Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, fired his ambassador to Germany, a week after the diplomat gave an interview in which he defended the legacy of a World War II 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 shying away from leveling fierce criticism of what many saw as Germany’s slow response to the Russian invasion and often provoking the ire of the country’s political elite.
But in an interview on the show Jung & Nai, which streamed 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 those forces assisted in the mass murders of Poles and Jews.
Mr. Bandera was not directly involved in the killings, because 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 a part of the Ukrainian population for his leadership of the nationalist cause, particularly in the west, where there are statues of Mr. Bandera and streets named after him.
But in Germany, which prides itself on its commitment to acknowledging Nazi crimes and commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, questioning that chapter in history is a red line.
Mr. Melnyk 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 massacres, and Mr. Bandera’s anti-Semitic views, Mr. Melnyk said there was no proof for the claims, which are undisputed in academic circles.
“That is the narrative that the Russians are pushing to this day, and that has support in Germany, in Poland, and also in Israel,” he said.
Mr. Melnyk’s comments immediately stirred condemnation from German officials, as well as from Israel’s embassy in Germany. Two ministers in Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters since the Russian invasion, also decried the statements. That prompted Kyiv to distance itself from Mr. Melnyk, saying his views did not represent Ukraine’s position.
A fluent German speaker, Mr. Melnyk was known in Germany for his passionate advocacy for more weapons for Ukraine to defend itself against the Russian invasion. He did not shy away from colorful criticism, such as calling Chancellor Olaf Scholz an “insulted liverwurst” for delaying a visit to Kyiv in the spring. The German expression, which loosely translates into being a prima donna, outraged much of Germany’s political establishment. But it won him avid supporters in Germany among those frustrated with their country’s sluggish support.
Despite the frequent controversies stirred by Mr. Melnyk’s comments, he had been seen as an asset to raising attention to Ukraine in a country where pacifist leanings within the political establishment have led to hesitancy in supplying weapons.
Mr. Zelensky announced Mr. Melnyk’s dismissal along with that of the ambassadors of India, the Czech Republic, Norway and Hungary. Mr. Zelensky later called the change a rotation that is part of normal diplomatic practice.