Opinion: Ukraine's snub to the German president is wrong

Thursday, 14 April 2022 (12:17 IST)
When Steinmeier flew to Warsaw on Tuesday, there was nothing to suggest that plans for another trip were being hatched behind the scenes.

Polish President Andrzej Duda had been mulling a joint trip at the highest level for several days: Five presidents would travel together to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. If everything had gone according to plan, the group would have already been on its way. But then events in Warsaw took a dramatic turn.

The first inkling that something was amiss emerged when Steinmeier dodged questions at the press conference with Duda. A few minutes later, the bombshell burst: "Zelenskyy bans President Steinmeier's Ukraine visit!" screamed the headline on Germany's biggest tabloid, Bild.

Duda had suggested that they both join the presidents of the Baltic states on a trip to Kiev to "send a strong signal of solidarity with Ukraine," Steinmeier said in a brief statement. "I was ready to do that, but apparently — and I have to take note of it — that was not wanted in Kyiv," he added.

Notwithstanding his sober statement, his personal consternation was plain to see. How will Steinmeier, of all people, who has been heavily invested in Ukraine over the years during his tenure as foreign minister address the shambles he's left behind?

There has been no official word on why the trip was cancelled. And while there may be some justification for doing so, the decision is wrong.

Frustration is a lousy advisor

In the short term it may serve Kyiv as an outlet for frustration and despair over Germany and Steinmeier's role in particular. For years, he cultivated close ties with Moscow and failed to take warnings of Russian threats towards Eastern Europe and notably Ukraine seriously enough.

Steinmeier supported the Nord Stream pipelines and was involved in Germany's veto of Ukraine's NATO membership aspirations as foreign minister. Kyiv's list of frustrations is well-documented and Steinmeier himself recently admitted to making mistakes.

Steinmeier failed to distinguish between intention and effect. Seen in this light, it's not surprising that Germany's commitment to Ukraine, not least the enormous financial resources it's poured into the Ukrainian economy, has fallen through the cracks. Many German politicians acted naively and arrogantly. Their foreign policy approach must change. There needs to be a deeper focus on and more understanding for Eastern Europe and less for Russia.

While it would be wrong to accuse Steinmeier of harboring bad intentions, the pent-up frustrations are being compounded by new mistakes: Chancellor Olaf Scholz's long-overdue trip to Kyiv has failed to materialize; the dithering over arms deliveries and sanctions continues.

 It's valid to ask why, if Scholz is dragging his feet, Zelenskyy should welcome Germany's representative head of state to a war zone. Ukraine is fighting for its survival and needs decisions instead of symbolic gestures.

Disastrous effect

Still, the decision to snub Steinmeier is short-sighted, politically disastrous and grossly negligent with a view to the future. Zelenskyy's motives may be understandable, but it doesn't mean he's doing the right thing. By declaring Steinmeier as persona non grata, the Ukrainian government is missing the point because it is burning bridges. If Scholz was indeed planning to travel to Kyiv, that now looks more distant than ever. Respect for the highest office in Germany prevents him from doing so.

The morning-after hangover in Ukraine could be debilitating. The fact that Duda and the leaders of the Baltic states are going ahead with their visit won't change anything. It merely highlights the cracks in Europe that no one needs.

Zelenskyy's snub is also a blow to the outpouring of support and sympathy for Ukraine here in Germany. The German government really can't afford to lose that if it wants to remain strong and unified. A divided Germany is of no use to anyone.

Or is it? There is one more person who must be rubbing his hands in glee. Russian President Vladimir Putin will milk this propaganda coup for all it's worth. Unfortunately, Zelenskyy has supplied him with all he needs.

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