Germany’s naval chief has resigned after controversial comments he made about Russia and Crimea sparked a damaging diplomatic row with Kyiv just as fears grow of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach was filmed at an Indian think-tank last week saying that Vladimir Putin should be given the “respect he probably deserves” and claiming that Crimea would never be returned to Ukraine.
The comments showed sympathy with Russian policy at a time of mounting western alarm at Moscow’s intentions towards Ukraine. Russia has amassed 106,000 troops on the border with its western neighbour and Nato officials fear a Russian invasion is imminent.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry summoned Germany’s ambassador to Kyiv to protest Schönbach’s comments that Ukraine will never regain control of Crimea and meet the criteria for Nato membership.
It said it had also communicated to the German ambassador to Ukraine, Anka Feldhusen, its “deep disappointment” over Germany’s continued refusal to provide Kyiv with weapons. Germany has long pursued a highly restrictive policy on arms exports and is making no exception for Ukraine.
In a statement, Schönbach said he had asked the defence minister to relieve him of his duties as inspector of the German navy “with immediate effect”.
“The ill-considered remarks I made in India about security and military policy are an increasing burden on my office,” he said. “In order to avert further damage to the German navy, the Bundeswehr and above all the Federal Republic of Germany, I consider this step advisable.” He added that the defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, had accepted his resignation.
The German government had been quick to distance itself from Schönbach’s comments. But Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said they were part of a pattern of unhelpful behaviour by German officials.
“Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has provided since 2014, as well as for its diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict,” Kuleba tweeted on Saturday. “But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to that support and those efforts.”
The reaction to the scandal in Berlin political circles was furious. Reinhard Bütikofer, a senior figure in the German Green party, one of the partners in Germany’s coalition government, said Schönbach’s comments were “more than an embarrassment”.
“Utterly unacceptable. There must be consequences! But this is NOT the position of the German foreign ministry,” he said.
The row coincides with a frantic diplomatic drive to deter Russia from invading Ukraine. Putin has vowed an unspecified “military-technical response” if the west rejects his security demands. These include a call for Nato to remove all its forces from Bulgaria, Romania and other ex-communist states in eastern Europe that joined the alliance after 1997 — a move the alliance has deemed unacceptable.
The tension over Schönbach’s faux pas comes just weeks after Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov criticised Germany in a Financial Times interview for blocking the supply of weaponry to Ukraine.
Reznikov said Berlin had vetoed Ukraine’s purchase of anti-drone rifles and anti-sniper systems via the Nato Support and Procurement Agency. Germany has since relented on the first item, after deeming it non-lethal.
Ukraine has also been highly critical of Germany’s support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine. Its critics say it will weaken Kyiv and also tighten the Kremlin’s grip on European energy markets.
The video of Schönbach shows him saying that Putin should be treated as an equal by the west, and referring to Russia as an “old . . . and important country” that the west and India needed “against China”.
“What he [Putin] really wants is respect,” he said. “And by God, giving someone respect is low-cost, even no-cost . . . it is easy to give him the respect he really demands — and probably also deserves.”
Schönbach also said that the “Crimean peninsula is gone, it will never come back, this is a fact”. That contradicts the official western line that the annexation of Crimea was illegal and must be reversed.
The German defence ministry said Schönbach’s comments “do not in any way correspond to the ministry’s position, either in terms of content or in choice of words”.