BERLIN (Reuters) – The German government distanced itself from comments by its navy chief on Saturday after video footage emerged in which the vice admiral said Russian President Vladimir Putin deserved respect and that Kiev did not would ever recover Crimea annexed to Moscow.

German Navy Chief Kay-Achim Schoenbach has apologized for his “reckless” comments, posted on YouTube and widely reported in German media, and called them a mistake.

In a post on Twitter, Schoenbach said his remarks during a focus group discussion in India expressed a personal opinion and not the official position of the Department of Defense.

The remarks come at a sensitive time as Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s borders and diplomatic efforts are underway to prevent the situation from escalating into war. Russia denies plans to invade Ukraine.

A defense ministry spokesman in Berlin said the remarks did not reflect Germany’s position either in content or wording.

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“Admiral Schoenbach will have the opportunity to express his views to the Chief of Defense,” the spokesman added.

In the video, Schoenbach, speaking in English, says Putin is seeking eye level treatment from the West.

“What he (Putin) really wants is respect,” Schoenbach said.

“And my goodness, giving someone respect is inexpensive, even free… It’s easy to give them the respect they really want – and probably deserve too,” Schoenbach said, calling Russia a ancient and important country.

Schoenbach admits that Russia’s actions in Ukraine needed to be addressed, but adds that “the Crimean peninsula is gone, it will never come back, that’s a fact”, thus contradicting the common Western position that the annexation of the peninsula by Moscow to Ukraine in 2014 cannot be accepted and must be cancelled.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called on Germany to publicly reject the navy chief’s comments.

Schoenbach’s comments that Crimea would never return to Ukraine and that the Russian president deserved respect could hamper Western efforts to de-escalate the situation, he said in a statement.

“Ukraine is grateful to Germany for the support it has already provided since 2014, as well as for the diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the Russian-Ukrainian armed conflict. But Germany’s current statements are disappointing and go against this support and efforts,” the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said. Minister Dmytro Kuleba said separately in a tweet.

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Natalia Zinets; Editing by Christina Fincher)

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