Olaf Scholz meets Joe Biden on Monday for the first time with a clear mission – to restore German credibility in the eyes of skeptical allies upset by his response to the Ukraine crisis.
While the German chancellor is on his way to the White House, he is accused at home and abroad of accusing Germany of a unreliable partner and the weak link in the west’s united front against Russia.
His domestic opponents say he has failed to show leadership over Ukraine and contrasts his lack of assertiveness in the conflict with the strong role his predecessor, Angela Merkel, played after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
“Europe faces the greatest threat to peace and freedom and the chancellor has basically disappeared,” said Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats. tell picture. “All his predecessors would have acted differently.”
Meanwhile, officials are increasingly upset about the anti-German hostility spreading in Washington. Der Spiegel last week quoted a leaked memo by Emily Haber, German ambassador to the US, with the caption: “Berlin, we have a problem”, which describes how Congress saw Germany as a brake on sanctions against Russia .
She warned of the “great” damage being done to Germany’s reputation, and said Republicans regarded Berlin, with its overwhelming interest in maintaining gas exports from Russia, as “in bed with Putin”.
Much of the anger stems from Germany’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine. Indeed, it also prevented Estonia from delivering howitzers that were once part of the East German army’s stockpile.
“It is outrageous to me that Ukraine does not receive the weapons it needs because another country, part of the NATO alliance, says it will not approve the transfer,” Republican Senator Rob Portman said last week. week said.
Part of the problem, analysts say, is that Scholz was only in the chancellor for a few weeks when Russia’s massive military build-up on the Ukrainian border in December began to spark fears of an impending invasion.
“This is a chancellor who is inexperienced in international affairs and suddenly he has been thrown into recent memory in one of the worst global crises,” said Ulrich Speck, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
He also deals with a coalition partner – the Greens – with a strong pacifist tendency, and parts of his own party, the Social Democrats, “who do not want to confront Russia”, Speck added.
One Social Democrat in particular has proved a major headache: former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who held a post in the Nord Stream gas pipeline project from Russia to Germany after leaving office in 2005 and was nominated last week on the board of Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas giant. He angered Germany’s political establishment with its pro-Russian intervention and accused Ukraine of “saber-rattling”.
The damage that Schröder and other voices that Russia sympathetically inflicted on the SPD is likely to cast a shadow over Scholz’s talks in the White House. “Germany’s reputation in Washington has broken and Scholz has a lot of repair work to do,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.
German officials are playing off the talk of a new climate of mistrust between Berlin and Washington. They both agree on the need to deter Vladimir Putin from sending troops to Ukraine, and insist that Germany be fully signed to the package of sanctions imposed by Western governments.
The Scholz government has also sharpened its rhetoric about Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea that has been completed and is awaiting regulatory approval, saying it can not continue if Russia invades Ukraine
Berlin has hosted a succession of senior figures from the Biden administration in recent days, including Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, and officials say Scholz was also active behind the scenes.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, also tried to minimize differences between Washington and Berlin, saying they were “now coordinating” on a sanctions package. He said that although Berlin did not send lethal military aid to Ukraine, it provided significant financial support.
On the military front, Sullivan said Germany houses bases that are critical to defending NATO’s eastern flank. “The reason why we can quickly move a battalion to Romania to strengthen and reassure our ally. . . is because those forces were stationed in Germany, ”Sullivan said.
Scholz is increasingly entering the international spotlight. After returning from Washington, he will meet the leaders of the three Baltic states in Berlin, before traveling to Kiev on February 14 and a day later to Moscow.
Officials say talks with Putin will highlight the “high price” Russia will pay if it decides to invade Ukraine. Berlin believes the message has more credibility from Scholz than from other Western leaders.
“Everyone tells us – you have a special relationship with Russia that no one else has,” said one German official. “Nobody gets through with Putin.”
Yet some reject the idea that Germany could influence Putin’s behavior. “The Russians have made it clear that they no longer take us seriously as a conversation partner,” Speck said. “They only see us as part of the American sphere of influence.”
Even those in Germany who think that talk of division with his allies is exaggerated, says Scholz has failed to make clear to the German public what is at stake over Ukraine. He won last September’s election on a platform that was skewed after domestic reform.
“It is partly Scholz’s fault that he did not communicate his own point of view. [on Russia] powerful enough, ”Benner said.
His associates say it misreads Scholz’s style. “His view is that you should do your job behind closed doors,” an official said. “If you continue to make public statements during negotiations, you will eventually reduce your options.”
Scholz’s critics urged patience. “Let’s see the result at the end and then judge it – not now.”
Additional report by James Politi in Washington