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It was a comment that cost him his job, but it was also a moment of unguarded honesty that reveals how the Germany military establishment really sees the potential for conflict with Russia.
Speaking to a think tank in New Delhi on Friday, German naval commander Kay-Achim Schönbach described fears of a Russian invasion of the Ukraine as “nonsense”, saying that what Vladimir Putin really wants is “respect”.
“If I was asked, [I’d say] it is easy to give him the respect he demands and probably also deserves,” Schönbach said.
In another choice quote, the most senior commander of the German fleet said that “the Crimean peninsula is gone, it’s never coming back. That’s a fact,” a point he seemed to be making as part of an appeal to end sanctions against Moscow.
The comments, which were recorded on video, caused outrage in Kiev, where the government immediately called in the German ambassador.
The Ukrainians are already frustrated at Berlin’s refusal to match its assurances of support with the hard currency of arms deliveries. But Schönbach’s comments seemed to suggest something even gloomier - that Germany privately prioritises good relations with Moscow over Ukrainian territorial integrity.
The vice admiral’s statement “massively calls into question Germany's international credibility and reliability - not only from the Ukrainian point of view,” Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andrey Melnyk told Die Welt newspaper. He added that it revealed “German arrogance and megalomania.”
By Saturday evening, faced with being sacked, Schönbach announced that he’d handed in his resignation.
The affair is being referred to as a scandal. But it is less clear whether Schönbach’s faux pax lay in advocating the betrayal of an ally or in laying bare the ambivalence at the heart of German foreign policy to the interests of smaller states on the Russian periphery.
German establishment thinking on Russia can be broadly divided into two schools, both of which leave little room for Ukrainian interests.
There are those who believe that Russia is an insecure power that feels threatened by western military prowess. For them, western capitals are at least as responsible as Moscow for the escalating tensions. They see Germany as having a special responsibility bestowed on it by history to mediate between east and west.
This school, mainly on the political left, emphasizes the need to talk to Putin with “respect” or auf Augenhöhe. Gregor Gysi, foreign affairs spokesman for the pro-Russian Linke party, said this week “we have to respect that the Russians are entitled to a certain buffer zone.” Former Social Democratic (SPD) leader Matthias Platzeck said that all Putin wanted was “a modern security architecture” for Europe that treats Russia “on equal terms.”
Schönbach’s comments suggest that the Russia-as-victim viewpoint is popular in the German military, too. Former Bundeswehr chief of staff Harald Kujat jumped to his defence at the weekend, saying that “in essence what he was saying was true.” Kujat also complained that “in Germany the drums of war are being beaten on a daily basis.”
The second school of thought is one that defines German interests purely economically. Politicians of this persuasion often worry about destablizing the Russian gas imports which feed Germany’s energy hungry economy. This school sees the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline as a business venture that should never be used as a tool of geo-politics.
Thus new CDU leader Friedrich Merz has warned of imposing harsh sanctions, saying that this would come back to bite Germany. CSU leader Markus Söder made clear that “Russia is not our enemy” as he reiterated his support for bringing Nord Stream 2 online as soon as possible.
In the same vein, business newspaper Handelsblatt brushed aside Schönbach’s comments, saying that “they were to an extent close to reality” but suffered from being “politically completely inopportune.”
But there is also a third school of thinking emerging in Germany, one that represents younger voters, who are less encumbered by the misplaced (i.e. Russia-centric) war guilt of their parents’ generation.
Die Zeit foreign editor Michael Thumann summed up this more modern take in his critique of a common misperception:
“Many believe that Putin is only reacting to the USA and NATO. If only the West behaved differently, showed understanding and responded to Putin's concerns, then he would act differently. This is a false assumption, and incidentally one that belittles Russia and underestimates it. Russia is a world power, big enough not to react to others but to act on its own initiative,” he writes.
This point of view is gaining currency in German policy circles. The junior partners in the Berlin coalition - the Greens and the Free Democrats - are both more suspicious of the Kremlin’s motives than their partners in the SPD.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) spoke during a meeting with her American counterpart Anthony Blinken on Thursday of “grave consequences” if Russia ups its aggression. The Free Democrats go even further - they’re prepared to take on the taboo of arms deliveries to Kiev.
Where exactly Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands is less clear. Media reports earlier this month suggested he’d taken responsibility for Russia out of Baerbock’s hands and was planning a “reset” of relations, i.e. a form of appeasement.
More recently though he has hardened his rhetoric, stating that he could pull the plug on North Stream 2 if Russian troops cross the border. “It is clear that there will be a high cost and that all this will have to be discussed if there is a military intervention against Ukraine,” Scholz said last week.
What else do you need to know?
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has come in for stiff criticism after his ministry made the unexpected decision to shorten the time one counts as recovered from the coronavirus from six months to three. People who have been vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine also no longer count as fully immunised. Many expected Lauterbach to be something of a loose cannon as health minister due to his hardline approach on lockdowns. State leaders are reportedly furious that they weren’t consulted on the rule change, while coalition allies have also been shaking the heads. At a meeting on Monday, state premiers accused the SPD man of “deception” and the “instrumentalization of science” for his own objectives. Lauterbach said he was only following the advise of scientists at the Robert koch Institute.
Germany’s catholic church has taken another massive hit to its reputation after the publication of a damning report on child abuse in the diocese of Munich and Freising. Following on from an attempt to hush up a report on sexual abuse in the diocese of Cologne last year, the report in Munich found close to 500 children had been sexually abused by priests or other church functionaries between 1945 and 2019. The report is particularly damning of former Pope Benedikt XVI, who as archbishop of Munich & Freising in the early 1980s took no action when four cases of sexual assault were reported to him. The real number of victims is likely to be much higher, the lawyers behind the report stated.
A gunman shot and injured four people on the campus of Heidelberg University before killing himself on Monday. At the time of publication little was known about the man and his motives. Press reports suggest he was a student at the university. Of the four victims, one suffered life-threatening wounds.
What members have been reading
On Wednesday members were listening to my first podcast, which looked at Angela Merkel as a private person and her remarkable success in keeping herself hidden from public view throughout her career. Thanks for all your feedback!
On Friday, I took a look at emails that have been released by US public health authorities in recent weeks. The emails, dated from February 2020, raise questions about the impartiality of Germany’s top virologist, Christian Drosten, when it comes to answering questions on one of the biggest mysteries of the pandemic - how it started.
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