Vice admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach came under fire after saying Putin deserves ‘respect’ and Kyiv will never regain Crimea.
The head of the German navy has resigned after coming under fire at home and abroad for saying that Ukraine would never regain the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
Speaking at an event in New Delhi, India, on Friday, Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach also said it was important to have Russia on side against China, and suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved “respect”.
“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,” Schoenbach said.
“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,” he added, calling Russia an old and important country.
The comments came at a sensitive time as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders. Russia denies it is planning to invade Ukraine.
Diplomatic efforts are focused on preventing an escalation.
Schoenbach’s comments, captured on video, caused anger in Ukraine and the German ambassador was summoned to receive its objections.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry called on Germany to publicly reject the navy chief’s comments, saying in a statement that they could impair Western efforts to de-escalate the situation.
“Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has already provided since 2014, as well as for the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to that support and effort,” Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said separately in a tweet.
The comments also sparked consternation and a swift rebuke back in Berlin.
By late Saturday, Schoenbach had presented his resignation, saying he wanted to prevent further damage to Germany and its military.
“My rash remarks in India … are increasingly putting a strain on my office,” he said. “I consider this step (the resignation) necessary to avert further damage to the German navy, the German forces, and, in particular, the Federal Republic of Germany.”
In a statement, the German navy said defence minister Christine Lambrecht had accepted Schoenbach’s resignation and appointed his deputy as interim naval chief.
The German government has said it stands united with its NATO allies on the issue of Russia’s military threat to Ukraine, warning that Moscow will pay a high price if it makes any military moves against its neighbour.
But unlike many other NATO countries, Berlin says it will not supply Ukraine with weapons, arguing that it does not want to inflame tensions further.
On Saturday, the first shipment of a $200m US security support package for Ukraine arrived in Kyiv, the US embassy said. The delivery followed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kyiv this week amid concerns over Russian military build-up.