German leader’s stance on Russia weighs on first visit to US

Scholz said Moscow would pay a “heavy price” in the event of an attack, but his government’s refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster German troop presence in Eastern Europe or specify the sanctions he would support against Russia drew criticism. abroad and at home.

“The Germans are currently missing. They are doing a lot less than they have to,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, recently told an audience of Ukrainian Americans in his state of Connecticut.

That sentiment was echoed by Republican Senator Rob Portman, who questioned why Berlin had yet to approve a request to let NATO member Estonia pass over former German howitzers at the Ukraine. “It doesn’t make sense to me, and I’ve made that very clear in conversations with the Germans and others,” Portman told NBC.

Ahead of his trip, Scholz defended Germany’s position of not supplying Kiev with lethal weapons, but insisted his country was doing its part by providing significant economic support to Ukraine.

Asked about the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline which aims to deliver Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, Scholz refused to make any explicit commitments.

“Nothing is ruled out,” he told German public broadcaster ARD.

Germany has been criticized for its heavy reliance on Russian natural gas supplies, and the pipeline has long been opposed by the United States. But he is strongly backed by some members of Scholz’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, including former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Schroeder, 77, 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 official trip to Washington, Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom announced on Friday that Schroeder – who has accused Ukraine of “jerk off” in its clash with Russia – has been nominated for join its board of directors.

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

Despite Germany’s reluctance to officially put the new pipeline – which has not yet received an operating permit – on the negotiating table with Russia, the United States has made it clear that even without the agreement of Berlin, the project was dead if Moscow launched an attack.

“One way or another, if Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told “Fox News Sunday”.

Scholz will meet with President Joe Biden and members of Congress on Monday to try to iron out differences. The 63-year-old’s performance in Washington could have broad implications for US-Germany relations and for Scholz’s position at home.

While former President Donald Trump has frequently criticized Germany, accusing it of failing to weigh on the international stage, his successor has sought to rebuild relations with Berlin.

“Biden took real risks, including on the German-Russian gas pipeline issue,” 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,” Rathke said.

After succeeding longtime German leader Angela Merkel last year, Scholz must also appease doubters at home who accuse him of pulling a diplomatic vanishing act over his European counterparts. With the phrase “Where is Scholz?” Trending on social media last week, German conservative opposition leader Friedrich Merz called on the government for “clear words” on the Ukraine crisis.

“We must not rule out anything in reaction to a further military escalation,” said the leader of Merkel’s center-right bloc, though he was also skeptical of any German arms shipments being sent to Germany. Ukraine.

Other members of Scholz’s three-party government coalition took a tougher tone toward Russia.

Speaking alongside her Russian counterpart in Moscow last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party called the deployment of Russian troops to 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.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a member of the Free Democrats who chairs Germany’s parliamentary defense committee, said Schroeder’s work for Moscow is ‘harming the country he should be serving’ and suggested cutting privileges he enjoys since leaving office.

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

Germany’s approval of 5,000 helmets for Ukrainian troops last week drew widespread ridicule. Since then, Kiev has asked Germany for more military equipment, including medium-range and man-portable anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as ammunition.

Meanwhile, some German officials fear that any mention of new sanctions on Russia, let alone a full-scale conflict, could drive up already high gas prices in Europe. Constanze Stelzenmueller, a specialist in transatlantic relations at the Brookings Institution, noted that Europe will bear the brunt of the costs of returning economic sanctions against Russia.

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

In an unusual outburst at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Scholz – who was then German finance minister – announced that he would release a figurative “bazooka” to help companies weather the crisis by setting aside more than 1 trillion euros ($1.1 billion) in state aid.

Scholz may have to make a similar move to allay concerns in Washington and beyond, Rathke said.

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

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Geir Moulson in Berlin and Ellen Knickmeyer and Nathan Ellgren in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Frank Jordans on Twitter at http://twitter.com/wirereporter

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