The after-effects of misplaced comments

What has led to the resignation of Germany’s navy chief? Has it caused a rift in the relations between Germany and Ukraine?

Updated - January 25, 2022 07:15 pm IST

Published - January 25, 2022 10:59 am IST

Flags of Germany and European Union wave in the wind at the German embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 24, 2022.

Flags of Germany and European Union wave in the wind at the German embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 24, 2022.

The story so far: Germany’s navy chief Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned from his post on January 22, after his remarks on Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin at an event in New Delhi triggered a political controversy back home in Germany and a diplomatic incident with Ukraine.

What did he say?

Speaking at an interactive session at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi on January 21, Schönbach, commenting on fears of Russia invading Ukraine, said, “Does Russia really want a small and tiny strip of Ukraine soil to integrate into their country? No, this is nonsense. Putin is probably putting pressure because he can do it and he splits EU opinion. What he really wants is respect.” He went on to add, “If I was asked, it is easy to give him [Putin] the respect he really demands and probably also deserves. Russia is an old country, Russia is an important country… We need Russia against China.” He also said that Crimea (which Russia annexed in 2014) is “gone” and is “not coming back”. Essentially, his remarks indicated a softer position on Putin and Ukraine, which is at variance with the official stance of both Germany and NATO (Germany is a part of NATO).

What was the reaction to Schönbach’s remarks?

Ukraine was furious. On January 22, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry summoned the German Ambassador in Kieve, Anka Feldhusen, and conveyed “the categorical unacceptability” of the German naval chief’s comments. Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted, “Recent statements by Germany about the impossibility of transferring defence weapons to Ukraine [a reference to Germany’s reported blocking of Estonia’s bid to send German-made arms to Ukraine]…the futility of returning Crimea…do not correspond to the level of our relations.” He further said, “The German partners must stop undermining unity with such words and actions and encouraging Vladimir Putin to launch a new attack on Ukraine.”

Germany moved quickly into damage control mode. Its Ministry of Defence distanced itself from Schönbach’s comments, stating that they in “no way correspond to the position of the [German government] in terms of content and choice of words.” Subsequently, Schönbach himself backtracked from his comments, describing it a “mistake”. In a tweet, he said, “My defence policy remarks during a talk session at a think tank in India reflected my personal opinion in that moment. They in no way reflect the official position of the defence ministry.”

What is Germany’s official position on Ukraine and Putin?

The official position of both Germany and NATO has been that Russia is solely responsible for military escalation at the Ukrainian border and must immediately dial down its troop count, which is estimated to be around 1,00,000. NATO as well as senior members of the German government have been warning Russia of “severe consequences” if it were to invade Ukraine. Their official position also holds that Russia should end its occupation of Crimea, which the West sees as part of Ukrainian territory.

Why have Schönbach’s comments created such a furore?

Analysts believe that the German Vice Admiral’s remarks have evoked strong reactions because —unlike what diplomats are usually allowed to say —they contain an element of unpalatable truth, specifically with regard to an abiding discrepancy between the positions of NATO and Germany. While the U.S. and NATO tend to see Russia predominantly through a monochromatic lens of geopolitical rivalry, as a regional hegemon threatening their supremacy in Europe, Germany, though a NATO member, also considers Russia as a much needed partner for economic growth.

What’s at stake economically for Germany vis-à-vis Russia?

Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, is in the process of weaning itself off coal as well as nuclear energy. The Nord Stream-2 pipeline —which would double the volume of gas supplied by Russia’s Gazprom to Germany— is a potential a game changer when it comes to energy security. At present, the construction of the pipeline is complete but it needs multiple clearances to become operational. If Russia invades Ukraine, Germany would be under tremendous pressure from the U.S. to put Nord Stream-2 in cold storage. Yet at the same time, Europe is witnessing soaring gas prices, and Germany, which is facing an energy crunch, is wary of annoying Kremlin. These conflicting pressures and the resulting confusion could be one of the reasons for the different voices coming from the German government.

What next?

The German official who made the seemingly conciliatory remarks about Putin is no longer in his job. Germany would hope that this should be enough to pacify its allies, including Ukraine. But the dissonance that Schönbach’s remarks point to has not gone away. Germany’s economic self-interest would dictate that it does everything possible to ensure that the West/NATO and Russia meet halfway on the Ukraine situation and avoid an outright invasion of Ukraine.

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