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Head of German Navy Resigns After Saying Russia Would Never Return Crimea

BERLIN—The head of the German navy resigned on Saturday after saying that Russia would never surrender Crimea to Ukraine and that President

Vladimir Putin

only wanted respect, in comments that caused a diplomatic row between Berlin and Kyiv.

Vice Adm.

Kay-Achim Schönbach

said in a statement released by the navy that he had requested the defense minister relieve him with immediate effect of his duty after his “thoughtless comments about security and defense policy.”

In filmed comments during a trip to India, Vice Adm. Schönbach said Crimea was “gone, it will never come back,” according to a video posted on social media. This contradicts the position of the German government, which never recognized Russia’s annexation of the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

He also said that Mr. Putin only wanted and “probably also deserved” respect and that it would be “low-cost, even no-cost” for the West to give him such respect, in part because it needed Russia as a bulwark against China.

The Ukrainian government summoned

Anka Feldhusen,

Germany’s ambassador to Kyiv, on Saturday to protest the comments. It said that it strongly rejected the claims that Crimea would never return to Ukraine and that the country couldn’t meet the criteria for becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Ukraine hopes for a more proactive position of Germany in support of our state, in particular in strengthening our country’s defense capabilities against the threat of large-scale Russian invasion,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said Saturday.

The row comes after Germany blocked the transfer of German-made weapons by NATO member Estonia to Ukraine. Germany has said that its laws prohibit the export of German-made weapons to conflict zones and that it was still studying the request.

A spokesman for the German Defense Ministry said on Saturday it had nothing to add to the navy’s statement on Vice Adm. Schönbach’s resignation. Earlier on Saturday, the ministry had said his comments didn’t reflect the ministry’s positions.

The U.S. and its allies in Europe are concerned that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine with more than 100,000 soldiers and equipment massed at its border, a claim Russia has repeatedly denied.

Washington and Moscow said they would continue diplomatic talks to resolve the crisis after a meeting between Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

and Russian Foreign Minister

Sergei Lavrov

in Geneva on Friday.

The U.S. and its European allies have warned Russia would face devastating sanctions if its forces crossed the border into Ukraine. But differences within Europe over the scope of the sanctions and what would need to happen in order to trigger them have made it hard for the West to offer a united front against Russia.

Germany, which gets more than half of the natural gas it imports from Russia, hasn’t publicly committed to freezing Nord Stream 2, a newly completed pipeline linking it to Russia, in the event of a Russian invasion despite pressure from the U.S. The pipeline is currently awaiting certification in Germany before coming online.

Write to Bertrand Benoit at bertrand.benoit@wsj.com

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