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Berlin (AFP) – Olaf Scholz makes his Washington debut as German chancellor on Monday, trying to dispel doubts about Berlin’s determination to stand up to Russia in the impasse over Ukraine.
As Scholz seeks to emerge from the shadow of his veteran predecessor Angela Merkel, the new German leader will meet US President Joe Biden with several sticking points on the table.
While the United States under Barack Obama has relied heavily on Merkel’s unique rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Scholz has been criticized on both sides of the Atlantic for his vague stance. in the current crisis.
Biden was careful to mend relations with Europe after the mutual recriminations of the Donald Trump years, but critics say Scholz made that task more complicated.
Berlin’s refusal to agree to ship weapons to Ukraine, its often confused messages about possible sanctions and above all its refusal to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project to supply cheap Russian gas to Germany have all vexed Washington.
Analyst Constanze Stelzenmueller of the US think tank Brookings Institution said “contradictory statements” from Berlin on Russia had sparked “confusion, disappointment and strong criticism” in Washington.
“Scholz’s visit to Washington is an opportunity to repair the damaged image of his coalition,” she told AFP.
“Lost Their Marbles”
The chairman of the German parliament’s defense affairs committee, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, was even more alarmist about the position of the young government in Washington.
“In certain neighborhoods in the United States, it seems that the Germans have lost their minds,” she told AFP.
Scholz took office in December leading a complex three-party coalition between his Social Democrats, Green Environmentalists and pro-business Liberal Democrats.
They got off to a shaky start amid a surge in coronavirus infections and the looming prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Scholz has often struggled with his message given the divisions in government and the influence of “Putinversteher” (Putin sympathizers) in his own party who tend to view Washington more suspiciously than Moscow.
The German coalition agreement sets out a “restrictive” arms export policy, arguing that sending arms to conflict zones is more likely to fuel them than resolve them.
But several European partners as well as the US administration have argued that this makes Ukraine particularly vulnerable as tens of thousands of Russian troops masse on its borders and could tempt Putin rather than appease him.
Despite occasional severances, close transatlantic ties have remained a cornerstone of German foreign policy since World War II.
It was for this reason that the acerbic tone with Washington opened Scholz up for scathing rebuke.
Johann Wadephul, a senior lawmaker from Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told AFP he had received emails from colleagues in Washington “raising doubts about Germany’s reliability”.
John Kornblum, former US ambassador to Germany, noted that Berlin and Washington have long promoted different notions of stability.
“Germany is a country that doesn’t like to take risks, it’s a country that feels very uncomfortable if other people take risks,” he recently told a podcast. of Johns Hopkins foreign policy.
On several major issues, he said, “Germany actually hasn’t been very aligned with its European partners for some time. And this Russian threat, Putin’s strategy is of course the most dramatic.”
On the thorny question of Nord Stream 2, Scholz’s language has evolved and he now concedes that the project would be abandoned in the event of a Russian invasion.
However, security experts on both sides of the Atlantic say Moscow’s moves could be much less cut-and-dried than that, and Scholz and Biden will have to discuss other red lines.
The German leader has also engaged in diplomacy and will visit Ukraine and Russia later this month after close consultations with European partners.
Michael Roth, head of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a close SPD ally of Scholz, said he suspects some criticism of Scholz is rooted in Republican efforts to “discredit” Biden’s rapprochement campaign.
“The most important thing is that we show President Biden that Europeans are ready to defend security, peace and stability throughout Europe,” he told AFP.
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