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Steinmeier visit controversy sparks debate in Germany

April 13, 2022

German politicians have reacted with surprise after Ukraine refused a visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The head of state recently admitted mistakes had been made in past efforts at detente with Russia.

Olaf Scholz (l) and Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Ukraine ruled out the visit by Steinmeier, right, but said it would welcome Chancellor ScholzImage: Marcus Brandt/dpa/picture alliance

Politicians from across the political spectrum have voiced their shock after the Ukrainian government refused a visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Steinmeier had planned to visit the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, alongside the heads of state of Poland and the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. 

However, the Ukrainian leadership rejected those plans, Steinmeier said.

While this was ostensibly because of Steinmeier's past fostering of detente with Russia, Ukraine has also made clear that it expects a visit from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz rather than from the president, whose role is largely ceremonial.

Initial disbelief, disappointment

Speaking to German public radio RBB, Scholz said the snub was "irksome" to the German government. The German chancellor did not comment any further, but said: "It would have been good to receive him (Steinmeier)."

Still, Scholz insisted that Germany would continue to support Ukraine.

German lawmaker Michael Roth, foreign policy expert for the Social Democrats (SPD) — the leading partner in Germany's coalition government, and Steinmeier's own party before he took up the presidency — expressed "great disappointment" at the cancellation of the visit.

"I couldn't believe it at first. Especially now, it is important to remain in conversation," the SPD politician told news magazine Der Spiegel.

Roth was among three top German politicians to travel to Ukraine on Tuesday, meeting Ukrainian parliamentarians in the west of the country. Alongside Roth, representing all three member parties of Germany's coalition government, were Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) and Anton Hofreiter of the Greens.

Germany's Steinmeier says he is not welcome in Kyiv

Zelenskyy says wasn't approached by Steinmeier about visit

A day after Steinmeier said he was apparently "not wanted" in Kyiv, Zelenskyy said he had not been officially approached by the German president regarding the visit.

"We were not officially approached by the German president or the office of the German president for this visit," Zelenskyy told a news conference after meeting the leaders of Poland and the three Baltic states, according to the Reuters news agency. 

There was no further formal comment on the issue from Germany on Wednesday. However, multiple German news agencies cited officials at the embassy in Kyiv as saying that they had received written notice on Tuesday that Steinmeier's visit was not desired, with the same message also communicated via other back channels.

Ukraine's Steinmeier decision 'not a good sign'

Jeopardizing future visit by Scholz?

The deputy chairman of the FDP said the snub for Steinmeier meant any visit to Kyiv by Scholz should not take place.

"I cannot imagine that the chancellor of a government supported by the FDP traveling to a country that declares the head of state of our country an undesirable person," the FDP's Kubicki told the German press agency DPA.

Those sentiments were echoed by the party's Alexander Müller, who serves on the Bundestag's defense select committee. 

"This decision from the Ukrainian government to not invite Steinmeier is not a good sign for the relationship of Germany and Ukraine," Müller told DW. "It will lead to our chancellor probably not traveling to Kyiv in the next days or weeks because he can't. When Steinmeier is excluded from Ukraine, [Scholz] cannot go there either."

The foreign policy expert for Germany's Christian Democrats — Germany's main opposition party — described Ukraine's decision as placing a "heavy burden" on relations between the two countries. 

Jürgen Hardt said Chancellor Olaf Scholz should talk directly to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to "put all complaints on both sides on the table."

German chancellor under pressure

"Sooner or later, Scholz himself will also have to seek direct talks with Zelenskyy in the region, ideally in Kyiv," he added.

Hardt, who expressed understanding for the Ukrainian decision, said he assumed that a "new basis" for German-Ukrainian relations could also be found as a result.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, told German television that his country wanted a visit by the German chancellor that would focus on how Germany might help Ukraine with heavy weapons in the battle against Russia.

"My president is looking forward to that," Melnyk, who had spearheaded the criticism of Steinmeier, said.

While Ukraine has demanded that Germany send weapons such as tanks and artillery, this has so far been blocked by Scholz, who is insisting on joint EU action. Germany has already broken multiple longstanding post-war norms on not exporting weapons to hot conflicts since Russia's invasion, along with numerous political and economic measures. 

German president not welcome in Kyiv

Steinmeier calls for solidarity with Ukraine

On Wednesday, Steinmeier reiterated his support for Ukraine, calling for solidarity with Kyiv and further sanctions on Russia.

"It's about sanctions, the toughest sanctions that Europe has ever adopted, to persuade Putin to put an end to the violence and to respect Ukraine's independence," He said at an exhibition opening at the Jewish Museum Berlin.

"Sanctions have tangible consequences and hardships for us. Solidarity also means the willingness to bear burdens," he added.

Admission of past failures

Steinmeier last week admitted mistakes in policy toward Russia in his previous jobs, having served twice as Chancellor Angela Merkel's foreign minister and before that as the head of the chancellery under Gerhard Schröder. 

During his periods in post, most recently from 2013 to 2017, Germany pursued dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and kept close energy ties.

The German president said Berlin had "failed on many points," including efforts to encourage Russia toward democracy — particularly regarding the time after 2014.

Steinmeier was also a supporter of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, designed to double the flow of Russian gas directly to Germany, bypassing transit countries like Ukraine. 

Germany's prior commitment to that project, mothballed for now and seemingly indefinitely, had cost the country "a lot of credit and credibility" in eastern Europe, Steinmeier conceded.

Military analyst Frank Ledwidge talks to DW

'Need to build bridges'

Former boxing world champion Vladimir Klitschko — the brother of Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko — said he hoped there would still be a visit by Steinmeier.

"I hope that the visit of the German president to Kyiv will only be postponed and can be made up for in the coming weeks," Klitschko told the Bild newspaper.

"I think it is urgently necessary that we, as Ukraine, continue to build bridges to Germany," Klitschko stressed. "Germany is partner number one in financial assistance to Ukraine, provides humanitarian support, helps refugees on a massive scale and is sending more and more weapons, just as we need more of them," Klitschko said.

The Klitschko brothers are major German celebrities, having spent the majority of their professional boxing careers in the country.

fb, rc/msh (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AP)