German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and United States President Joe Biden are set to meet for the first time, with questions over Germany’s commitment to NATO in the face of a spiralling standoff with Russia set to loom large at the White House talks.
Berlin is often considered one of Washington’s closest allies, a partnership emphasised by the Biden administration amid its wider campaign to re-engage with European allies. But as diplomatic solutions to the crisis remain scarce, the German government has also faced criticism for its refusal to supply lethal weapons to Kyiv, bolster Germany’s troop presence in Eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Moscow.
Departing for Washington, DC on Tuesday, Scholz portrayed Germany’s position as solid.
The German government, he said, is “very concrete … in what we do for defence in NATO”, citing the presence of troops in Lithuania and noting that his country is the largest European defence contributor to NATO and provides massive economic and financial assistance to Ukraine.
Scholz said the trip would reaffirm the strategy of warning Russia that “if there is military aggression against Ukraine, that will have a high price” while seeking to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm the situation.
Meanwhile, a senior US official, previewing Monday’s visit to reporters, called Germany “one of our closest and strongest allies in Europe”, adding that the meeting was seen “as an opportunity to ensure the continuity of close relations”.
While avoiding revealing concrete requests of Berlin, the official said Washington has been coordinating with Germany and other European allies “on a swift and severe package of sanctions that the US and Europe would both impose on Russia in the event of an invasion on Ukraine”.
After the visit, Scholz, who was sworn in to succeed Angela Merkel as head of a new centre-left coalition government in December, is scheduled to meet French President Emmanuel Macron and Polish President Andrzej Duda, and also hold separate talks with leaders in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
He will then travel to Kyiv and Moscow on February 14 and 15.
The White House meeting is expected to set the tone for the German chancellor’s next phase of diplomatic effort, wrote Jeffrey Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
It will give Scholz “the opportunity to turn a page and pursue an effective, coordinated response with Germany’s allies rather than to blend into the European wallpaper and leave the political, persuasive, and public work to others”.
For Biden, the talks could affirm “the bet that his administration’s extensive efforts to rebuild relations with American allies will pay dividends when they are needed most”.
Nord Stream 2
More clarity on Germany’s position on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an $11bn project that would deliver gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea, is expected to top the agenda for the Biden administration.
Washington has said they would shut down the project, which is complete but has not gone into operation. Germany, which relies heavily on Russia for its energy needs, has remained more opaque on the matter.
“If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward and Russia understands that we [have] co-ordinated with our allies,” Biden’s NSA Jake Sullivan told NBC on Sunday.
Asked if Scholz would publicly pledge such a measure, Sullivan responded: “I’ll let the German chancellor speak for himself.”
Scholz, for his part, told German public broadcaster ARD that “nothing is ruled out”.
The White House meeting, meanwhile, comes as Scholz and Biden have faced domestic pressure to clarify their joint strategy in terms of Russia, with whom Berlin has generally sought a post-World War II policy of rapprochement and carefully calibrated ties.
Scholz has defended refusing to deliver weapons to Ukraine, telling the Report from Berlin TV programme that most Germans shared his view.
“We do not deliver to places in crisis and … do not deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine,” he said.
Still, last week, “Where is Scholz?” trended on social media, with conservative opposition leader Friedrich Merz seizing on the lack of “clear words” from the government.
Others in Scholz’s three-party governing coalition have struck a harsher tone towards Russia, with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party calling Russia’s troop deployment at the border with Ukraine a “threat”.
Scholz has also been contending with the fallout of the announcement that his party’s former leader Gerhard Schroeder has been nominated by Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom to join its board of directors.
Schroeder had previously accused Ukraine of “sabre-rattling” in its standoff with Russia.
Meanwhile, there has been bipartisan US criticism of Germany’s approach, with Republicans and some Democrats have called for asset freezes and travel bans on European business officials involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, recently told an audience of Ukrainian Americans, “The Germans are right now missing in action. They are doing far less than they need to do.”
Republican Senator Rob Portman, meanwhile, questioned why Berlin had not yet approved a request to let NATO member Estonia pass over old German howitzers to Ukraine.
“That makes no sense to me, and I’ve made that very clear in conversations with the Germans and others,” Portman told NBC.