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German navy chief comments spark row with Kyiv

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Comments from a German naval official that fears of a Russian incursion into Ukraine were “nonsense” have sparked a diplomatic row with Kyiv, where tensions are already high over Berlin’s refusal to send weapons to the country.

The German government was forced to distance itself on Saturday from comments made by German Navy Chief Kay-Achim Schönbach, who told a think tank panel that concern about a Russian invasion was overblown and that “what Putin really wants is respect.”

Schönbach, who said he was voicing his private opinion but was wearing his uniform, also said Crimea was “gone” and would “never come back” to Ukraine, and argued in favor of cooperating with Russia to contain China’s rise.

“The content and choice of words of the statements do not correspond in any way to the position of the Federal Ministry of Defense,” a government spokesperson said Saturday.

Schönbach said his comments were “inconsiderate” and “a clear mistake,” saying he had “misjudged the situation.”

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba responded to the incident by summoning the German ambassador in Kyiv. He also issued sharp criticism of Germany’s broader approach to the crisis, in particular its refusal to send — or allow the transfer of — defense weapons to Kyiv.

“Ukraine is grateful to Germany for its support since 2014, as well as for its diplomatic efforts to resolve the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and run counter to this support and effort,” he tweeted.

“German partners must stop such words and actions [which] undermine unity and encourage Vladimir Putin to a new attack on Ukraine.”

Germany’s refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine amid the security crisis on its border to Russia is intended to avoid escalating tensions, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said in an interview published Saturday.

“I can understand that we want to support Ukraine, and that’s exactly what we are doing already,” Lambrecht told Welt am Sonntag, saying Germany would supply a field hospital and provide medical training in February and was “already treating seriously injured Ukrainian soldiers in hospitals of the Bundeswehr.”

But sending weapons “will not help to defuse the crisis at the moment,” she said.

Berlin has also blocked other countries, including Estonia, from sending German-origin artillery to Kyiv by refusing to issue the necessary permits — angering Ukrainian officials.

“The seriousness of the situation requires the coalition government to immediately rethink and change course on the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine,” Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andrij Melnyk told Handelsblatt on Saturday, adding: Kyiv will “not rest in convincing the German government and the opposition to deliver defensive weapons to Ukraine.”

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, defense ministry spokesperson David Helmbold confirmed “there has been an inquiry from the Estonian government with regard to the delivery or transfer of howitzers.” He added that the ministry is “in the process of coordinating our departments on this issue.”

This article has been updated.

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