By Ivana Kottasová, Philip Wang and AJ Davis, CNN
The chief of German navy has resigned after suggesting that Crimea would “never come back” to Ukraine, a statement that is in direct contradiction to the stance taken by the German government, the European Union and NATO.
Vice-Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach said he asked the German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to relieve him of his duties “effective immediately.” His resignation on Saturday came at the time of extreme tension between Russia and the West over recent buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.
Schönbach got into hot water over several remarks that included a suggestion that Russian President Vladimir Putin “probably” deserved respect.
A video of his talk at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a think tank, was posted on YouTube on Friday. In it, the Vice-Admiral is heard as saying: “Is Russia really interested in … a small, tiny strip of Ukraine’s soil? No, this is nonsense.”
“What he really wants is respect. And my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost … so if I was asked, it is easy to even give him the respect he really demands, and probably also deserves,” he said, adding: “Russia is an old country. Russia is an important country. Even we, India, Germany, we need Russia, because we need Russia against China.”
The remarks sparked criticism in Germany and abroad. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has summoned the German ambassador to Ukraine over the comments, saying it “strongly rejected” Schönbach’s statements on Crimea never returning to Ukraine.
Schönbach said that the comments he made during the talk reflected his personal opinion “at that moment” and that “they correspond in no way with the official position of the ministry of defense.”
However, he said the remarks were “increasingly weighing on my office” and therefore he decided to resign.
Schönbach took over as the chief of navy, officially known as the Inspector of the Navy, in March last year, after more than 35 years in the navy. He served as the commanding officer of NATO Maritime Group 2, NATO’s standing maritime immediate reaction force.
Meanwhile, as Russia amasses troops on the Ukrainian border, the Ukraine government has been asking NATO countries for help. While the US, UK and several other NATO countries shipped weapons to Ukraine, Germany has so far refused to do so.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told journalists earlier this week that Germany often restricted the export of weapons to crisis areas.
“Germany has a special tradition of showed great restraint when it comes to exporting weapons and arms to crisis areas,” she said. “We have tried to assume responsibility in different ways. We, for example, have helped expand the military hospital.”
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CNN’s Vasco Cotovio in London and Darya Tarasova in Moscow contributed reporting.