Deadly strike in eastern Ukraine signals wider Russian ambitions

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Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, has fired his ambassador to Germany, a week after the diplomat gave an interview in which he defended the legacy of a WWII nationalist leader who collaborated with the Nazis .

Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Berlin since 2014, was one of the most recognized faces of the Ukrainian cause in Germany, never hesitating to fiercely criticize what many saw as Germany’s slow response to the Russian invasion and often angering the country’s political elite.

But in an interview with the Jung & Nai show, broadcast on YouTube on June 29, Mr. Melnyk defended the memory of Stepan Bandera, the leader of the far-right organization of Ukrainian nationalists during World War II. The nationalist group, which espoused fascist ideology, collaborated with German forces when they occupied Ukraine and some of these forces participated in the mass murders of Poles and Jews.

Mr Bandera was not directly involved in the killings, as he was arrested in Ukraine in 1941 and placed in “honorable internment” by the Nazis in a concentration camp outside Berlin for trying to establish an independent Ukraine. Assassinated by Soviet spies in Munich in 1959, Mr. Bandera is still revered by part of the Ukrainian population for his leadership of the nationalist cause, especially in the west, where there are statues of Mr. Bandera and streets that bear his name.

But in Germany, which prides itself on its commitment to acknowledging Nazi crimes and commemorating Holocaust victims, questioning this chapter of history is a red line.

Mr. Melnyk had already raised eyebrows in Germany several years earlier for visiting Mr. Bandera’s grave in Munich. When confronted in the June 29 interview about the history of the OUN’s role in the massacres and Mr. Bandera’s anti-Semitic views, Mr. Melnyk said there was no proof of these claims, which are undisputed in academic circles.

“This is the narrative that the Russians are pushing to this day, and which has support in Germany, Poland and also in Israel,” he said.

Mr Melnyk’s comments drew immediate condemnation from German officials, as well as the Israeli Embassy in Germany. Two Polish ministers, one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters since the Russian invasion, also denounced the statements. That prompted Kyiv to distance itself from Mr Melnyk, saying his views did not represent Ukraine’s position.

Fluent in German, Mr. Melnyk was known in Germany for his impassioned plea for more weapons for Ukraine to defend against Russian invasion. He hasn’t shied away from colorful criticism, such as calling Chancellor Olaf Scholz “insulted liver sauce” for delaying a spring visit to Kyiv. The German phrase, which loosely translates to being a prima donna, has outraged much of the German political establishment. But it won him strong supporters in Germany among those frustrated by their country’s lackluster support.

Despite frequent controversy over Mr Melnyk’s comments, he had been seen as an asset in drawing attention to Ukraine in a country where pacifist leanings within the political establishment have led to reluctance to provide weapons.

Mr. Zelensky announced the dismissal of Mr. Melnyk as well as that of the ambassadors of India, the Czech Republic, Norway and Hungary. Mr. Zelensky later called the change of rotation part of normal diplomatic practice.

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