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German President Steinmeier admits mistakes over Russia

April 5, 2022

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has addressed criticism of his ties with Moscow, admitting Germany should have heeded earlier warnings from eastern European countries on Russian aggression.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the ZDF-Morgenmagazin studio
Frank-Walter Steinmeier's role as president is largely ceremonial and holds little in the way of real political powerImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's current president and former foreign minister, conceded on Tuesday that German policy towards Russia in recent years should have been more cautious and skeptical.  

"We failed on many points," the president told German public broadcaster ZDF. "It is true that we should have taken the warnings of our eastern European partners more seriously, particularly regarding the time after 2014."

The comments from Steinmeier, who served as foreign minister under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, most recently between 2013 and 2017, come amid heavy criticism over his connections with Russia.

One of Steinmeier's most prominent critics of his ties with Russia has been the Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk. He called Steinmeier's comments a "first step" in an interview with Germany's Deutschlandfunk radio.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also responded to the comments, saying he welcomed Steinmeier's "honest words." 

"I call on Germany and other EU states to correct them now with swift and resolute actions," Kuleba wrote on Twitter. "Weapons and sanctions. We don't have time anymore."

Ambassador Melnyk also urged action, not just words.

"I would rather, as would many of my people, that the German president wouldn't just show regret, but would call on the government to take the lessons from the massacre at Bucha, from the other atrocities that are being witnessed day and night in Ukraine," Melnyk said.

Nord Stream 2 was a 'mistake'

Melnyk had previously implied that Steinmeier held the similar view to Russian President Vladimir Putin that "there is no Ukrainian people," according to an interview with the German newspaper Tagesspiegel.

The ambassador also claimed that the German president had too many vested interests in Russia, a criticism that was rejected by government spokesperson Wolfgang Büchner.

Steinmeier served two non-consecutive stints as foreign minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, a position he held during Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine — which ended with Moscow taking de facto control of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and backing a continuous war in the eastern Donbas region.

During Steinmeier's tenure at the Foreign Ministry, Germany bolstered its energy ties with Moscow, especially when it came to gas imports. 

Germany draws criticism from Poland, Ukraine

Germany's decision to carry on with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in spite of Russia's actions drew international criticism and particular ire from Washington.

Current German Chancellor Olaf Scholz canceled the pipeline days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

"My adherence to Nord Stream 2 was clearly a mistake," Steinmeier said on Tuesday.

"We continued to believe in bridges that Russia no longer believed in and against which our partners had been warning us."

This mistake cost Germany "a lot of credit and credibility" in eastern Europe he admitted.

No return to 'status quo' on Russia 

However, Steinmeier also rejected any notion that it had been clear for decades that Putin would lead Russia to the point the country is at now.

"Something happened along the way," he told ZDF, adding that going back to good relations was now out of the question.

"I am sure that there will be no return to normalcy with Russia under Putin, no return to the status quo," Steinmeier said.

Germany is highly dependent on importing Russian fossil fuel and is now looking for new sources of natural gas and oil, and has pledged to cut off Russian sources entirely in the near future. 

Ukraine has repeatedly called on Germany to immediately stop sending billions of euros in gas payments to Russia.

Steinmeier calls on Putin to 'stop the madness of this war'

ab/wmr (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)