Ukraine says Berlin relationship in ‘tatters’ over navy chief’s remarks

Vice-admiral resigns over ‘ill-considered’ Ukraine comments and praise of Putin

German defence minister Christine Lambrecht and vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach in December. Photograph: Bernd Wustneck/Pool/AFP via Getty

Kyiv has warned Berlin that their bilateral relationship is in "tatters" after the head of the German navy made "arrogant" remarks about Ukraine's stand-off with Russia that "recall the Nazi occupation".

German vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned on Saturday, a day after he said western leaders should show Russian president Vladimir Putin more "respect" and that Ukraine would never regain the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin Andrij Melnik welcomed the navy chief’s resignation but said Berlin would have to do more to win back trust after remarks that “had left Ukrainian society in shock”.

At an event in India last Friday, Vice-admiral Schönbach said Mr Putin's actions in Europe – including the annexation of the Crimean peninsula – were motivated by the Russian leader's desire for "respect".


“It is easy to give him the respect he wants – and which he possibly has earned,” he added.

The vice-admiral said Crimea was "lost and never coming back" to Ukraine. On Friday's panel in India, in remarks captured on video, he added that it was important to have Russia on the same side against China.

Mr Melnik said the remarks were a “cynical trivialisation” of the standoff on the Ukrainian border where Moscow has massed a reported 100,000 soldiers and tanks. He accused the former vice-admiral of demonstrating “megalomanical” tendencies with his “dream of a holy alliance with the war criminal Putin and a modern German-Russian crusade against China”.

“This patronising attitude reminds Ukrainians unconsciously of the terror of the Nazi occupation, when Ukrainians were treated as subhuman,” added Mr Melnik, suggesting the claims had “massively called into question” Germany’s international credibility.

Late on Saturday evening Vice-admiral Schönbach apologised for his “ill-considered statements” and late on Saturday asked for his dismissal.

The remarks have done little to improve Germany’s standing with Ukraine over the Russian threat. A key bone of contention between Kyiv and Berlin is the latter’s refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, saying this will only inflame further regional tensions.

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said on Saturday that it was unlikely that arms deliveries would reverse the military imbalance between Russia and Ukraine.

"The best protection is that it doesn't come to aggression," she said. "Our strongest weapon, if one wants to use that word, is that we make clear – as Nato members, as EU states as the G7 – that every new form of aggression will have massive consequences."

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin