Prime Minister Tusk or Radek Sikorski back at the table. Or the Undersecretary of State Marek Prawda, who’s a personal friend of mine. It’s very comforting. We have built so much mutual trust over the years and this automatically leads to, from my perspective, a very harmonious German-Polish relationship, even despite all the hatred that PiS tries to poison us with.

Now, I don't know how Tusk and Scholz get along, but I remember, from my time as the advisor to Chancellor Merkel, that she had a fantastic relationship with Tusk and supported him in becoming president of the European Council.

The national conservative camp in Poland used it to his disadvantage, accusing Tusk of being an agent of the German government.

Completely absurd. It‘s an example of how populists employ disinformation for political gains. 

Coming back to where we left off, I’d be curious to know whether you see any chance for Russian state officials to be invited to the Munich Security Conference again. What would it take for Russia to be invited back to the table?

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, so I would have loved to have him come to the MSC and see him put in prison where he belongs.

But more seriously, we looked at this very carefully. Remember that the motto of the Munich Security Conference is "peace through dialogue", and I have not seen any statement by members of the Russian administration, be it official or not, where you could have the faintest hope that they are ready to have serious dialogues and to respect international law. Therefore, I don't see a basis for a good conversation with them. They would rather use Munich as a platform for the spread of their propaganda and the presentation of their unacceptable ideas. And I didn't want that. And I know that the Russians hate it. Sergey Lavrov would certainly love to come to Munich and use it as a platform. And to have this taken away from him is a small, but I think an important sanction. By not being invited, he knows he continues to be considered an outcast by the international community. So I feel very comfortable with the decision. And you have to take into consideration that we had a number of strong Russian voices there, such as Yulia Navalnaya.

I watched her address. It was very dramatic.

Yes, it was very dramatic and very, very sad. But she showed great strength in the face of her husband’s murder. We also had Irina Shcherbakova, we had Kasparov, we had a number of Russian opposition and civil society representatives in Munich. The MSC is not a government organization, and we see as part of our strength that we also invite members of oppositions. 

And what would it take for Russian state officials to be invited?

For me, the basic indicator for going back to a dialogue with Russia would be quite simply for them to recognize international law, to recognize the Ukrainian government. 

Do you think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has the potential to divide European allies? There’s visible concern that the war horrors in Gaza might take away attention from Ukraine and thus weaken support for the Ukrainian resistance effort.

When you look at the support for Ukraine, at the decisions being taken, when you look at NATO and the UN agenda, where the issue has been brought up, you’ll see that the conflict between Israel and Hamas has not taken away the attention from Ukraine.

What I do see, however, among a large majority of UN member states who voice their criticism regarding the breach of international humanitarian law, is growing frustration with double standards. And I think that among the international community, given the ongoing war and the way that countries react to it, this has weakened the support that Ukraine enjoyed in the UN General Assembly. For instance, you could see that on the second anniversary of Putin's invasion Ukraine refrained from asking for another resolution condemning Russian aggression because – and this only is my interpretation - they were afraid that the numbers would not be as impressive as they were before. So, in this respect, yes, it has had a negative effect.

Russia, and to a certain degree also China, tried to misuse the Israel-Hamas conflict by pointing to violations of international humanitarian law. All of a sudden, they are the ones who speak up and act as defenders of international law, which, of course, is hypocrite.

All in all, I think it has some negative consequences, but I don't see an impact on the determination of European countries and members of NATO to support Ukraine.

Let’s talk Zeitenwende. As Angela Merkel’s former foreign policy advisor, do you find that the "Wandel durch Handel" approach was a mistake? How do you think Germany should reposition itself in a changing global order? 2022 marked the first year that Europe imported more cars from China than it exported to the country, and China is coming close to overtaking Germany’s leading position in the automobile industry. In terms of energy policy, Germany’s reliance on cheap energy imports from Russia also turned out to be an expensive lesson.

First of all, I think that Germany's old policy towards the Soviet Union was the right approach. It was based on the one hand on being a strong NATO member with up to 500,000 active-duty soldiers and 3-5% GDP defense spending and Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik seeking reconciliation on the other.  I think that was a good policy, a policy of strength, but at the same time one oriented towards strong civil society relations, trade, and so on. A country like Germany, which doesn't have any relevant natural resources of its own, is dependent on trade, export and import. It’s in our DNA. But we mustn't be naive. After 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of part of the Donbas region, when we had the Minsk agreement, we thought that we were back on track and could resolve problems with Russia by way of diplomacy. That was a big mistake. Sure, at the 2014 summit in Wales, we agreed to strengthen our collective security by attempting to meet the 2% goal with regard to defense spending. But when it then came to the implementation of this decision - taken by Merkel, Steinmeier, and von der Leyen, who were respectively chancellor, foreign minister, and defense minister - the political will simply wasn’t there, neither in the government nor in the parliament. So I think that we indeed committed a mistake there. We should have done much more to back our diplomatic approach up with the necessary strength.

