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Scholz stands firm on Ukraine visit amid criticism

Jon Shelton
May 4, 2022

Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed Ukraine's refusal to welcome President Frank-Walter Steinmeier again Wednesday, calling it "a problem for the German people." He said Kyiv needed to do its part to resolve the issue.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaking at Meseberg Palace outside Berlin
Scholz called the snub of the country's highest representative 'a problem for the German government and the German people'Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Wednesday again publicly addressed the ongoing diplomatic spat between Germany and Ukraine over Kyiv's mid-April rebuff of a proposed visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier over his perceived friendliness toward Russia.

Scholz has been under increasing public pressure to visit Kyiv but says the snub of the country's highest representative is keeping him from doing so.

Speaking to reporters alongside Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck (Greens) and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) after a closed Cabinet meeting at Meseberg Palace outside Berlin Wednesday, Scholz (SPD) called Ukraine's treatment of Steinmeier, "a problem for the German government, also for the German people."

Though he did not call for an apology, Scholz went on to say that leaders in Ukraine ought reflect upon what they could do to resolve the issue.

He refrained from going into further specifics saying that he was not interested in leveling criticism as he felt that would not be productive.

Ukraine's ambassador to Germany 'not helping his country's case'

The issue has continued to grab headlines in Germany, not least as a result of Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk's repeated public insults of both Steinmeier and Scholz.

Yesterday, Melnyk used an old German schoolyard barb to accuse Scholz of feigning insult when explaining his refusal to visit Kyiv before Steinmeier.

Among those who chimed in on the issue was Wolfgang Ischinger, president of the Munich Security Conference Foundation Council and a former ambassador to the US himself.

Ischinger issued a tweet reminding Melnyk that he could even risk hurting his country's cause by dishing out such strong sentiments. 

He also quoted his own words to Donald Trump's appointed US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who repeatedly irked his hosts in Berlin and the wider German public through his frequent undiplomatic utterances.

On Tuesday, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, an Free Democrat (FDP) politician who chairs the German parliament's defense committee, suggested Melnyk, "apologize to the president and then politely invite the chancellor to Kyiv."

Melnky, for his part, has been challenged on his often raw tone on German television in recent weeks, responding that for his war-torn country, fighting for its existence, the time for adhering to all diplomatic norms has long passed.

German sentiment seems to be on Scholz' side, if not by a massive margin. A recent YouGov poll found that 49% of Germans agreed with the chancellor's decision not to travel to Kyiv over the Steinmeier snub, 32% said he was acting inappropriately or very inappropriately, 19% had no opinion.

Germany has come under criticism for being slow to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine, for instance, but it is a major donor of humanitarian aid, has taken in more than 400,000 Ukrainian refugees, and on Monday said it would back an EU embargo on Russian oil imports to Europe.

Germany's Ukraine U-Turn

How did this friction between Germany and Ukraine all start?

The spat first flared while Steinmeier was in Poland planning a trip to Ukraine with Polish President Andrzej Duda and their counterparts from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a sign of European solidarity with Ukraine. It was there that he told reporters that despite his willingness to go, his presence, "apparently wasn't wanted in Kyiv."

Ukraine cited decades of close ties between Steinmeier and Russia as grounds for the snub.

Since then, the issue has refused to die down, with Scholz saying he could not travel to Kyiv until the issue of keeping the head of state away was resolved.

Indeed, the situation has created a larger impasse for Germany's government. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, for instance, had been planning to visit Kyiv, but protocol demands the president travel first. Although a largely ceremonial role, the president is also seen as a non-partisan representative of the entire country, and often the first voice expected to speak up in times of crisis.

On Tuesday, opposition leader Friedrich Merz made a much publicized trip to Kyiv during which he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko and several high-ranking politicians.

After the trip, Merz appeared on German public television to suggest Chancellor Scholz do the same, "You can't have these kinds of talks on the telephone. And you can't have them via video conference. You have to have them in person."

Edited by: Mark Hallam.