German Ambassador Matthias Sonn: “Germany’s efforts remain publicly underrated”

German flag
German flag. Vida Press

On June 7, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will visit Lithuania. His visit will focus on negotiations for more NATO presence in the country. German Ambassador Matthias Sonn spoke to Lithuania Tribune in advance about the German perspective on the war, whether the criticism of the German government is justified and how the war would proceed, Elena Matera writes.

How do you perceive the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine as the German ambassador to Lithuania? Do you think that the war is more present here than in Germany?

Of course, the geographical proximity, with a Russian exclave as an immediate neighbour to Lithuania, has always made a difference in perception.

However: now, the war simply couldn’t be more present anywhere than it is in my country. Germany has welcomed more than 800,000 Ukrainian refugees, more than 120,000 Ukrainian children are in German schools. They are becoming a welcome part of our daily lives, all over our country, further enriching its increasing diversity. Putin’s war of aggression completely dominates the political and media discussions, day in and day out. Die-hard old pacifists have become armchair generals. Germany has just approved a one hundred billion Euro (100,000,000,000 Euro) investment package for our armed forces, for which a constitutional exception was passed.

What is indeed sometimes less present than would be desirable is, to the contrary, public awareness here in Lithuania. German support to Ukraine, military and otherwise, is steadily picking up pace and heft. The latest here are the weapons systems IRIS-T, Mars II and an artillery locator system, each representing state-of-the-art technology.

Germany’s efforts nonetheless remain publicly underrated, even if they are clearly, publicly and expressly appreciated by Lithuania’s government. Perhaps this is because expectations of Germany are so very high – here and there, unrealistically high? Perhaps our public communication was at times a little slow, and not always clear and simple enough? A good reason for me to give you this interview!

Many Lithuanians join the army and paramilitary organizations. A potential Russian attack on the Baltic States is taken very seriously here. Can you understand this caution?

Yes, entirely. You may be referring to Lithuania’s Riflemen’s Union?  In my view, to call them “paramilitary” gives a false impression. They are a citizens’ militia established by law, are trained by the Lithuanian military, and in case of an armed aggression become part of Lithuania’s national defence. I don’t see any fear either, just determination. Much needed, realistic determination. It is the same determination my country has been showing since 2017, in leading NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle group in your country.

Perhaps, my countrymen could learn from Lithuania here – learn that defence is every citizen’s existential issue, not just a special task that society at large outsources to professional armed forces.

How does the German perspective differ from the Lithuanian perspective on the Russian war of aggression?

It doesn’t. Germany knows, as does Lithuania that security in NATO’s alliance territory is indivisible: either we all have security, or none of us does. That is why, in defending Lithuania’s sovereignty and freedom, our troops defend our own cherished values and freedom. Here in Lithuania. We will continue to do this, adapted to the new situation imposed on us by Russia’s war of aggression, jointly with our NATO allies.

How has German foreign policy changed after 24th February?

Fundamentally. As our Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, on February 24th we all awoke in a different world. My generation of Germans, of Europeans grew up during an unprecedentedly long period of peace in our continent – seven decades. Many took our democracy, our freedoms and peace for granted. Especially after 1990, when many thought the end of the Cold War had brought the “end of history”, to borrow a famous term. The idea that any country could ever again wage an open war of aggression for territory and in the name of an imperialistic ideology seemed far-fetched, if not outright fanciful. In short, one of the core paradigms of a rules-based world order in which all states (at least in Europe) essentially are status-quo powers, holding a stake in its preservation, is completely shattered. The term “Zeitenwende”, introduced by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 27th, (Zeitenwende“ doesn’t translate easily, and has established itself in its original. It means, roughly, the turn of an era) represents not political hyperbole but grim realism.

However – another core paradigm stands, unchanged at least, quite possibly reinforced: the unmatched attraction of the liberal, essentially Western, the rules-based world order established since 1945 and 1990. Our Ukrainian fellow Europeans are not just fighting for their sovereign independence as such. Their struggle is also one to live in a democracy, under the rule of law, with the rights and freedoms we can only enjoy in an open society. The alternative is living under the boots of an autocracy directly or indirectly imposed by military force. And who in their right mind would want that?

Thus, the case for a strong, values-based Foreign Policy is now stronger than ever.

In recent months, Germany has been sharply criticized at the international level for its energy dependency on Russia and for being too hesitant about arms deliveries and sanctions. Is this criticism justified?

Germany and Lithuania are both free countries. Criticism is part of our democratic DNA, domestically but also within our European family. That holds true even if differing views may not at all times be entirely justified. What our Bundeswehr troops are defending here, quite essentially, is among many other values the freedom to disagree with Germany or its policies.

Lithuania was the first country to stop gas imports from Russia. The Baltic states had warned about being energy-dependent on Russia, and Nord Stream 2 was also viewed sceptically from the beginning. Should Germany perhaps listen more to the Lithuanians, the Baltic States?

Here I can begin by referring to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on her visit to Vilnius this past April. She said, in essence, that we might have listened more carefully to the discussions amongst our Baltic partners. So yes, in a sense. And yet, having been here on February 24th, I can say with confidence that observers in Vilnius were not significantly less surprised on that fateful day than those elsewhere.

Was Cassandra satisfied when she was proven right? I’m not so certain. We do have to guard, together with our allies, against a kind of retrospective determinism which seems to creep in these days. “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” always has the allure of superficial plausibility. And yet, the benefit of hindsight often suggests a dangerous false logic.

It was not unreasonable to assume a residue of economic and strategic rationality on the Russian side. It was not therefore reasonably foreseeable that Putin would end up completely forsaking reality and his own country’s interests in the name of feverish, violent imperialistic fantasies rooted in the 19th century. Hence, the surprise in Vilnius, Berlin and many other places was – well, unsurprising.

My conclusion: let us focus on the immediate future. There is much to do. We need to do it together.

How have German-Lithuanian relations changed since 24th February?

They have become closer yet. Germany began reinforcing its troop posture in NATO’s eFP battle group, which it leads since 2017, in January. We will continue to very actively lead and participate as our defence alliance further strengthens its Northeastern flank. Germany has lent unwavering support to Lithuania when China tried to drive a wedge into the EU’s single market, targeting global supply chains and affecting German investors’ production in your country. We have seen an unprecedented density of high and highest-ranking visits, from Federal President Steinmeier and Federal Chancellor Scholz to Foreign Minister Baerbock, Defence Minister Lambrecht, four Parliamentary Vice Ministers, and numerous Members of the Bundestag. And this list doesn’t even include the scores of high-ranking officials and generals which are streaming through day in, day out. Believe me, my embassy was never busier!

How will this war develop?

I view this war with grim determination. This is a conflict that Russia lost the moment Putin started it. Thanks to  the amazing resilience of the Ukrainian people as well as our abiding, collective Western support. May I quote the Prussian statesman Bismarck? According to him, “History’s reckoning is more accurate than the Prussian Court of Accounts”. And no one is more aware of this than us Germans. From experience.

*“Zeitenwende“ doesn’t translate easily and has established itself in its original. It means, roughly, the turn of an era.

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