German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s stance on Russia looms over first visit to US

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is flying to Washington this week on a mission to reassure Americans that his country stands alongside the United States and other NATO partners in opposing any Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Scholz has said that Moscow would pay a “high price” in the event of an attack, but his government’s refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster its troop presence in eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia has drawn criticism abroad and at home.

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“The Germans are right now missing in action. They are doing far less than they need to do,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, recently told an audience of Ukrainian Americans in his state, Connecticut.

This sentiment was echoed by Republican Senator Rob Portman, who questioned why Berlin hadn’t 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.

Publicly, German officials insist their country is doing its part. Germany’s ambassador in Washington, Emily Haber, appeared on Fox News last month to defend Berlin’s restrictive stance on arms exports and highlight the generous economic support provided to Ukraine.

Yet in a confidential diplomatic cable beginning “Berlin, we have a problem,” Haber warned that Germany risks being portrayed as an unreliable partner in Washington, the respected German news weekly Der Spiegel reported.

Much criticism has also focused on Germany’s heavy reliance on Russian supplies of natural gas and the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing that gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine. The project has long been opposed by the United States but is strongly supported by Scholz’s center-left Social Democratic Party, most prominently its last chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder.

The 77-year-old Schroeder is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and already heads the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG and the board of directors of Nord Stream 2.

In a move likely to embarrass Scholz ahead of his first trip to Washington, the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom announced on Friday that Schroeder — who has accused Ukraine of “saber-rattling” in its standoff with Russia — has been nominated to join its board of directors.

Scholz’s spokesman declined repeated requests for comment on Schroeder’s ties to Putin.

Support for Nord Stream 2 goes beyond Schroeder, however.

The Social Democratic governor of the northeast German state where the pipeline arrives from Russia has lobbied for it. Her predecessor chairs a charitable foundation created to shield companies working on the project from possible US sanctions.

It’s with this baggage in tow that Scholz will meet President Joe Biden and members of Congress on Monday, with a news conference and network interview also planned. The softly-spoken 63-year-old’s performance in Washington could have broad implications for US-German relations and Scholz’s standing at home.

While former President Donald Trump frequently slammed Germany, accusing it of not pulling its weight internationally, his successor has sought to rebuild relations with Berlin.

“Biden has taken some real risks, including on the the issue of the German-Russian gas pipeline,” said Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

“(Scholz’s) visit to Washington is an opportunity for him to try to turn that page,” said Rathke.

Having succeeded long-time German leader Angela Merkel last year, Scholz also needs to appease doubters at home who accuse him of pulling a diplomatic vanishing act compared to his European counterparts.

With the phrase “Where is Scholz?” trending on social media last week, German conservative opposition leader Friedrich Merz called for “clear words” from the government on the Ukraine crisis.

“We must rule nothing out as a reaction to a further military escalation," the leader of Merkel’s center-right bloc said. “It’s a disaster that the German chancellor is evidently paralyzed and inhibited at the moment in what he perhaps could do.”

Others in Scholz’s three-party governing coalition have also been more hawkish toward Russia.
During her visit to Moscow last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party branded Russia’s troop deployment at the border with Ukraine a “threat.” She plans to visit Ukraine on Monday and Tuesday and inspect the front line between Ukrainian troops and areas held by Russian-based separatists in the east.

Whatever Germany does to support Ukraine will likely come at a cost.

Germany’s approval of 5,000 helmets for Ukrainian troops last week drew widespread mockery. Kyiv has since asked Germany for more military hardware, including medium-range and portable anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as ammunition, putting Berlin in an awkward position.

Meanwhile, some German officials worry that any mention of further sanctions against Russia could drive up Europe’s already high gas prices, a fear that experts say isn’t unfounded.

Constanze Stelzenmueller, a specialist on trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution, noted that Europe will bear the brunt of blowback costs from economic sanctions against Russia.

“You have populists in Europe always looking for ways to exploit political differences and tensions,” she said. “That’s what’s at stake here.”

In an uncharacteristic outburst at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Scholz — who was then Germany’s finance minister — announced that he would be pulling out a figurative “bazooka” to help businesses cope with the crisis by setting aside more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) in state aid.

Scholz may need to make a similarly expansive gesture to ease concerns in Washington and beyond, said Rathke.

“Germany is going to have to show that it is not only committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but that it’s putting real resources behind it now, not just pointing to what it’s done in the past," he said.

Read more: US says Russia preparing full-scale invasion of Ukraine

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