A German naval officer resigns his post after comments he made to Indians (dot, not feather) offend some Ukrainians. It almost sounds like a joke. But, no, that was Saturday, and as Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach drolly said in his Friday remarks to the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses: “I’m not American so I don’t make jokes. I’m German, we make no jokes and we can’t even tell jokes.”
Schönbach has stepped down as head of the German Navy because he made the mistake of being honest, and not only about his read of the situation in Ukraine. His speech and responses to questions are worth watching in their entirety—informative, insightful, and at times, yes, amusing in his oddly Australian-sounding accented English. I confess to a certain jealousy of Germany now; up to this past weekend, they were the kind of country that could elevate a man like that, where such a forthright sailor was not only promoted but given the highest responsibilities. Meanwhile, our Ottoman Pentagon produces overstuffed political upholstery like Mark Milley.
“One thing, ladies and gentlemen, to make clear: You can really believe that Germany has no hidden agenda,” Schönbach said. “As I said, we are Germans; we’re probably not smart enough to run a hidden agenda.”
Schönbach was giving remarks on Germany’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific region and the opportunities for cooperation and partnership with India. It is now, he said citing other officials, German policy to acknowledge that the economic and political center of gravity has shifted from the trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. “The world’s largest economies share Pacific coastlines,” he said, referring especially to China, the U.S., Japan, and India.
Thus a rising China is not just the elephant in the Indo-Pacific room (a perhaps less tired figure of speech when actually speaking in New Delhi), but globally, a “systemic” rival and “a growing hegemonic power.” That kind of language is optimistic, though, Schönbach said, confessing that in his opinion China has been acting like an enemy. Though still a major trade partner with Germany, especially under former-Chancellor Merkel, China is throwing its weight around as an economic power to cause divisions in the European Union and NATO, and the Germans are beginning to notice.
None of that is terribly controversial. After all, America has been unsuccessfully pivoting to Asia—from failures in the Middle East and the end of history in Europe—for more than a decade. That China is a great power, no one denies. “Competitor” is the term of choice for most, for now, but that’s only a difference of degree with Schönbach’s judgment, not of kind. Where he got in trouble was talking about Russia.
“Russia threatens its neighbors with military force to prevent them from leaving the Russian sphere of influence—interesting we’re talking about spheres of influence again; I thought we’d changed, overcome that,” Schönbach said. Now, if I didn’t have it on his good authority that Germans do not joke, I would be tempted to suggest there was something resembling a smile playing behind the eyes and twitching at the corners of his mouth as the vice admiral said that. The man does not seem to believe we are one more trade agreement and one more round of sanctions away from a world without war.
And Putin’s Russia? What does he think they want? Speaking of the Ukrainian border, Schönbach said,
Putin is probably putting pressure on that because he can do it, and he knows that he splits the European Union, but what he really wants is respect, he wants—on eye level, he wants respect, and my God, giving someone respect is low cost, even no cost…It is easy to give him the respect he really demands, and probably also deserves. Russia is an old country, Russia is an important country, even we—India, Germany—we need Russia, because we need Russia against China.
Schönbach is in trouble—no longer head of the German navy—because he dared to acknowledge the implications of two things. One, in terms of sheer numbers, whether they be of men or money or machines, the economic and political center of gravity really has migrated from the trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, making Ukraine not just a hinterland but a backwater. Two, Ukraine cannot meet the requirements for NATO membership by any accepted standards because, besides being a Northern Virginia money-laundering outfit, it is currently occupied; its territorial sovereignty is already compromised and Crimea is not going to be taken back. Do you risk nuclear war for a backwater? Does it make sense after blinking twice, losing Crimea and the Donbas, to strongly imply you would like to make Ukraine a NATO member, which is tantamount to promising to drive Russia out of Crimea?
Putin is a serious man and wants to be taken seriously, and the refusal by American and European officials to admit the obvious—that we are not going to make Ukraine a full Article 5 member of NATO—is blatantly insulting. What is more, as Schönbach made clear, it is foolish. Refusing to concede anything to Putin and Russia, sanctioning that ancient nation further, only drives it into the arms of China. They may not be friends, exactly, but if we keep forcing them to work together, they will. As Schönbach said, it is us who need Russia:
From my perspective—I’m a very radical Roman Catholic, I believe in God and I believe in Christianity—and there we have a Christian country; even Putin, he’s an atheist, but it doesn’t matter. I think having this big country, this big country that is not a democracy, at our side, as a bilateral partner, giving them a chance, with the E.U. and also with the United States of America…it is easy work, it keeps…Russia, away from China, because China needs the resources of Russia and they’re willing to give them because our sanctions…
The United States that has to scrap ships left to burn in harbor because its sailors cannot put out a fire, the U.S. of lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the America that is too fat to fight, is not one that is able to wage war on two fronts with two major powers. Every attempt at hurting Russia is active aid and comfort to the CCP. Outright war would be to give China the golden opportunity to gamble for all it is after and could only diminish Americans’ health and prosperity.
Yes, the Godless Communists are Godless Communists, but they do not live in Moscow, and it is time the West Wing set in Washington acknowledged that.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to accurately describe the USS Bonhomme Richard disaster.