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Biden and German chancellor try to project unity amid threat of Russian aggression

Some fault Germany for not taking on a more active role in preparing a response to a potential invasion of Ukraine

President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House on Feb. 7. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Amid escalating worry about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood together at the White House on Monday in an attempt to present a united front against Russian aggression and play down any divisions over a major natural gas pipeline the United States thinks could harm Ukraine.

Germany has faced widespread criticism for not taking a more active role with European allies in preparing a response, but Biden tried to brush aside questions about any divisions between the two longtime allies during a joint news conference.

“Germany and [the] United States are close friends,” Biden said. “There is no issue of global importance where Germany and the United States are not working together.”

At one point during the news conference, Scholz paused and addressed the room in English.

“This is a good idea to say to our American friends: We will be united,” he said. “We will act together. And we will take all the necessary steps, and all the necessary steps will be done by all of us together.”

As U.S. predicts Russia could seize Kyiv in days, diplomatic efforts set to intensify this week

The two leaders were expected to privately discuss creating a robust sanctions package as well as the U.S. views on a gas pipeline connecting Germany and Russia. The Nord Stream 2 project, which is nearly complete, has long been a thorny issue between the two countries, with the United States expressing concern that it could give Russia leverage over Germany while harming Ukraine by weakening its status as a conduit for Russian natural gas.

But during the news conference, it created an odd scenario of an American president threatening to end a German pipeline — and with the German chancellor hesitating to agree publicly.

“If Russia invades — that means tanks and troops will cross into the border of Ukraine — again, there will be no longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it,” Biden said. When asked how he could make such a guarantee given that the project is within Germany, Biden responded, “I promise you we’ll be able to do it.”

Scholz left Germany’s commitment to such a maneuver more ambiguous, saying, “It is important we don’t spell out everything in public.”

“We will take these measures with our allies, with our partners, with the U.S. and we will take all necessary steps,” he said, according to a translation of remarks he delivered in German. “You can be sure there won’t be any measure we have a different approach.”

Even while he never mentioned the Nord Stream 2 project specifically, Scholz said they discussed a robust sanctions package. “There will be a high price for Russia,” he said. “This is a very clear message.”

While Biden often touts his long history with world leaders, his relationship with Scholz is relatively new. It was Scholz’s first visit to Washington since he took office two months ago and, while they repeatedly emphasized unity, the personal relationship still appeared a bit stiff.

Biden and Scholz met at the Group of 20 summit in Rome last year, and they have had several calls since then. But their personal relationship is not nearly as extensive as Biden’s was with Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, one of Europe’s most important leaders during her 16 years in office. On her final visit to Washington over the summer, there was evident warmth as she referred to Biden as “Dear Joe” and he remarked, “She knows the Oval Office as well as I do.”

While the potential conflict between Ukraine and Russia was among the most pressing issues, Biden and Scholz also discussed the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, stability in the Western Balkans, and China’s aggressive economic practices and human rights abuses.

Earlier in the day, Biden and Scholz were in the Oval Office, both wearing masks as reporters were briefly let into the room.

“It's good to have a chance to get to know you more personally,” Biden said.

“And, you know, to state the obvious, Germany is one of America’s closest allies, working in lockstep,” Biden added, “to further deter Russian aggression in Europe, and to address the challenges posed by China and promote stability to vote in the Western Balkans.”

Scholz thanked Biden for the invitation to the White House and said he looked forward to discussing various topics. “We are closest allies and working intensely together,” he said.

“This is necessary for doing the steps that we have to do, for instance, fighting against Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he added. “So it’s an important meeting at a very, very important time.”

Scholz’s trip to Washington provided an opportunity to attempt to repair Germany’s dented reputation at home and overseas over his government’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, which has forced the new chancellor to fend off questions on whether Germany can be relied upon as an ally.

Some German newspapers have dubbed it a “crisis mission” amid criticism over Berlin’s wavering response on financial measures, blocking weapons deliveries to Ukraine, and what some see as a lack of leadership amid the flurry of diplomacy to try to defuse war.

Scholz says response to Russia will be ‘united and decisive’ if Ukraine is invaded

“Where is Scholz?” headlines asked last week, while the hashtag #woistscholz also trended on Twitter. The damage to Berlin’s reputation was considered so dire late last month that according to a leaked memo, Emily Haber, the German ambassador to Washington, cabled home to warn: “Berlin we have a problem.”

The cable said that Washington sees Germany’s stance as being born out of a desire to maintain its gas supplies, Der Spiegel reported.

“How does it feel when allies are classifying Germany’s attitude as unreliable?” Scholz was asked in an interview last week with ZDF television. When he rejected that assertion, the interviewer interrupted to bring up Haber’s cable. “Our allies know full well what they have in us,” Scholz maintained, citing the government’s financial support to Ukraine.

But Kyiv has gone as far as accusing Germany of encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack through its statements on financial sanctions and weapons. And just two months after Scholz was sworn in, his reputation has taken a hit, with public support for his government declining.

After his party won elections in September, polls now put it in second place for the first time, while 63 percent of Germans are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, according to a survey last week by the polling agency Forsa.

Known for his dry and cautious public statements, Scholz initially was reluctant to link Nord Stream 2 to any Russian aggression, saying it was a private project.

Though he has since said “all options” are on the table on the economic side if Russia attacks Ukraine, he has still urged caution, saying those measures need to be carefully considered. Meanwhile, Berlin’s position on sending arms to Ukraine has brought ridicule.

In seeking to play down some of the divisions, U.S. officials ahead of the meeting noted that Germany is the second-largest donor to Ukraine and has been supportive of U.S.-led military efforts.

“We have a close, abiding, important relationship with the Germans that includes having forces stationed in Germany, which has a huge strategic value to the United States,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing held while Biden and Scholz were meeting. “So today is an opportunity for the president to build on the relationship.”

Biden himself seemed to bristle at a question from a German reporter about the need for Scholz to win back the trust of the United States and prove that Germany could be a reliable partner.

“There’s no need to win back trust,” Biden said. “He has a complete trust of the United States. Germany is one of our most important allies in the world. There is no doubt about Germany’s partnership with the United States.”

An announcement that Germany would send 5,000 helmets was roundly mocked in Kyiv, as Estonia complained that Berlin was refusing to issue permission for it to transfer a consignment of decades-old, third-hand Howitzers.

But Germany also has deep economic ties with Moscow as Russia’s second-largest trading partner. Much of that is because of gas sales, with 39 percent of German natural gas imported from Russia.

It has been a baptism by fire for Scholz after Merkel’s tenure. He has had to overcome not only splits in his coalition over how to handle Russia, but also within his Social Democrats, with a left-leaning wing that still brings up the advantages of a strategy of detente with Moscow as espoused by the party’s Cold War chancellor, Willy Brandt.

Another of the Social Democrats’ former chancellors, Gerhard Schröder, already head of the board of directors at Nord Stream 2, has also been nominated to join the board of directors at state-owned Russian energy giant Gazprom.

The trip to Washington is “too late,” Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats, told the Bild newspaper on Sunday.

“In the midst of the greatest threat to peace and freedom in Europe, the chancellor has largely disappeared,” he said. “All his predecessors would have done it differently.”

After the visit to Washington, Scholz will fly to Kyiv next week and on to Moscow, where he will meet with Putin.