German Navy chief quits after controversial Ukraine remarks at Delhi think tank
The German Navy chief, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, has resigned following a controversy over his remarks on the situation in Ukraine at a think tank in New Delhi, casting a shadow over Berlin’s maiden effort to project its role in the Indo-Pacific.
Schönbach’s visit to India last week coincided with a port call in Mumbai by the German frigate Bayern, the first visit to India by a German warship in almost a decade. The warship was deployed in the region for seven months and sailed through the South China Sea as a manifestation of Germany’s new Indo-Pacific policy.
During an interactive session on Friday at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a government-backed think tank, Schönbach said he didn’t believe Russia intends to occupy Ukraine and that all Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking for is respect, and complying with this would be a “low cost” option.
In unusually blunt remarks, Schönbach also said China is “giving money to dictators, to killers, to criminals” to gain access to the natural resources of their countries, and that India and Germany need Russia to take on China.
The remarks – especially Schönbach’s contention that the Crimean Peninsule will “never come back” to Ukraine following its annexation by Russia in 2014 – caused consternation in European security circles, and Ukraine’s foreign ministry summoned the German envoy on Saturday to stress “the categorical unacceptability” of the German Navy chief’s comments.
As pressure grew on the German government to fire the navy chief, Schönbach resigned late on Saturday. “I have asked Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect,” he said in a statement. “The minister has accepted my request,” he said.
Earlier, Schönbach apologised for his remarks on Twitter, saying his security policy statements at a think tank event in India were his personal opinion and didn’t correspond in any way to the official position of the German defence ministry. “There is no need to quibble, it was clearly a mistake,” he tweeted in German.
Russia is accused of having amassed 100,000 troops at the border with Ukraine and the US and its allies have demanded these forces be withdrawn. The European Union (EU) and the US also contend that Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine is unacceptable and must be rolled back, and Schönbach’s remarks directly contradicted this position.
Schönbach’s resignation also comes at a time when Germany is facing criticism for blocking Estonia from providing German-origin weapons to Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Germany refused to issue permits for the weapons to be sent to Ukraine.
The three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – have decided to send US-made Javelin and Stinger missiles to Ukraine as part of defence-related assistance. The US state department has permitted Estonia to send US-made weapons to Ukraine.
In a video of his interaction posted on the YouTube channel of IDSA, Schönbach is heard saying: “Is Russia really interested in having a small, tiny strip of Ukraine soil to integrate in their country? No, this is nonsense.”
He added, “I think Putin is probably putting pressure on it because he can do it, and he knows that if [he does it], he splits the European Union. But what he [Putin] really wants is respect...and my God, giving some respect is low cost, even no cost.
“So, if I was asked, it is easy to even give him the respect he really demands and probably also deserves.”
Schönbach described Russia as an “important country” while referring to its background as a Christian nation. “Even we – India, Germany – we need Russia because we need Russia against China,” he said.
His remarks reflect divisions among European nations and the US in responding to the situation in Ukraine.
Schönbach was tougher on China while responding to questions. He said the Belt and Road Initiative was getting countries in Africa mired in debt while the Chinese side made inroads into the infrastructure and security sectors.
He said he spoke about the money that China gives to countries under its Belt and Road Initiative with the foreign ministers of Mali and Niger and noted that China is the biggest lender in Africa. “When you do this, you can never pay back the credit. This is impossible,” Schönbach said.
“Who is working there? Chinese engineers and workers. Who is controlling this infrastructure? Chinese. Who is installing CCTV cameras for controlling the whole society? China. What is your outcome? Zero,” he said.
He added, “China is giving money to dictators, to killers, to criminals. It doesn’t matter as long as they give their resources to China.”