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Zelenskyy's Germany trip: Why it matters and is important

May 13, 2023

Volodymyr Zelenskyy last visited Germany in February 2022, just days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of his country. What does Ukraine's president want from the German government — and what can he expect?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talking with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz outside the Mariyinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine June 16, 2022
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (right) went on a long-awaited visit to Kyiv in June 2022Image: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

The relationship between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has seen its ups and downs. They have met face to face twice since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022; the first time was last June in Kyiv, long after other top politicians had visited there.

That meeting was preceded by an altercation between Berlin and Ukraine's ambassador to Germany at the time, Andrij Melnyk. The outspoken diplomat accused German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of being too close to Moscow, and Scholz of hesitating for too long on delivering weapons to Ukraine.

Steinmeier wanted to visit Kyiv, but his invitation was subsequently canceled. When Scholz called off his own planned visit to Kyiv in response, Melnyk called the chancellor a "beleidigte Leberwurst" (an "offended liver sausage" — a German expression used to describe someone who is childish or easily offended). It took several weeks for things to settle down.

A crowd of people gather around a smashed car in Kyiv
While visiting Kyiv last June, Scholz saw firsthand the destruction caused by Russia's attacks on UkraineImage: Filippo Attili/ANSA/picture alliance

"The relationship has improved considerably," said Henning Hoff from the German Council on Foreign Relations. The political analyst is sure that the change from Melnyk to the "much calmer, more even-tempered," ambassador Oleksii Makeiev in October played a part in this.

The change of leadership at the German Defense Ministry from Christine Lambrecht to Boris Pistorius has also improved German-Ukrainian relations. "With Pistorius, there is now a defense minister at work who says very clearly that his goal is a victory for Ukraine," said Hoff. Pistorius also ensured a "smooth and timely" delivery of German Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, he added. "That is an entirely different tone, a totally different approach."

Weapons, weapons, weapons 

When he comes to Berlin, despite the recent security leak that jeopardized plans, Zelenskyy is expected to repeat his requests for more and better weapons from Germany — also more ammunition, which has become one of his key issues.

Germany waited months before it approved sending heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery to Ukraine. Deliveries of fighter jets, however, have so far been ruled out by Scholz.

Zelenskyy knows that support from the West has its limits. The length of time since the last successful Ukrainian military operations from August to November, and the tank deliveries which were laboriously wrested from its Western allies, have piled the pressure on Kyiv. "We need success," the president admitted recently.

Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States and organizer of the Munich Security Conference, was skeptical in a recent interview with German public broadcaster ARD. "It is wrong to think that Ukrainian forces will suddenly retake the country in a walkover victory," he said, adding that it isn't a matter of days but rather a long-term process. "In Russia, people will assume that they can withstand this. It is far from over."

Demonstrators with Ukrainian flags outside the chancellory in Berlin
Demonstrators outside the chancellery in Berlin have been demanding Ukraine's swift accession to the EUImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

No promises on EU, NATO membership

Another thing Zelenskyy wants from the German government is more support for his country's bids to join NATO and the European Union.

Last June, Ukraine was officially granted candidate status to one day join the EU. On her fifth visit to Kyiv on May 9, to mark Europe Day, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated that "Ukraine belongs in the European family." Kind words, but Zelenskyy can't do much with them.

One problem is Ukraine's grain exports. Farmers in eastern EU countries such as Poland or Bulgaria view the lower-priced Ukrainian agricultural products as a threat to their livelihoods — and their governments have introduced bans.

"It will not happen as quickly as Kyiv wants it to," said Hoff of the outlook for Ukraine's EU accession.

"Joining NATO is even more complicated," he added. In September, Ukraine submitted an application for fast-track membership in the security alliance. A few days ago, during a visit to The Hague, Zelenskyy said: "During the war, we want to get a very clear message that we will be in NATO after the war."

So far, he has yet to receive that clear message. There have been some encouraging statements from individual NATO member countries and from Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, along the lines of "the door remains open." But there has been nothing concrete, and no timeline has been announced.

Jens Stoltenberg in Kyiv shaking hands with Volodymyr Zelenskyy
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has made encouraging statements on possible NATO membership for UkraineImage: Alina Yarysh/REUTERS

Hoff believes the German government doesn't consider NATO membership for Ukraine to be a good idea. "The idea is, rather, to ensure that Ukrainian security is guaranteed by issuing security guarantees. But it is unclear what exactly that should look like," he said.

Charlemagne Prize for the Ukrainian people

During his visit to Germany, Zelenskyy is set to receive the 2023 Charlemagne Prize for himself and the Ukrainian people. The prize, which is handed out each year in the German city of Aachen, is considered one of Europe's most important honors. Since 1950, it has been awarded to people who have worked in the service of European unification.

"I think he is a very worthy recipient because he has reminded us all of what is at stake and what needs to be defended," said Hoff.

"The desire of Ukrainians to belong to the EU has shown us in Europe once again how important the project of European integration is."

This article was originally written in German.

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