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Foreign Policy

Zelenskyy’s Steinmeier snub triggers backlash in Germany

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to declare his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier unwelcome in Kyiv has triggered dismay among German politicians and warnings that the move may backfire.

Steinmeier, seen as a symbol of Germany’s soft line on Moscow before the invasion of Ukraine, had planned to visit Kyiv on Wednesday along with the presidents of Poland and the three Baltic states, but the German president had to cancel his trip — which had not been made public in advance for security reasons — after Kyiv indicated that he was not welcome.

The move was a humiliation for Steinmeier — a former foreign minister closely associated with Berlin’s previous policy of pursuing close economic and diplomatic ties with Russia — but also for Germany as a whole. As federal president, Steinmeier is the highest-ranking representative of the German state.

The fact that Zelenskyy communicated his decision just hours before Steinmeier’s planned secret trip, after days of preparation between Berlin and Kyiv, and that Ukrainian officials leaked the snub to German tabloid Bild, deepened the diplomatic insult for Germany.

In an official statement, a government spokesperson voiced a sober reaction, saying that Steinmeier “has taken and is taking a very clear and unambiguous position on the side of Ukraine,” and stressed that he had also directly appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Others were more critical. “While understanding the existential threat to Ukraine posed by the Russian invasion, I expect Ukrainian representatives to adhere to a minimum level of diplomatic manners and not unduly interfere in our country’s domestic politics,” said Rolf Mützenich, the parliamentary group leader of the center-left Social Democrats, the party of Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Michael Roth, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, told POLITICO that he was “disappointed” by Zelenskyy’s decision.

“He [Steinmeier] would have traveled as the highest representative of our country with a clear signal: We stand by Ukraine — in words and deeds. It’s a pity,” said Roth, who is also a Social Democrat.

Roth visited western Ukraine on Tuesday together with two other leading MPs from Germany’s governing coalition — Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the chair of the Bundestag’s defense committee, and the Greens’ Anton Hofreiter, the chair of the European affairs committee.

The trio met Ukrainian lawmakers and Roth stressed such dialogue was valuable. “We were welcomed with open arms in Ukraine. In our talks we were able to clear up and clarify many things,” he said.

Strack-Zimmermann told ZDF television that Zelenskyy’s decision was “not friendly” but also expressed some understanding: “Nerves are raw everywhere,” she said, adding that the case should best be dealt with “behind the scenes” and not in public.

Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, told broadcaster ARD that Zelenskyy wanted Chancellor Scholz, rather than Steinmeier, to come to Kyiv and to announce the supply of more arms.

“Our president is waiting for the chancellor, so that he could make immediate practical decisions, including the delivery of weapons,” Arestovych said.

While Steinmeier is head of state, his role is rather symbolic. Executive power lies with Scholz as chancellor.

Scholz has been holding off on a decision on whether to supply German tanks and heavy weapons to Ukraine despite pressure from coalition partners.

Wolfgang Kubicki, an FDP MP, warned that if Zelenskyy’s aim had indeed been to push Scholz into visiting Kyiv and proclaiming a new level of military support, the Ukrainian leader’s actions may have been counterproductive.

“I can’t imagine the chancellor of a government supported by the FDP traveling to a country that declares our country’s head of state an undesirable person,” Kubicki told the German press agency DPA.

Jacques Schuster, chief commentator for German daily Welt, argued that “Zelenskyy should not overstep the mark,” noting that Germany had been “Kyiv’s biggest [financial] donor since the [initial] Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Zelenskyy’s move on Tuesday came on the same day as Germany’s security Cabinet met to discuss the potential deliveries of German tanks to Ukraine. But there was no immediate sign of any change in position.

A government spokesperson said that “our attitude is unchanged: We have supplied weapons, continue to supply, but do not talk about qualities, quantities or dates.”

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