Germany tries to mend Ukraine relations after Steinmeier snub | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.04.2022

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Germany tries to mend Ukraine relations after Steinmeier snub

After an embarrassing rebuff for Germany's president from Kyiv, local politicians are scrambling to explain. They insist relations between the two nations are good, despite the brush-off.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Poland

Frank-Walter Steinmeier went to Poland this week, but not Ukraine

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's apparent snub from Kyiv has led to some heavy political fallout in Germany. The day after the scandal, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chairwoman of the parliamentary defense committee, took a deep breath, and said it was no wonder that nerves were on edge on all sides.

The Free Democrats' Strack-Zimmermann had just been part of a short trip to Ukraine with two other Bundestag committee chairmen, Anton Hofreiter of the Greens and Social Democrat Michael Roth, the first trip by such high-ranking members of the Bundestag to Ukraine since the beginning of the war on February 24.

Steinmeier visited Poland on Tuesday, and was scheduled to continue on to Ukraine with his colleagues from Poland and the three Baltic states. But then he said in Warsaw, "I was ready to do that, but apparently, and I have to take note of this, that was not desired in Kyiv."

Low-point for relations

Though Serhiy Leshchenko, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, denied to CNN that Kyiv had rejected an offer of a visit from Steinmeier, the spat represents a low point in official relations between Ukraine and Germany.

Ukraine has been complaining about a lack of solidarity from Germany for some time. Kyiv has claimed that Germany is too hesitant to supply weapons and criticized Berlin for putting the brakes on an energy embargo against the Russian aggressor. Former governments have not been spared either: Zelenskyy also said that Germany had for years held up Kyiv's desire for EU and NATO membership.

All of this has culminated in criticism of Steinmeier, who for a long time, especially while previously serving as foreign minister, maintained good relations with Russia.  Too good, as Ukraine has now said. Zelenskyy emphasized, however, that Chancellor Olaf Scholz is welcome in Ukraine, partly no doubt because Scholz, as head of government, could bring more than gestures of sympathy. Tanks and military vehicles, for example.

Germany's Steinmeier says he is not welcome in Kyiv

'We are already doing a lot'

In Lviv on Tuesday, Strack-Zimmermann tried to defend Germany's position, even though she herself has been advocating for quicker weapons deliveries, while urging the government to abandon what she calls its hesitancy. A government to which, it should be pointed out, her party also belongs.

"I understand the criticism, but for the sake of fairness, I have seen the lists of what the Federal Republic has delivered so far," she told DW. "That was also a lot of equipment that soldiers need, including ammunition and so on. … It's been a lot. Including the appropriate defensive missiles."

Strack-Zimmermann also addressed Zelenskyy's demand that Germany renounce Russian gas and oil: "Germany is an industrialized country. Germany has a high energy demand, and of course we have to make sure that Germany does not go to its knees economically," she said. "Because only if we are strong can we help. But our opinion is that, especially as far as oil is concerned, we should take action as quickly as possible."

Social Democrats upset

On Wednesday, many German politicians criticized Steinmeier's alleged snub as disproportionate, though perhaps understandable. The head of the SPD parliamentary group, Rolf Mützenich, said that Kyiv's signal was "regrettable and does not do justice to the close and developed relations between our countries."

But Christian Democrat foreign affairs expert Jürgen Hardt took a critical view of the government's policy. Speaking on ARD television about whether to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine, he said, "Germany shouldn't be the country that always puts on the brakes."

Rather, he added, Germany should be the country that plays a decisive role in driving such a decision forward in Europe. More and more politicians, both in the government parties and in the opposition, agree with him.

German politician Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann

Lawmaker Strack-Zimmermann was part of a German Bundestag delegation in Ukraine

Embarrassment for Scholz?

What do the latest developments mean for the government? What does it mean for the chancellor? This was the dominant topic at Wednesday's regular government press conference. When will Scholz go to Kyiv? Or can he now no longer do so, after the Steinmeier cancellation? When will Germany deliver heavy weapons, such as the German Leopard battle tanks?

"I would like to say again that the German president has taken a very clear and unambiguous position on the side of Ukraine," said deputy government spokesman Wolfgang Büchner, before pointing out that, on his re-election in Berlin on February 13, Steinmeier had explicitly called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to "loosen the noose" around Ukraine's neck.

But on a possible visit by the Chancellor to Kyiv, there was only this: "We will inform you about the Chancellor's appointments when they come up." In other words: No trip seems planned at the moment.

There was also reluctance to commit to supplying tanks. "We are supplying weapons," Büchner said. "And this is a paradigm shift for Germany. It's the first time Germany is supplying weapons to a country that is at war." The government would not publish details of the weapons supplied for security reasons, he added.

This article was originally written in German.

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