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Opinion: Why Ukrainians distrust Germany's president

In Germany, hardly anyone is familiar with the "Steinmeier formula" for Donbas. In Ukraine, however, it is not forgotten — and it's the reason why the German president is not welcome, says Yuri Andrukhovych.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Frank-Walter Steinmeier was not welcome to visit Ukraine

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was not welcome in Kyiv. It was not disclosed who exactly in the Ukrainian leadership made this decision. In any case, Steinmeier was not able to join the small group of other European presidents who were warmly received in in the Ukrainian capital.

Why did this happen to the German president? In this question, you could stress both the word "German" and the word "president." I am not certain which of them should be stressed more.

Chummy approach

First, however, a brief look back at a personal story of mine. In the late summer of 2016, I was in the German city of Weimar, where I was awarded the Goethe Medal along with a prominent Nigerian photographer and a no less prominent Georgian archaeologist.

The official program included a meeting with three foreign ministers. As a reminder, Germany, Poland and France form the so-called "Weimar Triangle" — the foreign ministers of the three countries meet from time to time, not necessarily in Weimar, but that's where it was back then. According to the program, the ministers were scheduled to congratulate the three new laureates.

Yuri Andrukhovych

Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych

Our meeting lasted between one and three minutes at the most. The French foreign minister seemed a little bored, perhaps he was just tired. The Polish foreign minister seemed unhappy with something and grumpy. Only Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister at the time, was affable — it seemed he could hardly keep from patting us on the shoulder or back.

Then he said something like "Oh, well done, congratulations... The Goethe Medal! Great, great... can anyone tell me what it is awarded for — what merits?" That's how he spoke to the three of us. It all happened quickly, and no one really listened to our answers. When the TV cameras had their shots, the trio of ministers moved on.

Model Putin sympathizer

Akinbode Akinbiyi, David Lordkipanidze and I later exchanged our impressions of this so-called "meeting." We agreed that it all seemed rather unprofessional and that we regarded Steinmeier's question as more of a joke, albeit a bad one. Otherwise, it would have been even more sad. None of us had expected the ministers to bow to us. But this obvious superficiality — and the less obvious but perceptible arrogance — was disappointing to us.

It was particularly disappointing to me — after all, I came from the country for which Frank-Walter Steinmeier had come up with his infamous formula. I don't want to claim that it played a decisive role in his further career or that it is the reason Steinmeier was elected President twice. But I can say with certainty that it is precisely because of this formula that Ukrainian society sees him as a model of a Putin sympathizer, and almost as an "agent of Moscow."

Written by Moscow?

The infamous formula which lost all meaning on February 24 was de facto intended to cement Ukraine's surrender in the Donbas. It matches Putin's plans to such an extent that the Ukrainians understandably attributed its true authorship to Moscow. Allegedly,  Steinmeier was adhering to the wishes of his Russian friends and agreed to lend his name and suggested auhorship to a project that was disasterous for Ukraine. If secret diplomacy is considered to evil par excellence, the current German president holds the copyright to its embodiment — at least in the eyes of many Ukrainians.

I do not think Steinmeier is aware of how often Ukrainian media, especially since 2019, have mentioned his name along with the word "formula." It is not an exaggeration to say it was thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of times. Along with this "popularity" comes an avalanche of criticism, distrust and outright rejection. For Ukrainians, the "Steinmeier formula" has become a synonym for something insidious and threatening, a kind of Trojan horse for the destruction of Ukrainian statehood.

Unrivaled unpopularity

Perhaps the "author" himself, who has long since moved to a higher, if rather decorative, position, has already forgotten the essence of the formula he invented. But Ukraine has not forgotten, it has remembered all these years, almost daily, almost always with a curse and always in connection with the name Steinmeier. On the list of German politicians most disliked by Ukrainians, Steinmeier comes second only to his old boss, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. As for current politically active personalities, no one comes close to Steinmeier's unpopularity.

Steinmeier ad Lavrov, two men laugh together

Ukrainians are wary when they see photos like this one of Steinmeier and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

With Steinmeier's example in mind, Germany's elite should recognize how much damage their ambiguous policies during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict have done since 2014. In the process, they have not only harmed Ukraine, but also themselves: Branded as a partner who is extremely unreliable, cynical, and cunning, whose words egregiously diverge from their actions. As a result, Germany has lost its relevance and — thanks to the efforts of both the previous and current federal government — has become an outsider.

'Unimportant president of an unimportant country'

Ukrainian society and the country's leadership, which is heavily dependent on public opinion, clearly felt the moment when the United States and Britain filled the vacuum  — the moment they were able to say "no" even to German President Steinmeier and had to do so for strategic reasons.

But the "unimportant president of an unimportant country" can radically fix that situation. Germany as a whole can recover its role in the eyes of Ukrainians — in particular as neither the US nor Britain are involved: in providing effective and committed support to Ukraine on the road to EU membership. Germany should do so, however without flirting with the aggressor and the ambiguities that go with it.

Yuri Andrukhovych is a Ukrainian writer, poet, essayist and translator. Today he is considered one of the most important cultural and intellectual voices of his country. Andrukhovych's works have been translated and published worldwide.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.

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