Asselborn spoke with Delano in the evening of 21 February as the world prepared to mark one year since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
Cordula Schnuer: One year of the war in Ukraine. If we think back to February last year, did you have any idea that the conflict would last this long?
Jean Asselborn: Honestly, I couldn’t even wrap my head around this happening at all. And I’m not the only one. I’ve been doing this job since 2004. I look now at people assembled around Vladimir Putin and we decorated them in 2005. We gave them a medal because they helped us during our presidency and with the four “Common Spaces” agreement.
With Jean-Claude Juncker at the time we went to the Kremlin, spent a whole day with Putin, signed this in the name of the European Union. Those images were in my head, which were destroyed completely on 24 February.
As for how long it would last, I thought if the Russian army comes out in full force it would be a matter of days and Kyiv would be taken with all the consequences. Amid all the misery, the biggest positive surprise is that Putin didn’t get away with this. Putin wanted a Blitzkrieg. One year later, we still have war and it’s terrible.
Tens of thousands of civilians, of soldiers have died. People in Ukraine live in permanent fear. Old people and infants freeze to death, get sick. There’s no water. It’s something that the world hasn’t seen since the Second World War, not from a country like Russia, which is a member of the UN Security Council and, as the Soviet Union, helped build the world order after WW2.
Looking forward, what potential turning points are we looking at?
That’s a good question, but let me start by saying: who wouldn’t want peace? That from tomorrow, there are diplomatic negotiations, that we sit around a table and try to find solutions?
But you heard Putin’s speech this afternoon [editor’s note: 21 February] and he spoke of all sorts of things, but not a single word about a ceasefire or peace talks. It doesn’t exist in his head.
We must be very careful to draw the right conclusions. Russia attacked Ukraine. And we cannot under any circumstances equate them. Russia wants to kill Ukraine. It’s not about two countries in conflict. One wants to kill the other, and as Europeans--based on Article 51 of the charter, that a country attacked has the right to self-defence--we are helping Ukraine.
Not delivering weapons means the war would end quickly. But it would be a forward march for Putin to the Polish border.
If we want an end to the war, Putin must realise that he won’t be able to break Ukraine with weapons. And to achieve this, there’s only one way--that we help Ukraine have the same means to defend itself as Russia has to attack. Not delivering weapons means the war would end quickly. But it would be a forward march for Putin to the Polish border. And once he’s whetted his appetite, other countries face the same threat.
We don’t give weapons to Ukraine to attack Russia. We’re on Ukrainian territory.
Speaking of territory, Ukraine as part of peace wants Crimea returned. Is that a realistic ambition?
President [Volodymyr] Zelensky and the political leadership want the sovereignty of their country in the borders that existed in 2014, including Crimea. Russia and maybe five other countries, but no one else, recognise Crimea as Russian. It’s a logical result that the president of Ukraine defends the whole territory of his country.
Whether it will be a priority, that’s a different question. That will be up to Ukrainians to decide. Ukraine’s strategy isn’t made by the European Union.
The immediate reaction was a wave of solidarity, also between EU members. How has the war shifted the tone in Brussels and how EU countries cooperate with each other?
We have tremendous solidarity on sanctions. We’re not doing this to ruin Russia’s economy or against the Russian people but to take away the means for Putin to be able to unashamedly continue this war.
There’s one country that’s difficult, and that’s Hungary, not only when it comes to Russia but also China. But we have focused on what’s essential. There is solidarity and that wasn’t expected. Already during Brexit, it was said that Europe would fall apart, and it wasn’t the case. And here, too, Europe hasn’t fallen apart.
The goal is peace, for the war to stop.
What’s even more important than the sanctions is the solidarity among the people. On the whole, in all countries of the European Union, it’s clear who attacked, who was attacked, and whom we should side with. It’s a war in which Russia has violated all rules of international law. And if Putin gets through with this, then the world won’t have international rule of law anymore.
How can Russia find its way back into the global multilateral order?
That must be the goal. The goal is peace, for the war to stop. And secondly, of course, Russia won’t disappear off the map. It’s by far the biggest country in the world. The people in Russia don’t have the means to have their say. When the war is over--and when those who committed crimes have been punished by an international court of law, and when stability is restored--Russia must be involved in the security structure of Europe. I cannot imagine that this can happen under Putin, but it must be possible.
Looking at Luxembourg: thousands of refugees arrived as part of the temporary protection mechanism. The word temporary is already in the name. But what strategies are needed to look at the longer term as the war continues?
The temporary protection mechanism was created for Kosovo in 2001. There was a wave of people arriving in Europe. It was reactivated by all countries of the European Union. I was in that meeting, and it wasn’t easy.
People who are on this status can get this extended by a year, then again by six months. It will be there as long as there is war. But in Luxembourg, people who work--and it’s mostly women--and are no longer reliant on the ONA [editor’s note: national welcome office] living in shelters, will be considered workers. They will lose the temporary protection status and will be treated like an employee coming to Luxembourg. I hope that many people will be able to benefit from this. Around 900 people are working and 600 are registered with [the jobs agency] Adem.
The psychological pressure on these people is enormous. A woman who is here with a couple of children, who wakes up every morning wondering if her husband is still alive--you have to imagine what this means. It’s an unimaginable trial.
Do you have understanding for asylum seekers from other countries who are under a different procedure who cannot work and don’t have those rights?
We are working on a law, and I hope to get this done in the next weeks or months, that the labour market test is abolished for people applying for a temporary work permit. Everyone who is in the country for six months and has found a job, should be able to go to work without much red tape.
In a span of three months, we had 3,000 people arrive in Luxembourg. That’s never happened in our history. We didn’t think of strategy and tactics but about how we can house those people, get them food and shelter, how children will get into school. We focused on this. The ONA, together with the Red Cross and Caritas, have done a formidable job.
There are people from Eritrea, Afghanistan or Syria who have been in Luxembourg for years. We must also think of them.
But we must know that there are people from Eritrea, Afghanistan or Syria who have been in Luxembourg for years. We must also think of them. I cannot differentiate between the two groups, although I know they are two different procedures.
Do you have any hope that the solidarity shown by Europe to the refugees from Ukraine will move forward the migration pact that has been under discussion for several EU presidencies?
No. I cannot say otherwise. No. That doesn’t mean that Luxembourg won’t continue helping to do what must be done. I think for countries talking about democracy and values, it’s an opportunity to have people with us from places they had to flee and give them the chance to build a new life. It’s an opportunity also for that country.