When Volodymyr Zelensky told the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier yesterday that he did not want to see him in Kyiv, it hit his delegation like a slap in the face. The political class in Berlin still underestimates the depths of mistrust caused by Germany’s Russia policy. Whether trust with Eastern Europe can be rebuilt will depend on Berlin’s support for Ukraine – and certainly not on empty words, gestures and visits.
Steinmeier had been on a state visit to Poland when Zelensky’s message reached him. He had travelled there in order to meet with President Andrzej Duda – in itself no easy encounter. Tensions between the two countries run higher than many in Germany realise. There is deep resentment in Poland about the way that Germany deals with its second world war legacy. Many feel that not enough attention has been given to the two million non-Jewish civilians that were killed there during Hitler’s invasion, as well as the material devastation wreaked there. A planned memorial to Polish suffering might go some way to allay such resentment, but it is unlikely to satisfy those calling for hundreds of billions in reparations.
Poland has also long observed Germany’s increasingly close entanglement with Russia with concern. The Polish deputy prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński recently spoke about what he perceived to be Germany’s ‘strong bias in Moscow's favour’, demanding that the country discontinue its Russian energy imports. But rows over German foreign policy go back further. There has long been a deep suspicion in Poland that Berlin uses Germany’s central position within the EU to extend its economic, political and ideological control over Europe. Last year, Kaczyński accused the EU of being little more than ‘Fourth Reich’.
Steinmeier’s attempt to rebuild bridges in Eastern Europe is therefore laudable. The idea was that he would be accompanied by his counterparts from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – all countries that have been calling for stronger German support against Russia – when travelling to Kyiv spontaneously to see Zelensky. It was meant to be a show of solidarity which, according to some internal sources, was even suggested by the Polish President himself.
There can be no doubt that Steinmeier is keen to be seen to make amends. He has recently spoken about the ‘mistakes’ he and others have made in their dealings with Russia and said that it would make him ‘extremely sad’ if this was to lead to a loss of trust in Ukraine. Like many other German politicians, Steinmeier indulged in the fantasy of eternal peace in Europe for too long, which blinded him to what the ever-closer ties to Russia did to Germany’s standing in Eastern Europe. The invasion of Ukraine has gone some way to opening his eyes to this, but clearly not to the full extent of the mistrust.
For anyone with a foot outside the corridors of power in Berlin, Zelensky’s anger is plain to see. It is not an irrational or general dislike of Germany per se. A delegation of German parliamentarians has just been ‘warmly received’ in Ukraine and Zelensky has also invited Chancellor Olaf Scholz to see him. His mistrust concerns Steinmeier personally and that is entirely understandable given the German President’s track record.
Steinmeier had long been an ardent proponent of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was built to double the amount of gas delivered directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing transit countries like Ukraine and exacerbating the kind of dependency that is now tying Germany’s hands. Like many fellow members of the Social Democratic party (SPD), he had repeatedly justified the project in public while ignoring the concerns voiced by Eastern European nations. Last year, he also caused anger when he cited historical reasons for Germany’s close economic ties with Russia. Steinmeier claimed that ‘for us Germans, there is another dimension’ to the relationship with Moscow, especially in light of the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Such remarks were crude and insensitive given the unspeakable crimes committed by German forces in Ukraine during the second world war. Some of the worst excesses of ethnic cleansing happened on Ukrainian soil such as the murder of Kyiv’s Jews at Babyn Yar and the Odessa massacre. Both also happened in 1941 and constitute two of the largest-scale single events of mass murder in the second world war. It is therefore hardly surprising that Steinmeier’s comments caused ‘surprise and indignation’ in Kyiv, as the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, Andriy Melnyk's, pointed out. He tried to impress on Steinmeier that his comments had ‘struck deep’ into the hearts of Ukrainians. But whether genuinely tone-deaf to such sentiments or willingly ignorant of them, Steinmeier’s office dismissed them out of hand, saying they only felt ‘complete incomprehension.’
Steinmeier also served as German foreign minister during the 2014 annexation of Crimea and was not perceived to take a robust enough stance against Russia at the time. He inflamed the situation further when in 2016 he criticised Nato for its 'loud sabre-rattling and warmongering’. Asked in a recent interview with Der Spiegel whether he was wrong to express such sentiments following Moscow’s brazen land-grab, he still could not bring himself to take them back, merely claiming his words were ‘taken out of context’.
While it is clear that Steinmeier is keen to restore his relationship with Ukraine, the idea that he of all people would travel to Kyiv, before Chancellor Olaf Scholz, sent all the wrong signals. As Zelensky has pointed out time and again, he does not need gesture politics to win this war but weapons and biting economic sanctions. As Germany is currently dithering on the former and extremely reluctant on the latter, sending a representative with little direct political power but a track record of remarks offensive to Ukraine was insensitive.
If Germany is indeed keen to build bridges and move some way towards restoring its relationship with Eastern Europe and Ukraine, it needs action, not gesture politics. Zelensky might be more receptive to Steinmeier’s words if they included pledges for real military and economic support.