No respect for Putin: How a call for cooperation with Russia ended a vice-admiral’s career

By Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian from Germany working at Koç University, Istanbul, on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the history of World War II, the cultural Cold War, and the politics of memory

25 Jan, 2022 09:05 / Updated 7 months ago
The row has consumed Berlin’s top brass and sparked a row with Kiev

The head of the German navy, Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, has resigned in the wake of a scandal in which he faced accusations of being too pro-Moscow. Speaking at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, India, Schönbach had argued that Russia, under its president Vladimir Putin, was fundamentally not interested in taking Ukrainian territory, but, rather, wanted respect from the West and, in particular, to be treated as equals.

In his view, the West should offer that respect, for three reasons: because it would be easy, because Russia and its leader deserve it, and because Europe needs Moscow as an ally against China. Schönbach also appealed in the name of religion, describing himself as a committed Roman Catholic and maintaining that Russia’s Christian identity points to the need for partnership between the country and other mostly Christian nations. As for Crimea, he was frank about his conviction that it would not return to Ukrainian control.

The talk was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, which may have been fatal for his career. If his statements had not been so readily available, perhaps they would have passed unnoticed.

Instead, they caused great consternation, both internationally and at home in Germany. Schönbach, being virtually certain he would be dismissed, acted first and handed in his resignation, which was immediately accepted.

Ukraine’s response was quick: the German ambassador in Kiev, Anka Feldhusen, was summoned for what was, in essence, a rebuke. The Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, Andrij Melnyk, who, ironically, loves to lecture Germans in a tone sorely lacking in respect, barged in as well. In a classical illustration of what the Germans call “nachtreten” – roughly translatable as kicking someone already down – Melnyk could not let the opportunity pass to speak of “German arrogance and megalomania” in general.

With almost comical predictability, once on his high horse, Kiev’s anti-diplomat also delivered a shining example of Godwin’s Law – that is, the weird but common compulsion to bring Nazi references into everything. 

For future historians, this will be an intriguing sequence of events: A very high-ranking German officer – in conjunction with a naval mission in what he calls the “Indo-Pacific” to demonstrate Western resolve against China – gives a talk at a top-notch Indian think tank. Because we live in the age of the World Wide Web, his statements are easily available in full, in essence, everywhere. Thus, they rapidly cause international trouble. An object lesson of the effects of globalization, the rise of India and China, and multipolarity.   

Whatever you think of Schönbach’s statements, while it would be wrong to demonize him, it would be no better to present him as an icon of “free speech” suppressed. Of course, he has a right to his private opinions, but he made the serious mistake of mixing them up with his official function, speaking in full uniform and informing his Indian hosts that his talk would reflect both his personal point of view and that of his government.

He was right, therefore, to cut short the whole affair by resigning. He was, as an absolute minimum, very incautious, as he himself has publicly acknowledged with more honesty than many outgoing politicians have shown. And that is reason enough for stepping down, because every sailor, especially a high-ranking vice-admiral, must avoid giving the impression of interfering with the political leadership’s prerogative to determine and articulate policy, even – maybe especially – when that policy is less than persuasive.

In fact, the current case is evidence that the German system of military-political relations is working better than, for instance, the British or American ones, where through-and-through political statements and brute interventions by military top brass are quite common. When then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seemed within reach of the prime minister’s office, for instance, a British Army general threatened to stage a mutiny if the Left ever came to power.

When consistently unstable former – and perhaps future – US President Donald Trump was on the ropes and more out of control than usual, the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, engaged in high-grade foreign policy by assuring China it would not be attacked by the US. That may well have been necessary and, in that desperate situation, the right thing to do. But celebrating such actions is still wrong. Because the fact that they are needed is evidence of a massive failure at the core of American power. At least with regard to the way in which he handled his own error of judgment, Schönbach deserves respect for doing better than most politicians and quite a few Western top brass as well.   

And what about the substance of Schönbach’s remarks? They require the making of distinctions. His hunch that Russia and Putin want respect, even if a little monocausal, makes much sense, especially in view of the fact that both have repeatedly been shown disrespect.

And in international politics, as in life in general, respect is not a matter of mere decorum – not at all. On the contrary, struggling for recognition is what states do all the time, because it’s an elementary, indispensable resource. Think of it as the crucial point where ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power meet. Or to put it very simply, the more respect a state is accorded, the less it has to fight for it.

Schönbach’s critics should also be fair enough to note that the vice-admiral was clear that, hedged with an irrelevant “probably,” Putin deserves respect as the leader of a major country. Or, put differently, whatever you think of him, his views, and his actions, his office as president of Russia in and of itself requires respect. And, again, that makes perfect sense too.

The head of the German navy was on much thinner ice when talking about China. That was, if you will, his real tragedy. More open-minded and sensible about Russia than some of the critics now piling on, Schönbach himself is still needlessly caught up in the misguided anti-Chinese rhetoric of the current batch of Cold War re-enactors. It’s an irony of history that what cost him his career is, in a way, Germany’s militarily irrelevant and politically mistaken participation in an American-dominated drive to confront China: If the German navy had not sent a token ship to do its share of strutting about off China’s coast, Schönbach would probably never have ended up in that fateful meeting in India. 

Schönbach’s “religious-civilizational” argument also fails to convince. First of all, Putin is not, as the vice-admiral seems to think, an atheist. Secondly, and more importantly, Christianity is not a good criterion for alliance-building or for defining adversaries (and I write that as someone who shares with Schönbach at least a Roman Catholic upbringing). Even the case of India, where Schönbach gave his talk, already contradicts making it one. And there is no reason to confront China because of religion. As a matter of fact, if we take the Christian Gospels seriously, then reconciliation and peace among all humans must be the aim.

Last but not least, Ukraine. Again, Schönbach’s critics should remain fair. He did not, actually, question Kiev’s and the West’s policy of not officially recognizing Crimea as Russian. He only said that returning the peninsula to Ukraine’s de facto control has become a futile policy. You may agree or disagree, but there is no direct challenge to Berlin’s official line here – merely a politically indiscreet exertion of realism in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Likewise, Ambassador Melnyk’s allusions to Nazism are entirely misplaced. In fact, they constitute a much worse scandal in and of themselves. Neither Schönbach nor Germany in general deserve this kind of trash talk from Ukraine – a country that, in reality, Berlin has massively supported. The German Foreign Ministry should have summoned the Ukrainian ambassador for this misconduct, and Kiev would do well to replace him. He comes across as self-advertising and offensive. Some Germans may pretend to like being crudely and unfairly lectured, but many certainly do not. Such ‘diplomats’ do a disservice to Ukraine’s own interests.

Yet what will be most interesting about the Schönbach affair for future historians is the obvious mismatch between what many in the West know to be a fact and the Western narratives that will be spun. It is the lack of realism in Western policy that Schönbach has really stumbled over. It is bizarre, for instance, that a simple statement about owing Russia and its leadership elementary respect can now be misconstrued as somehow undermining Western unity and resolve. If those things are so fragile and allergic to reality, the West has much more to worry about than the head of Germany’s navy.