At first glance it was a clear signal, wasn't it? Joachim Gauck will not travel to Sochi for the Winter Olympics. It must have meant the German President was really showing the Russian President Vladimir Putin what a human rights campaigner thought of someone who tramples on those rights.
But no, that was not how it was meant. The President's office was astoundingly quick in at least partly playing down a move that probably had initially been meant as a gesture. He has done this a couple of times with domestic and foreign affairs.
It seems the question of how Joachim Gauck should understand his role needs to be discussed – and this would be best done by those who put him in office because only then could misunderstandings be avoided with those who rule – and those who will rule in the future.
In the case of Sochi, it was on the one hand, citizen Gauck making a decision. On the other, President Gauck was seen to have done so. Either way, he should have decided how he wanted to be understood.
Did he as president want to send a signal? Then he should at least stand up for his decision and argue in its favour.
It would then of course have been a top level policy tweak – he would change the style and tone and fundamental position of the government. A Foreign Minister, [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier to just take one example, would probably not have been so happy about it.
There are many things in the world – from Syria to the NSA – which are too important for the relationship with Russia to be put on ice.
But even when a person wants to stick it to Russia and Vladimir Putin, the question remains – who and how? Joachim who?
Hardly anyone knows him in Moscow. Would it not have been better, particularly for someone who sees themselves as a human rights campaigner, to confront Putin with directly? What other human rights campaigner could do that?
At least Gauck could have spoken in defence of human and civil rights campaigns in the country. This would have helped them more than his current signal of a general unwillingness.
And Gauck is also doing the Paralympics a great disservice. Disabilities are often, like so many other things, a non-topic in Russia – more than that, people often live in shame, often hidden away.
Is he going to refuse to go to these Winter Games rather than to use the chance to promote human rights? The President could at least have wrung something political out of his visit, have pushed President Putin into a promise of sorts.
But because he is not behaving clearly, he leaves too much room for interpretation, including the interpretation that he is deliberately seeking to offend Vladimir Putin.
As a citizen he can afford that. As head of state he cannot. He must consider the interests of the country and speak for the country. The country's athletes are travelling to Sochi – he is leaving them standing there like accessories.