BERLIN — As Ukrainian leaders struggled to find common ground with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in recent years, Andriy Melnyk faced a no less daunting diplomatic challenge: winning over the Germans.
It didn’t go well. Melnyk, whose tireless advocacy for Ukraine brought him into direct conflict with Germany’s powerful energy lobby, quickly became a diplomatic outcast — at least until last week.
During a special session of the Bundestag on Sunday after Russia’s brutal invasion of his country, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany received one standing ovation by some of the same people who, just days earlier, had refused to meet with him and dismissed him as one pain in the neck (literally a “pain in the ass”).
“It was a strange moment,” Melnyk said in an interview at his Berlin office earlier this week. “I did not expect that.”
Melnyk’s unlikely journey from unwanted person testifying to the city’s toast within days says as much about Berlin’s long-running refusal to acknowledge its misjudgment of Putin as it does about the ambassador’s persistence. By exposing the institutional rigidity that gripped Germany’s foreign policy establishment in 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 one? reliable ally? ?
That question comes after Berlin’s stunning U-turn last week, which effectively abandoned decades of German foreign policy orthodoxy by not only agreeing to arm Ukraine’s armed forces and wean Germany off Russian gas, but also a €100 billion fund to modernize its military, a longstanding demand by the US and other allies that has been happily ignored for years.
And the German public — which as recently as late January was staunchly opposed to arms sales to Ukraine while endorsing the operation of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — has also made a quick about-face of new ones, according to one raft survey data published Thursday.
While the shock of Putin’s recent war may explain Germany’s sudden change of heart, this is by no means the Russian leader’s only indiscriminate use of force in recent years.
When Melnyk came to Germany as his country’s ambassador at the end of 2014, Russia had already annexed Crimea and unleashed a war in Donbass in eastern Ukraine. His main job in Berlin at the time was securing German support for arms supplies to help Ukraine take on the Russians.
He hit a wall.
Berlin had a different agenda, which was to embrace Russia to secure Germany’s long-term energy needs. The plan, which would see the construction of a second Baltic Sea pipeline, known as Nord Stream 2, had been championed by several of the country’s biggest companies, ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and much of the political establishment.
“A real shock”
Despite Germany’s support for international sanctions against Russia after the downing of the Malaysian MH-17 airliner with nearly 300 passengers on board, Merkel remained convinced that working with Moscow was the only way to change Putin’s behavior. With Nord Stream 2, Germany could both meet its long-term energy needs and show Russia it’s not afraid to increase its dependence on Moscow, a move many in Berlin believed would inspire confidence.
“It was a real shock, perhaps the biggest in my seven years as ambassador here,” said Melnyk. “I could not believe it.”
Meanwhile, Melnyk was having trouble getting even high-ranking officials to meet with him so he could argue his case.
After Merkel negotiated the second Minsk agreement in 2015, intended to bring peace to Ukraine, the ambassador in Berlin caused a stir with a radio interview in which he questioned whether the Russians would honor the deal.
“We’ve seen too many times that whatever agreements Russia signs turn out to be little more than scraps of paper,” he said called.
On the same day, Melnyk received a call from Merkel’s foreign policy adviser, urging him to be more optimistic “on behalf of the Chancellor.” The Foreign Office was also dismayed.
The ambassador turned out to be spot on, but that didn’t help his case. Neither Merkel nor other officials — with the exception of then-President Joachim Gauck, a defector with whom Melnyk developed a close relationship — would even meet with him.
But he wasn’t intimidated. If official Berlin ignored him, Melnyk, 46, would instead take his case to the media. He spoke impeccable German with a Ukrainian twist and became the most vocal advocate of his country in Germany.
But there were consequences.
German officials in Berlin launched a whisper campaign against Melnyk, claiming he was performing for his home audience in hopes of securing a prominent political position for himself. Melnyk, a career diplomat who hails from the western city of Lviv, denied the claims.
It was inevitable, however, that his relentless public attacks on Germany’s endorsement of Nord Stream 2 and his criticism of Berlin for not helping Ukraine to defend itself would draw the wrath of powerful forces.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Schröder’s former right-hand man, was Merkel’s foreign minister in the years after Melnyk took office. At a meeting with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Steinmeier complained about the ambassador, according to people familiar with the matter. Years later, after becoming German president, the post he still holds, Steinmeier complained again, this time to current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Kyiv stayed with Melnyk anyway. (Steinmeier’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this article.)
‘Drop in the bucket’
In the weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, Melnyk’s pleas reached a climax. Ahead of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Kyiv last month, the ambassador warned that “if he arrives empty-handed, he will not be welcomed with great enthusiasm.”
He dismissed the German donation of 5,000 helmets for the Ukrainian military as a “drop in the ocean”.
Nils Schmid, MP for the Scholzer Social Democrats, summed up the opinion of many in the German political establishment: “As a representative of Ukraine, he has our full solidarity, but many have found his statements in recent weeks inappropriate.”
For example, after a Russian admiral was caught on tape in January saying “Crimea is lost and will not come back” (a claim that contradicts Germany’s official stance), Melnyk countered that the remarks were reminiscent of his countrymen’s classification by the Nazis referred to as “subhumans”.
Despite such tensions, Melnyk has his allies. One is Robert Habeck, Germany’s green economy minister and vice chancellor. Last year, Habeck turned to Melnyk to better understand the conflict in Ukraine ahead of the general election. Habeck subsequently visited the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and returned convinced that Germany should send defensive arms, a contentious stance within his own party.
After the governing coalition had agreed on a change of course and arms deliveries last Saturday, Habeck was the first to inform Melnyk.
“I was so relieved,” said the ambassador.
but Melnyk has made it clear that despite his recent justification and the Bundestag ovation, he has no intention of softening his bluntness.
In a television discussion a few days after the start of the Russian invasion, Melnyk, whose family is stuck in Kyiv, met Social Democrat Michael Roth, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag.
The German was also among those who spoke out against arms deliveries to Ukraine until last week.
When asked by the moderator whether Germany was partly to blame for the crisis in Ukraine, Roth was defiant.
“I find this blame game difficult,” he said. “I don’t share your criticism that we were too slow at all.”
Roth went on to say that he had “fought for years” for Ukraine to become an official candidate for EU membership, but that it was unrealistic to expect accelerated membership.
Melnyk countered that Roth had never publicly expressed support for Kiev’s EU aspirations, arguing that now is the time to make a bold political statement in support of Ukraine’s membership.
“The Germans will regret that once again they were the last to agree,” he said.
Hans von der Burchard contributed.
https://www.politico.eu/article/for-ukraines-envoy-to-germany-a-bittersweet-vindication/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication A bittersweet justification for the Ukrainian envoy in Germany – POLITICO