On Jan. 22, Germany’s Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, stepped down from his post following comments that supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. He had also suggested that Ukraine would never take back Crimea from Russia. His comments triggered a diplomatic storm, attracting widespread criticism since it came at a time when Ukraine is being threatened by a potential Russian invasion.
“I have asked Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect… The minister has accepted my request,” Schoenbach said in a statement. He pointed out that his comments “are increasingly putting a strain” on his office. To “avert further damage” to the German military or the government, he felt that resignation was “necessary.”
When Schoenbach visited India on Jan. 21, he stated that Putin only wants respect and does not actually want Ukraine. He insisted that it is important to have Russia on the side against China. He called Russia an old and important nation. Referring to himself as a “very radical Roman Catholic,” Schoenbach noted that Russia is a Christian country and the fact that Putin is an atheist does not matter.
“Is Russia really interested in having a tiny strip of Ukraine’s soil? No. Or to integrate it in the country? No, this is nonsense. Putin is probably putting pressure because he knows he can do it and he knows that it splits the European Union… What he (Putin) really wants is respect. And my 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,” Schoenbach stated.
He also insisted that the Crimean peninsula is “gone” and that “it will never come back.” The vice admiral’s views contradict the official position of the EU and Washington which calls Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula “unacceptable.”
As the video recording of his talk went viral, Schoenbach became the focus of massive criticism. Ukraine summoned the German ambassador, saying that Schoenbach’s comments were categorically unacceptable.
The German government soon distanced itself from Schoenbach’s comments, with a defense ministry spokesperson clarifying that the vice admiral’s statements “in no way corresponds to the position of the Federal Ministry of Defense.”
In an interview with a local paper, Ukrainian diplomat Andriy Melnyk said that Schoenbach’s comments had put the people of Ukraine in “deep shock.” The comments “massively called into question Germany’s trustworthiness and reliability, not just from a Ukrainian point of view… This patronizing attitude subconsciously also reminds Ukrainians of the horrors of the Nazi occupation, when Ukrainians were treated as subhuman,” Melnyk said.
Schoenbach took to Twitter to accept that he made a mistake. “There is no need to quibble: it was clearly a mistake… My defense 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 defense ministry,” he said in a tweet.
Germany’s defense minister Christine Lamrecht has accepted Schoenbach’s resignation. His deputy has been appointed as interim naval chief. The German government stated that it stands with Ukraine together with its NATO allies and warned Moscow that it will pay a dear price should it make military moves against Ukraine.
Russia is said to have deployed around 100,000 soldiers to Ukraine’s border regions. But despite Germany promising full support to Ukraine, it refuses to provide Kyiv with weapons. Berlin insists that supplying weapons to Ukraine will only make matters worse.