German envoy out in the cold on solidarity mission to Ukraine
Bloomberg February 8, 2022
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who used to go to antiwar demonstrations as a child, on Tuesday donned a bulletproof vest and a camouflage helmet to visit an area in eastern Ukraine where soldiers face off against Russian-backed separatists.
As Western powers try to persuade President Vladimir Putin to withdraw Russian troops from Ukraine’s border, Germany is caught in the middle. The U.S. has been pushing Europe’s biggest economy to take a clear stance on measures to deter Russia -- which has repeatedly denied it plans to attack Ukraine -- while Kyiv is increasingly frustrated with Berlin’s refusal to send weapons.
Baerbock’s Ukrainian hosts made it clear they’re losing patience with Germany’s resistance to break with its policy against exporting weapons to crisis areas. On Monday, a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that Baerbock’s office had put on her itinerary didn’t take place.
Zelenskiy’s office denied that it had ever been scheduled, and she met Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal instead.
Despite the embarrassment, Baerbock -- who previously met with Zelenskiy on Jan. 17 -- sought to project solidarity with Ukraine as she visited a conflict zone near the port town of Mariupol.
Dwarfed by the military personnel protecting her, she saw vacated houses and toys abandoned on the snow-covered streets with trenches less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.
“It’s something different if you see all this with your own eyes,” the 41-year-old Green politician said. “For the people who live here, there’s the constant fear of getting hit by a sniper.”
The number of violations of the ceasefire at the so-called contact line between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists have increased in the past few weeks, according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
There are also regular attempts to jam or destroy the group’s observation drones, and on Monday, another soldier had been shot dead not far away from where Baerbock visited.
The German foreign minister could do little more than offer symbolic support for Ukraine. Together with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, she visited the Holodomor memorial on Monday. The site commemorates millions of victims who died in a famine in the 1930s that Ukraine blames on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Later, Baerbock toured a military hospital where wounded soldiers from skirmishes with Russian-backed separatists are treated. By way of support, Baerbock noted that Germany funded medical equipment to treat the injuries.
“The help that we provide has saved many lives here,” she said.
During the trip, Baerbock was handed a wish list of military equipment, including night-vision devices and land-mine detectors. She promised to study the requests very carefully, but already signaled she wouldn’t be able to fulfill most of Ukraine’s wishes.
“I work for the goal that military activities won’t escalate further,” she said after touring the front. “We will not be able to solve this Russian aggression by military means.”