Weltwoche: What is your assessment of the war in Ukraine?

Schulenburg: The situation must be extremely difficult for the Ukrainians. Through more than two years of war, Ukraine has paid a heavy price in blood on both sides of the front lines, with large parts of the country having been destroyed. The country is deeply divided politically, has become the poorest country in Europe, continues to suffer from widespread corruption, and is in the process of becoming increasingly depopulated. The military situation also looks extremely unfavorable. The Ukrainians are today the cheated people of Europe, also cheated by us. Their country has become a battlefield for geopolitical interests, including Western geopolitical interests. It could now even face the risk of collapsing. If we really want to be friends with Ukraine, as we like to claim, we should now do everything we can to end this war through a negotiated peace.

Weltwoche: What does Russian President Vladimir Putin want in Ukraine?

Schulenburg: What he wants is pretty clear: Putin does not want NATO or foreign military bases so close to Russia in Ukraine; he wants to secure Russia's access to the Black Sea and to protect the security of the pro-Russian population in Ukraine. We can assume that these goals are shared by the vast majority among the Russian elites and among the Russian population. As early as 1997, President Yeltsin already warned US President Clinton against wanting to bring Ukraine into NATO; he emphasized that there is a thick red line for Russia. Russia’s position has not changed since.

Weltwoche: You constantly read about a "war of aggression in violation of international law". Is this interpretation as crystal clear as the media make it out to be?

Schulenburg: Like so often in wars, also this is a half-truth. When we talk about an "illegal" war of aggression, we mean a violation of the UN Charter. And it is true: In the UN Charter, all states have undertaken not to use military force to pursue political objectives. But this is exactly what Russia did when it invaded Ukraine. The invasion was therefore illegal according to the UN Charter. However, the core reasoning in the UN Charter goes much further: In the Charter all states have committed themselves to resolving their conflicts through negotiations and other peaceful means - precisely to prevent wars. In the case of the Ukraine conflict, the West has refused to do so. It ignored Russia's repeated calls to negotiate its security concerns about the expansion of NATO into Ukraine – even though there were many warnings that this could mean war, including from among influential American politicians and diplomats. And there is an even more important aspect: in the event that a war breaks out, the UN-Charter obliges all member states to do everything in their power to find a peaceful end through negotiations, mediations, etc. Well, Ukraine and Russia did just that when they began to seek a negotiated solution just a few days after the Russian invasion. And surprisingly, they found a solution not only for a ceasefire but for a framework to a comprehensive peace settlement in March 2022, after just one month of war.

Weltwoche: You mean the Istanbul negotiations in March 2022?

Schulenburg: Yes, I mean the Istanbul Communiqué of March 30, 2022, which both sides accepted and initialed. It was drawn up by the Ukrainians and consisted of 10 proposals. It is an amazing document, a brilliant achievement of Ukrainian diplomacy. In it, Ukraine did not formally give up a single square meter of land. Kiev only accepted that the status of Crimea would be decided peacefully in 15 years. There was no mention of Donbass; that was to be negotiated directly between Zelensky and Putin. At its core, the Istanbul peace proposal was a deal between Ukraine and Russia in which the Ukraine committed itself to remaining neutral and not to allow any other state to establish military bases on its territory. Russia, in return, would guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine and withdraw all invading troops. In this document, Russia even undertook to support Ukrainian membership of the EU. But the West did not want the treaty. A week before Istanbul, there was a special NATO summit in Brussels, which Biden also attended. There, it was decided not to support any negotiations with Russia until Russia withdrew from the whole of Ukraine. This meant nothing other than NATO demanding Russia's military defeat and, hence, clearing the way for Ukraine's membership in NATO. When Zelensky nevertheless stuck to the peace negotiations with Russia, British Prime Minister Johnson paid an unexpected visit to Kiev on April 9, 2022, making it unmistakably clear to the Ukrainians that they would lose all support from the West if they signed a peace treaty with Russia. This put an end to the possibility of an early peace.

Weltwoche: What was the decisive mistake that led to the war?

Schulenburg: The Biden administration ignored all the warnings that Russia would react militarily to prevent Ukraine's NATO accession, and Europe waffled. The USA probably underestimated the Russians at the time and thought that they wouldn't dare. The West simply did not understand how deeply the Russians—and not just Putin—regarded NATO directly on their borders as an existential threat to Russia and still do today. If the USA continues to escalate with NATO support and, as announced, now sends weapons with which Russia can be hit at its strategically important locations, Russia, as indicated, would not shy away from extreme reactions. The danger of this conflict escalating into a nuclear war is therefore higher today than ever before. NATO should not underestimate Russia's determination again.

Weltwoche: What is the role of the EU in this war?

Schulenburg: We Europeans should shy away from such an escalation and fully back negotiations. But we are not doing that. Because we have no independent position at all—at least no position that would even remotely be based on our own security interests. We are chasing after the Americans, even if that means our economic downfall or, even worse, if it could jeopardize our survival. NATO membership for Ukraine is not in Europe's interests—at least not at the risk of a nuclear war with Russia. The EU will never be able to be a great global power, neither politically nor militarily. That is why we should not behave like one. To guarantee our future, there is only one realistic option for the EU: a consistent peace policy, i.e., a policy that aims to build a pan-European peace and security system based on the "Charter of Paris for a New Europe" that had been signed in 1990 by all European states as well as the USA and Canada.

