On Friday, 21 January, Vice Admiral Kai-Achim Schönbach, the head of the German Navy, began a visit to Delhi, India. During his visit, Schönbach downplayed the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in remarks made following a speech at the IDSA (Manohar Parrikar Defense Research and Analysis Institute) think tank, saying that good relations with Moscow should be established. He subsequently resigned from his position as Inspector of the Navy, the head of the Deutsche Marine.
In his remarks Vice Admiral Kai-Achim Schönbach said “is Russia really interested in having a small, tiny strip of Ukraine’s soil? No. Or to integrate it in the country? No, this is nonsense,”, Schönbach continued by suggesting that Putin’s aim is probably to put pressure on the West “because he knows he can do it and he knows that it splits the European Union,”
Schönbach then added, “what he [Putin] really wants is respect. And my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no costm if I was asked, …It is easy to give him the respect he really demands – and probably also deserves.” Ignoring Russia’s current occupation of Crimea and Donbas, the German admiral also claimed that Ukraine will never regain Crimea, which was illegally annexed in 2014. “The Crimean Peninsula is gone, it will never come back, this is a fact,” he concluded.
Schönbach, who described Russia as an important country, urged strong relations with Moscow, stressing that Moscow’s cooperation against China is essential. “Even we, India and Germany, need Russia because we need Russia against China.”
Following the speech in Delhi, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko stated that the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that the German government publicly reject the statements made by Schönbach, who stated that Crimea will never return to Ukraine. Oleg Nikolenko shared on his facebook account [machine translated]:
“The Crimean peninsula can be lost only in the imagination of the German vice admiral. Crimea will certainly return (to Ukraine) thanks to the persistent efforts of Ukraine and its partners who will show their determination in countering the aggressor state. In this regard, it requires clarification from the German government, how the words of the commander of the Navy correlate with the continued support of Germany of the Crimean Platform.”
After his statements about Russia and Russian President Putin drew international criticism and did not align with the German federal government’s and the EU’s political stances, the Vice Admiral resigned upon his return to Germany. A German government spokesperson told ZDF, the German public broadcaster, that “the content and choice of words of the statements in no way correspond to the position of the Federal Ministry of Defense.”
Before the announcement of his resignation Schönbach stated on the official Chief Deu Navy twitter account that the statements he made in India were his personal thoughts at the time and did not reflect the position of the German Armed Forces.
Following Schönbach’s resignation, Ukraine’s Ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, called the resignation of Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach “inadequate” and urged the German government to radically change its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The Vice Admiral’s remarks come as Russia amasses tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders and allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom supply of arms, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. This has led to increased criticism of Germany, which took a different stance than its allies and chose not send weapons to Ukraine.
In a statement to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag on Saturday, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said that sending weapons to Ukraine is counterproductive in the current situation and that the government should do everything possible to alleviate the crisis.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded on Twitter to Germany’s announcement that it would not send weapons to Ukraine in the midst of the Russian crisis, saying, “The German partners must stop undermining unity with such words and actions and encouraging Vladimir Putin to launch a new attack on Ukraine.”
Header image: Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach addressing the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)