BERLIN — As Ukrainian leaders struggled to find common ground with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in recent years, Andrij Melnyk faced a diplomatic challenge no less daunting: winning over the Germans.
It didn’t go well. Melnyk, whose tireless advocacy for Ukraine put him in direct conflict with Germany’s powerful energy lobby, quickly became a diplomatic pariah — until last week, that is.
During a special session of the Bundestag on Sunday following Russia’s brutal invasion of his country, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany received a standing ovation from some of the same people who just days earlier had refused to meet with him and dismissed him as a Nervensäge (literally a “nerve saw”).
“It was a strange moment,” Melnyk said earlier this week in an interview in his Berlin office. “I hadn’t expected it.”
Melnyk’s unlikely journey from persona non grata to the toast of the town in the space of a few days says as much about Berlin’s long-lasting refusal to acknowledge that it had misjudged Putin as it does about the ambassador’s perseverance. By exposing the institutional torpor that seized Germany’s foreign policy establishment during the years of former Chancellor Angela Merkel and its slavish devotion to “dialogue” in the absence of progress, his experience also raises a more fundamental question for the West: Is Germany a reliable ally?
That question is top of mind in the wake of Berlin’s stunning reversal last week to effectively abandon decades of German foreign policy orthodoxy by agreeing not only to help arm Ukrainian forces and wean Germany off Russian gas, but to set up a €100 billion fund to modernize its military, a longstanding demand by the U.S. and other allies that was happily ignored for years.
And the German public — which as recently as late January strongly opposed sending weapons to Ukraine, while also advocating the operation of the controversial Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline — has also done a quick U-turn, according to a raft of new polling data published Thursday.
While the shock of Putin’s latest war might explain Germany’s sudden change of heart, it hardly marks the Russian leader’s only use of indiscriminate force in recent years.
When Melnyk arrived as his country’s ambassador to Germany in late 2014, Russia had already annexed Crimea and unleashed a war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. His primary mission in Berlin at the time was to secure German support for arms shipments to help Ukraine take on the Russians.
He hit a brick wall.
Berlin had another agenda that involved embracing Russia to secure Germany’s long-term energy needs. The plan, which entailed the construction of a second Baltic pipeline that came to be known as Nord Stream 2, had been championed by several of the country’s biggest corporations, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and much of the political establishment.
‘A real shock’
Despite Germany’s support for international sanctions on Russia in the wake of the downing of Malaysian airliner MH-17 with nearly 300 passengers on board, Merkel remained convinced that engaging with Moscow was the only way to change Putin’s behavior. With Nord Stream 2, Germany could both serve its long-term energy needs and show Russia that it wasn’t afraid to increase its dependence on Moscow, a step many in Berlin believed would build trust.
“That was a real shock, perhaps the biggest in my seven years as ambassador here,” Melnyk said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Meanwhile, Melnyk had difficulty even getting senior officials to meet with him so that he could make his case.
After Merkel in 2015 negotiated the second Minsk agreement, which was supposed to bring peace to Ukraine, the ambassador created a stir in Berlin with a radio interview in which he questioned whether the Russians would honor the deal.
“We’ve seen too often that all the deals Russia signs turn out to be little more than scraps of paper,” he said.
The same day, Melnyk received a call from Merkel’s chief foreign policy aide urging him “in the name of the chancellor” to be more optimistic. The German foreign office also registered its dismay.
The ambassador turned out to be spot on, but that didn’t help his case. Neither Merkel nor any other officials — with the exception of then-President Joachim Gauck, a fellow renegade with whom Melnyk developed a close relationship — would even meet with him.
But he refused to be cowed. If official Berlin was going to ignore him, Melnyk, 46, would take his case to the media instead. Speaking flawless German with a Ukrainian lilt, he emerged as his country’s most vocal advocate in Germany.
But there were consequences.
German officials in Berlin launched a whispering campaign against Melnyk, claiming he was grandstanding for his home audience in the hopes of securing a prominent political position. A career diplomat, who hails from the western city of Lviv, Melnyk denied the assertions.
It was inevitable, though, that his relentless public attacks on Germany’s endorsement of Nord Stream 2 and criticism of Berlin for not helping Ukraine defend itself would raise the ire of powerful forces.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Schröder’s former right-hand man, was Merkel’s foreign minister in the years after Melnyk arrived. In a meeting with Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko, Steinmeier complained about the ambassador, according to people familiar with the matter. Years later, after becoming German president, the office he still holds, Steinmeier complained again, this time to current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Kyiv stuck with Melnyk anyway. (Steinmeier’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.)
‘Drop in the bucket’
In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion, Melnyk’s pleas reached a fever pitch. Ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Kyiv last month, the ambassador warned that “he won’t be received with much enthusiasm if he arrives empty-handed.”
He dismissed Germany’s donation of 5,000 helmets for the Ukrainian military as a “drop in the bucket.”
Nils Schmid, an MP from Scholz’s Social Democrats, summed up the view of many in the German political establishment: “As Ukraine’s representative he has our full solidarity, but many found his comments in recent weeks to be inappropriate.”
After a Russian admiral was caught on tape in January, for example, saying that “Crimea is lost and isn’t coming back” (an assertion that runs counter to Germany’s official stance), Melnyk retorted that the comments recalled the classification of his countrymen as “subhuman” by the Nazis.
Despite such tensions, Melnyk does have his allies. One is Robert Habeck, Germany’s Green economy minister and vice chancellor. Last year, Habeck approached Melnyk in an effort to better understand the conflict in Ukraine in the run-up to Germany’s general election. Habeck subsequently visited the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and returned convinced that Germany should send defensive weapons, a controversial stance within his own party.
Last Saturday, after the governing coalition had agreed to change course and send weapons, Habeck was the first to inform Melnyk.
“I was so relieved,” the ambassador said.
But Melnyk has made clear he has no intention of toning down his bluntness, despite his recent vindication and the ovation from the Bundestag.
In a television discussion a few days after the Russian invasion began, Melnyk, who has family stuck in Kyiv, faced off with Michael Roth, the Social Democrat who chairs the German parliament’s foreign relations committee.
The German was also among those who until last week had opposed sending arms to Ukraine.
Asked by the moderator if Germany bore some responsibility for Ukraine’s crisis, Roth was defiant.
“I find this blame game difficult,” he said. “I don’t at all share your criticism that we were too slow.”
Roth went on to assert that he had been “fighting for years” for Ukraine to become an official candidate for EU membership, but that it was unrealistic to expect fast-track membership.
Melnyk countered that Roth had never publicly expressed his support for Kyiv’s EU aspirations and argued that now was the time to make a bold political statement in support of Ukrainian membership.
“The Germans are going to regret that they are once again the last ones to agree,” he declared.
Hans von der Burchard contributed.