Looking back, however, I can honestly say – and I’m also speaking personally here – that we really tried everything to calm Russia down about NATO expansion. During the 2008 Bucharest summit, we vetoed the enlargement to Ukraine and Georgia, but Russia continued to claim that NATO was surrounding it. And it’s simply not true. The last NATO eastern enlargement took place in 2004, and Putin at the time even accepted it and said it wasn’t a problem. So we really tried everything. We tried it with trade relations. We went to great lengths to implement the Minsk agreements. But Putin wouldn’t have it and threw us into a new Cold War. This means that we can and should deal with Russia out of a position of strength, economic strength, but also military strength.

When you listen to the speeches of our politicians, they seem to recognize it, at least intellectually. But when it comes to implementation, it's still a challenge. For a society that has not really experienced war, going back to this Cold War mode of thinking is not easy. What I mean is essentially that we still have to continue this discussion in our society, that we have to spend more on defense and maybe realize that this must take priority. This discussion is only starting now, and we try to contribute to it at the Munich Security Conference. We organize something called "Zeitenwende on tour", where we organize townhalls in big and small cities all around Germany with local media partners and try to promote a real dialogue on a robust response to the Zeitenwende.

And what about China?

Again, it is clear now that Germany, the whole of Europe, but also America, depended a lot on this huge export and import market that China has developed over time.

But we certainly must not repeat the mistake that we made with regard to Russia and energy imports. We can’t become overly dependent on China. So while I think it doesn't make any sense to decouple from China, we have to diversify, and we have to de-risk. And there are still some deficiencies here. I think parts of the German economy, like the Federation of German Industries, have recognized this, and many companies are now looking for other markets.

Other than an imperialist Russia and overdependence on China, what other big security challenges await Europe in the coming decades?

Russia is the biggest threat by far. And if Ukraine doesn’t succeed in pushing it back, Putin will only feel encouraged to continue his expansionist policies. Russian officials are very clear about the re-establishment of the Russian empire. That’s their goal. And this is our number one challenge.

We also need to make sure that when we counter Russia, we look both at the hardware and the software. You’ve mentioned it yourself. Part of the software is alliance coherence. We have to see that Mister Orbán stays in the ballpark, and Mister Fico, who likes to copy Mister Orbán’s policies, too.

Disinformation is of course another important issue. And artificial intelligence. This is all connected and it’s something we must tackle together. By the way, this year at the Munich Security Conference we had big tech companies commit themselves to do everything not to allow AI to have an impact on the many upcoming elections. And then there’s also the overarching problem of climate change. I don't know if you have been in Berlin these past days...

We had 28 degrees Celsius in Warsaw over the weekend.

So it was even warmer than here. And we’re talking about the beginning of April. This is also where Vladimir Putin commits a crime against humanity. He is forcing countries like Poland to spend 4% of their GDP on defense. In Germany, if we consider the regular 2% budget, we end up having to spend an additional €25-30 billion every year on defense. This money would be much better spent on climate-related issues. So these are the major challenges that we face. And Putin... he needs to go to the ICC and stand trial there.

Not to mention that the man is committing crimes against his own people. He’s spending so much money on defense that Russian infrastructure is now breaking apart. Suffice to look at the Ural region.

He is also sending many young people to war, sending them to die.

This man is a war criminal, without any doubt.

Sikorski warned us about Putin a long time ago, and it was a mistake not to listen. We simply have to do everything we can to stop this war.

One last question. Do you see AFD growing in power in Germany even more?

I believe there is a ceiling to it. I have great trust in our democracy, in our education system. People know about the Holocaust, people know about the value of a free society. It's more of a protest vote, I think. We have similar phenomena in other European countries. Key in resolving the challenge the AFD and other extreme parties pose is good, effective, serious government. When voters see that problems are not solved, when promises are not kept, when politicians even within a government coalition are continuously engaged in infighting then they turn to fringe parties which promise easy solutions.


This article was written in the framework of The Eastern Frontier Initiative (TEFI) project. TEFI is a collaboration of independent publishers from Central and Eastern Europe, to foster common thinking and cooperation on European security issues in the region. The project aims to promote knowledge sharing in the European press and contribute to a more resilient European democracy.

Members of the consortium are 444 (Hungary), Gazeta Wyborcza (Poland), SME (Slovakia), PressOne (Romania), and Bellingcat (The Netherlands).

The TEFI project is co-financed by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.