Olaf Scholz took office in December, succeeding a towering figure in global politics — Angela Merkel — whose absence during the current crisis is being felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
Scholz arrives in Washington as Russian President Vladimir Putin has assembled 70% of the military personnel and weapons on Ukraine’s borders he would need for a full-scale invasion of the country, based on US intelligence estimates — though no one seems to know what his true intentions might be.
Amid the uncertainty, Biden is eager to demonstrate western unity against Putin’s aggression. Ahead of the President’s meeting with Scholz, US officials said the two leaders would spend most of their time together discussing the Ukraine matter, including a “robust sanctions package” being prepared to punish Moscow should an invasion go ahead.
The dire facts on the ground have lent Monday’s meeting in the Oval Office the air of crisis talks, though Biden also hopes to use the session to get to know Scholz personally, given they are likely to spend a lot more time together in the years to come. They have met once before, when Merkel brought Scholz along to October’s Group of 20 summit, but never as equals. Biden has sought to repair ties to Germany after former President Donald Trump publicly accused the country of shirking its international obligations.
Looming over the meeting, however, is the question of Scholz’s resolve to confront Putin. Among the United States’ major European allies, Germany has appeared the most reluctant to commit to lethal aid, sending thousands of helmets instead of weapons and refusing to allow another NATO ally, Estonia, to send German-made howitzers to Ukraine.
Germany has not joined the United States, France, Spain and other allies in bolstering troops along NATO’s eastern flank. And Scholz hasn’t spelled out in any details what sanctions he might be willing to impose on a country that is still a major trading partner for Germany.
US officials frustrated
The impression that Germany is unwilling — or, because of its energy dependence on Russia, unable — to offer serious deterrence measures has left some US officials frustrated.
Both Republican and Democratic members of Congress have voiced their displeasure, and even Biden has hinted at the discord, saying last month a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would prompt some disagreement among NATO members over how to respond.
A senior administration official on Sunday sought to downplay any concerns over Germany’s stance, saying that NATO members each brought their own particular strengths to the table.
“The beauty of having an alliance with 30 NATO allies is that different allies step up to take different approaches to different parts of the problem,” the official said, noting the US and Germany were working closely on sanctions and that Germany was a significant economic donor to Ukraine and had provided humanitarian assistance.
The official also pointed out Germany’s diplomatic efforts, alongside France, to revive a ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia. And the official said the US and Germany were aligned in their view of the troop buildup along Ukraine’s border.
“I absolutely think that our countries are unified in terms of awareness of the risk of further Russian aggression to Ukraine. We have been, for a long time, sharing intelligence with Germany, with the rest of our allies. We are engaged in very regular conversations, both by the White House and State Department, our embassy in Berlin, our other agencies, on the situation. And I think there is absolutely absolute agreement that if there is further Russian aggression, that there’s a number of things that need to be done in terms of deployment of additional troops to the eastern flank, and to the imposition of a large package of economic sanctions,” the official said.
Scholz has insisted Russia will pay dearly if its troops cross over into Ukraine.
“We are intensively engaged with all our allied partners in the European Union, with the question of Ukraine, hardly any question occupies us more,” Scholz said in an interview with the German public broadcaster ZDF before traveling to Washington. He went on to say that an attack by Russia on Ukraine would have a “very high price.”
Before his meeting, Scholz told the Washington Post in an interview published Sunday that “our answer will be united and decisive” to a Russian invasion, seeking to dissuade the impression of a fractured alliance. Scholz was also scheduled to appear on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” on Monday, a rare media blitz for a foreign leader intent on reversing the sense he is on a different page from the United States.
The fate of Nord Stream 2
Still, the new chancellor has declined to say whether a Russian invasion of Ukraine would scuttle the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which transmits Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany, avoiding Ukraine. The United States opposes the pipeline and has stated clearly it won’t go forward should Putin decide to invade.
A day ahead of Scholz’s arrival at the White House, Biden’s aides made clear their position, even if their incoming visitor has been opaque on the subject.
“If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “And Russia understands that. We are coordinated with our allies in Europe on that and that will be the reality if Russia chooses to move forward.”
The senior administration official told reporters that the US has made its position clear to the Scholz government. “We will continue to work very closely with Germany to ensure the pipeline does not move forward,” the official said.
The Nord Stream issue underscores Scholz’s predicament in confronting Russia for its aggressions in Europe. Germany is heavily dependent on Russian energy, making it difficult to impose severe punishment without risking a shut-off of oil and gas during the cold winter months.
The United States has been hurriedly searching the globe for alternative supplies of energy that could be diverted to Europe, from Asia to the Middle East to domestic American suppliers. It isn’t clear how successful the initiative has been, and some countries have said their gas supplies are already spoken for.
Scholz, meanwhile, has faced the awkward association of a predecessor from his political party establishing close ties to the Russian energy industry. Gerhard Schroeder, the last Social Democratic Party politician to serve as chancellor, serves on the board of directors for Nord Stream 2. And last week, Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom announced Schroeder had been nominated to its board, as well.
There has only been one other chancellor since Schroeder left office in 2005: Merkel, whose absence from the world stage after her 16-year tenure has been felt acutely, particularly as Putin tests the West’s resolve.
When Russia last invaded Ukraine, in 2014, Merkel played a central role as a go-between for Putin and Germany’s western allies. She spoke with him consistently and encouraged other leaders to step up their sanctions to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea. She also played a central role keeping Washington updated through the close relationship she’d cultivated with then-President Barack Obama.
This time, it is not the German leader who is emerging in that role but the French. President Emmanuel Macron has spoken several times per week with Putin, and placed his third phone call in a week to Biden on Sunday evening. Macron visits Moscow and Kyiv at the start of this week.
Scholz hasn’t taken as visible a role in defusing the latest crisis, earning him criticism from Germans who accuse the chancellor of making himself invisible at a moment of strain. In an apparent attempt to dissuade that impression, Scholz, too, will visit Russia and Ukraine later this month.