Explained: The comments in India that led to the removal of Germany’s navy chief

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What exactly happened here?

Vice Admiral Schönbach, who was speaking at an event organised by the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) in New Delhi, said on Friday that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin deserved “respect”, and that Ukraine would never get back the Crimean peninsula which Moscow annexed in March 2014.

The comments came at an especially dangerous and sensitive moment, with tens of thousands of Russian troops amassed threateningly at Ukraine’s borders, NATO’s negotiations with Russia stalemated, and President Joe Biden of the United States having predicted this week that Putin would “move in” and invade Ukraine.

The German Defence Ministry asked the navy chief for an explanation, and on Saturday evening, Schönbach posted on his official Twitter handle that his “security policy statements in a talk show at a think tank in India” were his “personal opinion for that moment on the spot”.

He added that he had “carelessly, misjudged in the situation”, and he “shouldn’t have done it like that… it was a clear mistake”, according to a translation of the tweet in German.

This, however, was not enough, and the officer submitted his resignation later that evening.

“I have asked Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve me from my duties with immediate effect,” he said in a statement quoted by Reuters. “The minister has accepted my request.”

But what did Schönbach really say?

What appears to have upset Ukraine the most is Schönbach’s prediction that Crimea, the annexation of which is considered illegal by western governments, is lost forever.

“The Crimean Peninsula is gone. It’s never coming back. This is a fact.” Schönbach said.

“Is Russia really interested in a small tiny strip of Ukraine soil to integrate into their country? No, this is nonsense. Putin is probably putting pressure because he can do it, and he knows he splits us, he splits the European Union.”

What Putin “really wants is respect”, Schönbach said. And that, he added, was not only easy to offer, it was also something that the President probably deserved.

“On eye level, he wants respect. And my God, giving him respect is low-cost, even no-cost. It is easy to give him the respect he demands, and probably deserves.”

Schönbach also mentioned that he is a Roman Catholic, and believes “in God and I believe in Christianity”, and it was important to have Russia on the side of the West against China.

“…And there we have a Christian country, even Putin, he’s an atheist but it doesn’t matter. I think having this big country, even if it is not a democracy, on our side [is important]… probably keeps Russia away from China”.

What is the situation with Ukraine and Russia right now?

According to Western nations, Russia and Ukraine could be on the brink of war. Russia has positioned more than 100,000 troops along the border, and an invasion is considered a clear possibility. British officials said on Saturday that Putin plans to instal a pro-Russian leadership in Kyiv.

On January 19, President Biden delivered a grim prognosis of the situation.

“Do I think he’ll (Putin) test the West, test the United States and NATO, as significantly as he can? Yes, I think he will,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “But I think he will pay a serious and dear price for it that he doesn’t think now will cost him what it’s going to cost him. And I think he will regret having done it.”

Asked if he believed Russia would invade Ukraine, Biden said: “My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov in Geneva on Friday in a bid to ward off what the West thinks could be the imminent invasion of Ukraine.

Russia has been asking the US to stop the expansion of NATO to the east, and to not establish military bases in former Soviet states, or develop bilateral military cooperation with them. Russia considers the former Soviet nations as its own area of influence.

Blinken called the talks “frank and substantive”. Lavrov said they were “constructive and useful”. International media reports said the US had offered a summit between Biden and Putin in a final attempt to defuse the crisis, but that Blinken had underlined that the right of Ukraine and other countries to join NATO was not negotiable.

And where does Germany stand on this issue?

While nations like the United Kingdom and the US have sent weapons to Ukraine to arm it against a possible Russian attack, Germany has so far not done this, despite appeals from Kyiv.

Defence Minister Lambrecht sought to explain the position of Germany in an interview to Welt am Sonntag, a Sunday newspaper: “We are standing on Kyiv’s side. We have to do everything to de-escalate. Currently, arms deliveries would not be helpful in this respect; there is agreement on this in the German government.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last week that “borders must not be moved by force” in Europe. He stated that “after years of rising tensions, staying silent is not a sensible option”.

Explaining Germany’s perspective, he said: “Our commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and about a key principle of our common European peace order, that borders must not be moved by force, that right makes might and not the other way around.”

How has Ukraine responded to Schönbach’s comments?

Kyiv has been very upset, and the German ambassador, Anka Feldhusen, was called in to receive its “categorical unacceptability” of Schönbach’s comments. The Ukrainians also demanded that the Germans publicly disown Schönbach’s statements.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted his country’s position, though without specifically referring to Schönbach’s statements.

“Recent statements by Germany about the impossibility of transferring defence weapons to Ukraine, in particular due to permission to third parties, the futility of returning Crimea, hesitations to disconnect Russia from SWIFT — do not correspond to the level of our relations and the current security situation,” Kuleba said.

He mentioned in two more tweets that “the unity of the West with Russia is more important than ever” today, and to “achieve it and deter the Russian Federation, we are all working together. German partners must stop such words and actions to undermine unity and encourage Vladimir Putin to a new attack on Ukraine.”

Kuleba thanked Germany for its support over the last seven year. “Ukraine is grateful to Germany for its support since 2014, as well as for its diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to this support and effort,” he said.

Was Schönbach speaking specifically about Russia and Ukraine in New Delhi?

He was not. He was delivering a talk at MP-IDSA on Germany’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, and spoke about a range of topics, including China.

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He said that Beijing’s current economic and military policies cast a shadow on the geo-economic and geo-strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific, and that India’s geographical location and growing trade, and economic and strategic interests in the extended neighbourhood, placed upon it a major responsibility to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in tandem with like-minded partners.

India and Germany must work together to promote defence and security ties in the region, he said. China, Schönbach said, was “giving money to dictators and killers” if they were willing to give over the rights to their country’s resources.

The former naval chief’s visit to New Delhi coincided with the docking of the German naval frigate Bayern at Mumbai. Schönbach visited the capital “for high-level consultations with his Indian counterparts”, and met several military and political leaders.

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