Weltwoche: How much peace union is left in this EU?

Schulenburg: Europe is basically incapable of acting according to its own interests. I don't see any European politician who can bring themselves to take a peace initiative. I do hope that we can achieve something in the European Parliament - hope dies last.

Weltwoche: What advice would you give EU leader Ursula von der Leyen?

Schulenburg: First, to step down. It would be a responsible act towards the European idea. Her office is heavily tainted by accusations of improper conduct in business dealings during the coronavirus crisis; there were similar accusations from her time as defense minister in Germany. This should be cleared up completely, if only to protect the EU's reputation. Further, von der Leyen represents an exaggerated pro-American and pro-war policy, she is responsible for the increasing militarization of the EU. These are all paths that are leading the EU to a dead end. The European Community would benefit from having a political personality at the head of the Commission who would be more concerned with the interests of Europeans and could lead the EU back to a peace project.

Weltwoche: How do you rate the Russian president?

Schulenburg: I think that we must and can negotiate with Putin.

Weltwoche: But Putin is almost being stylized as the devil.

Schulenburg: Such demonization of the opponent is common among warring parties. The other party is always the embodiment of evil against whom we, as the good guys, must fight to save the world. We will certainly find similar demonization of the West in Russia. What is perhaps unusual here is that we in the EU behave like a warring party, even though we always claim not to be a party in this war.

Weltwoche: How would you talk to someone who is responsible for the loss in human lives?

Schulenburg: That should hardly play a role in negotiations; peace negotiations always take place between enemies, even if they have blood on their hands. Incidentally, everyone involved in a war will probably have blood on their hands in some way. In negotiations, it plays a much more decisive role whether the negotiating opponent actually has the power to decide something and then enforce such decisions. That's why I think Putin is very much in a position to negotiate. Whether we like it or not, he still seems to have the vast majority of Russians behind him. An American president, whoever he may be, will also be able to negotiate. And to come back to the EU: I don't see anyone here who would be in a position to do so. The EU would be far too fragmented to adopt a clear negotiating position and far too divided to be able to push through a negotiation result.

Weltwoche: Is there anything special about dealing with Russians?

Schulenburg: No matter who you talk to, it is important that you treat them with respect. That you make it clear: We accept that you also have interests. Otherwise, you can't negotiate. We have these insults "Putin-understanders", "Russia-understanders." That is nonsense. Understanding means using your mind, and we should damn well use it.

Weltwoche: What has happened in Russia over the last 20 years to harden the fronts to such an extent?

Schulenburg: I see it the other way around. Something has changed in the West, which has hardened the fronts to such an extent that war has now broken out. The West's claim to global power and the associated expansion of NATO to the Russian border was not foreseen in the 1990 Paris Charter, and yet we went ahead with it. There were many agreements that NATO would not advance further east. But that's what happened. It wasn't just Putin who felt betrayed, but also the Russians in general. Furthermore, accusing Russia of an illegal invasion must also be seen on the background that the USA, NATO, and various combinations of Western military alliances have repeatedly violated the UN Charter's ban on the use of force. Just think of Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. According to a study by the US Congressional Research Service, the USA intervened militarily in other countries 251 times between 1992 and 2022. How can we stand up today and accuse Russia of something that we considered completely normal for us? The real problem is that all the major powers with the only exception of China de-facto no longer recognize the UN Charter, so there is no longer any functioning international law.

Weltwoche: Do you know why German politicians in particular are taking a belligerent tone?

Schulenburg: That is incomprehensible to me. I would have thought that we in Germany would be a bit more reserved because of our past. After all, we killed around 26 million Soviet people, the vast majority of whom were Russians, often in the cruelest of ways. In order to gain control of Ukraine, we Germans also fought extremely hard battles on Ukrainian territory in both the First and Second World Wars - including tank battles. And just like today, we abused ethnic differences between the western and eastern Ukrainian population in both world wars. I find it frightening that I am now getting reactions from senior German diplomats who are full of hatred for Russia. Such "diplomats" would never be in a position to conduct peace negotiations. But why do we have them then? In wars you need diplomats with a cool head, diplomats who can also understand their opponents and thus look for feasible compromises to end the killing in wars. In doing so, they must not allow themselves to be captured by their own war propaganda or pro-war media. It also plays a role here that we in Germany find it difficult to accept a different point of view, even if it advocates the silencing of weapons and peace negotiations. It's no coincidence that I can only give this interview to a Swiss magazine, which then also publishes it.

Weltwoche: What do you think of the peace summit that will soon be taking place in Switzerland? Without Russia, but still.

Schulenburg: I wouldn't take this “summit” seriously. It is an attempt to push through a Western agenda and the 10-point program proposed by Zelensky, not to be confused with the Istanbul Communiqué. But this is a completely unrealistic approach and is unlikely to meet with international approval outside the NATO states. The closest we came to a solution was when the Ukrainians and Russians talked to each other directly, without Western interference. I'm sure there will be talks between the military on both sides; they all know each other because nobody wants all their people to be slaughtered. But we won't find out about the talks until the time comes. Then it could happen very quickly. I can well imagine that the Russians are making offers to the Ukrainian military that are better than something that could be negotiated here in Switzerland, especially now that Switzerland is likely to have lost a lot of international sympathy as a neutral state due to its stance on the Gaza war.