Quiet Olaf Scholz seeks to answer Ukraine critics on White House trip

Chancellor's reserved manner under fire as he tackles his first major crisis since taking office

Olaf Scholz (C) on board a government plane after departing from Berlin's main airport. AP
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Olaf Scholz’s summit at the White House on Monday will give him a chance to show some German leadership which opponents say the Chancellor has lacked as Russia presents him with his first major crisis.

The air of quiet reserve that helped Mr Scholz win power has become a liability as critics demand a more energetic response to the Russian troop build-up near Ukraine.

And Germany’s detractors abroad accuse one of Nato’s wealthiest members of letting the side down by refusing to send troops or weapons to Ukraine.

Mr Scholz is keen to show unity with the US in his talks in Washington, where the White House came to his defence by highlighting Germany’s financial aid to Ukraine and military support for Nato countries.

But he may face tricky talks with US President Joe Biden on the future of a Baltic gas pipeline that has long put the two countries at odds.

What is Olaf Scholz doing in Washington?

Mr Scholz’s trip is the latest in a tour of allied capitals since he took office in December but his visit to Washington will be dominated by the crisis in Ukraine.

It is his first major intervention in the crisis after the leaders of Britain and France each travelled to Eastern Europe.

Mr Scholz said the trip was about ensuring that the US and Germany sing from the same hymn sheet on their approach to Russia.

This should include preparing retaliatory sanctions if Russia invades Ukraine, as well as charting a diplomatic route out of the crisis, he told ARD television.

A White House official said Mr Scholz and Mr Biden would discuss a possible sanctions package and “ongoing efforts to ensure deterrence” against Russia.

What is Germany’s position on Russia and Ukraine?

The basic German position, that Russia is stoking tension and should expect severe sanctions if it attacks Ukraine, is no different from that of its allies.

But it differs from countries such as the UK and US in refusing to send troops or weapons to Ukraine.

“A further military escalation would not bring security to Ukraine,” was how Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock summed up Berlin’s position.

Motivated in part by lingering German guilt over the Nazi invasion of Russia during the Second World War, this policy is not new to Mr Scholz’s government but has come under greater scrutiny as Ukraine prepares for a possible invasion.

Berlin is also keeping its options open on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, despite pressure from the US to scrap it over fears it will be used to blackmail Europe. The White House said Mr Scholz and Mr Biden were expected to discuss this on Monday.

Why is Mr Scholz being criticised?

Opposition politicians in Germany say Mr Scholz’s reserved manner has gone too far as other leaders, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, mount a more visible response to the crisis.

“You’re not leading, Mr Chancellor – either at home or abroad,” said Friedrich Merz, leader of the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU). A mocking social media slogan read: "Where is Scholz?".

His predecessor, Angela Merkel, was hardly known for rhetorical grandstanding either but won a reputation as a respected crisis manager. Mr Scholz, by contrast, has seen his party’s poll ratings slip behind the CDU-led bloc for the first time since winning last year’s election.

A US military aircraft takes off from Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The two countries are to hold talks on Monday. EPA

Meanwhile, some US politicians are demanding more help for Ukraine than the 5,000 helmets Germany has exported so far – a move which critics ridiculed as a paltry contribution, although Berlin said it came at Kiev’s request.

“The Germans are right now missing in action. They are doing far less than they need to do,” said Democratic US Senator Richard Blumenthal to an audience of Ukrainian-Americans in his home state.

The close ties between former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russia, and his favourable comments towards the Kremlin, have not improved the mood of Berlin’s critics.

What does he say in response?

Mr Scholz cites his Washington trip, and a planned visit to Moscow next week, as answers to the accusation that he is doing too little. He highlights resumed talks between France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine as evidence that diplomacy is working.

He says, accurately according to polls, that most Germans from across the political spectrum support withholding weapons from Ukraine.

“That was right and it remains right. It moves me that a majority of Germans see it the same way as me,” he said.

Mr Scholz also highlights German military assistance for Baltic countries which, unlike Ukraine, are members of Nato, as proof that Berlin pulls its weight in the alliance.

Before flying to Washington, he signalled that his government was open to sending more troops to Lithuania.

Mr Scholz has evaded attempts to pin him down on Nord Stream 2, which is in limbo while the project awaits certification from German regulators.

But a White House official took a firmer line on this point. “If Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” they said.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 4:52 PM
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