Ukraine said it had summoned Germany’s ambassador to protest comments by the head of the German navy, who was filmed saying Russia only “wants respect” and Ukraine would never regain Crimea, remarks that have plunged Kyiv and Berlin into a damaging diplomatic row.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry said it “strongly rejected” the claim by Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach that Crimea will never return to Ukraine and Kyiv will never meet the criteria for Nato membership.
It said the government also communicated to the German ambassador to Ukraine, Anka Feldhusen, its “deep disappointment” over Germany’s continued refusal to provide Ukraine with weapons.
The German government was quick to distance itself from Schönbach’s comments, made at a think-tank in India, in which he appeared to openly sympathise with Russia’s position in the Ukraine crisis.
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.
Russia has amassed more than 106,000 troops close to its border with Ukraine in recent weeks and Vladimir 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 is in contradiction to 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”, adding that the vice-admiral would “have an opportunity to make a statement to the Inspector General” of the Bundeswehr, Eberhard Zorn.
Schönbach tweeted that his remarks “reflected my personal opinion on the ground at that moment . . . [and] in no way correspond to the official position of the Bundeswehr.”
He later added that the comments were “thoughtless, misjudged in the situation, I shouldn’t have done it. There’s no denying it, it was clearly a mistake.”
Additional reporting by Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv