Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger in a file photo. Image: Twitter / Asia Society

NEW YORK – The 99-year-old former US secretary of state spoke at length—but guardedly—to Germany’s leading newsweekly Der Spiegel about the Ukraine war and its consequences.

Kissinger defended the position he had advanced in May at a teleconference of the World Economic Forum, namely peace negotiations based on the status quo prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February 24.

But Russia has won extensive territory since then and appears poised to win the whole of the Donbas, with a quarter of Ukraine’s land and three-quarters of its industrial capacity. What if Russia won’t return to the February 24 Line of Contact? Der Spiegel didn’t ask, and Kissinger didn’t say, not directly, in any case.

Spiegel might have asked Kissinger what he thought of a warning from Serbian President Aleksandar Vuvic reported on July 14 in Russian media: “I know what awaits us. As soon as Vladimir Putin has done his work in Seversk, Bakhmut and Soledar, after reaching the second line of Slaviansk-Kramatorsk-Avdeevka, he will come up with a proposal. And if they [the West] don’t accept it, – and they won’t – all hell will break loose.”

But Kissinger did hint at a hell of sorts by his reference to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, which killed perhaps two-fifths of the population of Central Europe. And he warned that Russia might no longer be a part of European history if the conflict continued.

“I do not share the view,” Kissinger said, “that Putin wants to win back everything that Moscow lost after 1989. But he can’t stand the fact that almost all of the territory between Berlin and the Russian border has fallen to NATO. That’s what made Ukraine such a sticky point for him.”

Spiegel did its best to goad Kissinger into recommending territorial concessions by Ukraine, without success.

It asked: “You have written a new book, and the first chapter portrays Konrad Adenauer. His policy, you write, ‚was based on treating the division of his country as temporary.‘ Did you have that in mind when you recently made your proposal to end the Ukraine war: that Ukraine accept a temporary division of its territory, build one part of the country into a pro-Western, democratic, economically strong nation, and wait for the other part to settle down and rejoin Ukraine one day?”

A man walks past a residential building damaged by shelling in Severodonetsk, northwest of Luhansk, Ukraine. Image: Screengrab / Al Jazeera / Agencies

Kissinger waved the question aside. “What I said is different: to end this war, the best dividing line will be that of the status quo ante, which covered about 93% of the country. Restoring this status quo would mean that the aggression failed. So it’s about a ceasefire along the February 24 contact line. The area then still controlled by Russia, about 2.5% of the Ukrainian territory in the Donbass and the Crimean peninsula, would then be part of further negotiations,” the former top envoy said.

Spiegel pressed him: “You added, however, that if the war were to continue beyond the February 24 contact line, ‘it’s no longer about the freedom of Ukraine, but about a new war against Russia itself.’“ Kissinger dodged the question, replying, “I never said that Ukraine should give up part of its territory.”

But later in the interview, Kissinger hinted at the answer he might have given had he been asked. Spiegel asked if he thought that promoting democracy should be a foreign policy goal. Kissinger replied:

For me, democracy is the more desirable system. But when this preference is made a primary goal in the international relations of today’s world, it leads to a missionary impulse. This could result in another military conflict like the Thirty Years’ War. Incidentally, as far as China is concerned, President Biden’s administration has stated that it has no intention of establishing a regime there to bring about change. So he faces a problem that all leaders of great nations face. There are indeed situations in which there is an obligation to defend – and that is how Europe sees the conflict over Ukraine. However, statecraft in this situation must encompass three things at the same time: the historical importance of the balance of power, the new importance of high technology and the preservation of its essential values. This challenge is new.

Spiegel also asked, “How do you rate Biden’s statement that President Putin cannot stay in power”? Kissinger replied: “That was not a wise statement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden in a summit meeting before the war. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Spiegel changed the subject to China by asking: “Does the course of the Ukraine war increase or decrease the desire of the Chinese leadership to solve the Taiwan question in their favor?”

Kissinger replied, “Neither, nor. Putin clearly underestimated the resistance he encountered. But the Chinese will only use full force against Taiwan if they decide that a peaceful solution to this conflict is not possible. I don’t think they have reached that point yet.”

Spiegel asked again, “But if China were to come to this conclusion one day, how would this conflict differ from the one in Ukraine?”

Kissinger replied, “It is a military peculiarity of the Ukraine conflict that two nuclear opponents are fighting a conventional war on the territory of a third state, which of course has many of our weapons. An attack on Taiwan, on the other hand, would, legally speaking, plunge China and the United States into direct conflict right from the start.”

Spiegel asked, “Before the Ukraine war, there was a discussion about whether the United States should seek closer relations with Russia in order to put pressure on its rival China… The question today is whether Washington should ease tensions with Beijing in the face of the Russian threat, as you and Nixon did 50 years ago. Do you think America is strong enough to take on the two biggest opponents at the same time?”

And Kissinger concluded:

If that meant escalating the war in Ukraine into a war against Russia while maintaining a hostile attitude towards China, then I think that would be very unwise. I support NATO’s and America’s efforts to stop Russia’s aggression and restore Ukraine to pre-war dimensions. And I understand that Ukraine is making further demands. This problem could be resolved within a broader perspective of international relations. But even if that succeeds, Russia’s future relationship with Europe must then be clarified, i.e., the question of whether Russia will remain a part of European history or whether it will become a permanent opponent in an alliance with completely different territories. That will be the central question. And that applies regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine war, the possible consequences of which I have outlined several times – and I never said that Ukraine should give up part of its territory.

Follow David P Goldman on Twitter at @davidpgoldman