President Biden will host the new chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, at the White House on Monday, where the two will discuss how to aid Ukraine — and punish Russian President Vladimir Putin — if Russia invades the neighboring former Soviet republic.
The high-stakes meeting for two key leaders of NATO, the transatlantic alliance, comes as Putin is testing that long-standing partnership, and amid rising questions about Germany’s reliability on international security matters now that former Chancellor Angela Merkel is no longer at the helm.
Despite differences and Scholz’s early tentativeness in confronting Russia, the two leaders are determined to present a united front — even as Biden intends to raise issues that have been controversial for the new German government, such as economic sanctions that might be imposed on Russia and German reliance on Russia for its energy needs, a senior Biden administration official said Sunday evening.
The official, who requested anonymity to brief reporters before the meeting, noted that Germany is the second-largest financial contributor to Ukraine, after the United States. The administration is “confident” that if Russia undertakes an invasion, Germany will stand united with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries in ordering tough sanctions and otherwise helping Ukraine, the official said.
Scholz, however, speaking to German television earlier Sunday before departing Berlin, reiterated his refusal to send lethal arms to Ukraine, which faces the prospect of an imminent invasion with Putin having surrounded its borders with more than 100,000 troops.
Germany’s shipment of 5,000 helmets as its main contribution to Ukraine’s defense sparked intense criticism from allies and the German public.
Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. sent a frantic memo back to Berlin last week advising Scholz that Washington questions its ally’s reliability and that many Republicans believe, she wrote, that the new chancellor is “in bed with Putin.”
Last week, the U.S. Pentagon announced it was deploying 3,000 troops to Europe to join the NATO forces scrambling into position in the region either to deter Putin from invading or to mount a response if and when he does.
Biden has opted not to criticize Scholz publicly before his first visit to the White House. The two have met previously on the sidelines of other summits when Scholz was a member of Merkel’s Cabinet.
During what’s likely to be a heavily scripted appearance with Biden in the East Room for a news conference following their meetings, Scholz is expected to use his biggest opportunity to date to reassure allies by making clear, when it comes to the situation in Ukraine, all options remain on the table.
“The most important thing for Olaf Scholz to demonstrate in Washington is that he understands what is at stake strategically — not just the sovereignty of Ukraine but the future of a peaceful, democratic and free Europe and of the transatlantic alliance,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow and Germany expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Initially, Scholz had seemed to waver on sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, calling it a “private-sector project,” but eventually shifted his stance in January and said, aiming to quell widespread criticism, that “all options” were on the table.
The administration official who briefed reporters Sunday sought to downplay differences over the controversial pipeline that will transport Russian fuel to Germany. The U.S. has warned the project could make Germany overly reliant on Moscow for energy and strongly urged the pipeline not be built. It has been completed but is not yet operational. And if Russia invades, the U.S. believes gas will not flow in the foreseeable future, the official said.
“One way or another, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward” if Russia invades, the official said.
Scholz has also been slow to distance himself from pro-Russia voices in Germany, most notably Gerhard Schröder, the last former chancellor from Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, who is close to Putin. Schröder has criticized Ukraine for “saber-rattling,” despite Russia amassing more than 100,000 troops on its borders, and he has just joined the board of Gazprom, Russia’s largest energy conglomerate.
Only last week did Scholz separate himself from Schröder, saying during an interview that “there is only one chancellor, and that is me.”
The Biden administration, as it has worked to rally NATO allies to respond to Putin with one voice, has sought to find additional energy resources for Europe in the event that Putin, reacting to potential sanctions, halts Russian gas exports in an effort to inflict economic pain.
“We are preparing not just for our initial response, but for counter-responses,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”