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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has challenged German leader Olaf Scholz to visit Kyiv on May 9 in a symbolic show of unity with Ukraine on the day it commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Mr Zelenskyy said such a visit would send a powerful political message as the two countries try to repair a relationship damaged by disputes over weapons, sanctions and diplomatic protocol since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Western and Ukrainian officials have for weeks had their eye on Monday’s anniversary, remembered as Victory Day in the former Soviet Union, because they suspect Russia will want to claim some sort of victory by the time of a prestigious Moscow parade in the presence of President Vladimir Putin.
But Mr Zelenskyy, in an address to British think tank Chatham House, called on Mr Scholz to give the date an extra significance by righting what Ukraine sees as recent as well as historical German wrongs.
“He can make this very powerful political step to come here on May 9, to Kyiv,” said Mr Zelenskyy, responding to The National’s question about relations with Germany.
“I am not explaining the significance. I think you are cultured enough to understand why. Sometimes in history we have to make certain steps for unity, even if there is some kind of coldness in specific relations.”
Mr Scholz has not revealed any plans to visit Kyiv, and his office said it had no new diary announcements for Monday. Leaders on a pilgrimage to Mr Zelenskyy’s bunker have typically kept their itineraries under wraps while Russian missiles continue to hit the city.
The German chancellor has been planning to mark the occasion with a televised address to the nation on the evening of May 8, the day Germany and western countries commemorate the end of the Second World War in Europe.
Previewing his speech, a spokeswoman said Mr Scholz would address the fact that a day that is meant to represent Germany's post-war mantra of “never again” now coincides with a brutal war between two countries that were tormented back then.
A western official on Friday expressed scepticism that Mr Putin would use the Moscow parade to call for a mass mobilisation, as one British minister has suggested, in what would mark a shift away from the Kremlin's description of the invasion as a "special military operation".
"If you needed that countrywide, that would wake people up," the official said. "The people who may be prepared to go and protest the war because they know that the cost of that is very high and they definitely don’t want their children to go fight for it."
Mr Scholz has invoked the threat of another world war - stirring memories of the brutal German war with Russia being commemorated on May 8 and 9 - to justify his relatively cautious approach to the crisis, saying he is not willing to risk an escalation into a nuclear-armed conflict.
But Ukraine has long accused Germany of learning the wrong lessons from its past by seeking to appease Russia and has made no secret of its frustration at Berlin over what it sees as slow progress on weapons deliveries and sanctions.
That discord boiled over when German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who in two terms as foreign minister was one of the faces of Germany’s conciliatory posture towards Moscow, said he had scrapped plans to visit Kyiv after learning he was not welcome.
Although Mr Zelenskyy’s camp sought to play down the row by saying Ukraine wanted to see the decision-making Mr Scholz rather than the figurehead Mr Steinmeier, the incident was taken as a snub in the German chancellery.
Mr Scholz, who only this week declared the non-invitation a “problem for the German government and the German people”, was further criticised when opposition leader Friedrich Merz made it to Kyiv before him.
But the two sides sought to put the dispute behind them on Thursday when Mr Steinmeier spoke to Mr Zelenskyy by phone, in a call which ended with both president and chancellor being invited to Ukraine.
Mr Zelenskyy repeated that invitation on Friday. “Ukraine is open,” he said. “Especially in this war, we have no doors to open. We’re just open. You can come any time.”
The detente comes as Germany steps up military support for Ukraine and seeks to shake off accusations that as Europe’s richest country it is failing to pull its weight in a conflict which is now in its eleventh week.
Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht on Friday announced that Germany would send seven PzH 2000 howitzers to Ukraine, more than the consignment of five German-made models offered by the Netherlands.
Ukrainian gunners will be trained in using the howitzers at an artillery school in Germany, officials have said, shrugging off concerns that such instruction could take Nato out of the safety of non-combatant status.
Ms Lambrecht had last week announced that Ukraine would receive a stock of Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, which came into service in 1970s West Germany and can hit airborne targets at an altitude of up to 5,500 metres.
It was the first delivery of what Germany refers to as heavy weapons after pressure from politicians, egged on by Ukraine’s ambassador in Berlin, culminated in MPs passing a motion calling for such arms to be sent.
Lagging behind allies in some measures of military support, Germany has insisted it is acting in harmony with fellow Nato powers and that its economic might is paying for Ukraine to order the weapons it wants.
But ministers have said they cannot hand over as much gear as they would like because years of underinvestment have left it with limited stocks and because advanced Nato equipment needs more training than the Soviet-era hardware more familiar to Ukrainian troops.
Germany has also celebrated progress in cutting its reliance on Russian oil from 35 per cent of its needs to 12 per cent, allowing it to support a European embargo which Ukraine urgently supports but Berlin had previously stalled.
The high rate of reliance on Russia, although not unusual among European Union member states, has led to further criticism of the Kremlin-friendly policies of Mr Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel and especially of previous chancellor turned Russian gas lobbyist Gerhard Schroeder.
Mr Zelenskyy said on Friday that he opposed calls from some landlocked Eastern European countries for a grace period of several years to phase out imports via Russian oil pipelines.
While several countries including Hungary fear the economic consequences of a ban when fuel prices are already high, other EU members such as Poland say the continued cash flows are empowering Moscow financially and politically.
“You cannot be slightly evil and slightly good – with the right hand you impose sanctions, with the left hand you sign Russian contracts,” Mr Zelenskyy said. “The sanctions should be so effective that we will never have to revisit them.”