Ukraine crisis: Germany and US 'absolutely united' on Russia sanctions, Scholz says

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By Euronews  with AP, AFP
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a news conference with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks during a news conference with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Germany and US are "absolutely united" on Russia sanctions, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in Washington after his meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on Emmanuel Macron, who has met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, as diplomatic efforts intensify to try to ease tensions over Russia's military build-up on the Ukrainian border.

And Putin praised his French counterpart, saying that "some ideas" might lead to progress in defusing Moscow's standoff with the West over Ukraine.

Prior to the meeting, the French president said his visit will centre on dialogue and de-escalation — refusing to compromise on European states' security while respecting Russia and its concerns.

And Europe is facing its most serious security threat since the Cold War, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on Monday, while still voicing hope for a diplomatic resolution to the standoff with Russia over Ukraine.

Western countries accuse Russia of planning a potential invasion of Ukraine — which Moscow denies, arguing it only wants to guarantee Russian security by stopping NATO's eastward expansion.

Russia has amassed 130,000 troops at the Ukrainian border and is conducting joint war games with its ally Belarus.

The French president — who has spoken with Putin by phone three times in recent days — held a 40-minute phone call with Biden on Sunday ahead of his trip to Moscow to plan a coordinated approach, the Elysée said.

Over the weekend, Macron also spoke to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and the leaders of the three Baltic states.

After meeting the Russian leader, Emmanuel Macron will visit Kyiv on Tuesday and meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

US fully confident of Germany, Biden says

“There will no longer be Nord Stream 2" if Russia further invades Ukraine with “tanks or troops", US President Joe Biden said at the White House press conference following his meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday.

"We will stop it," Biden emphasised.

Scholz also confirmed that the two are "absolutely united" in their intent to impose sanctions against Moscow.

Scholz said earlier that Moscow would pay a “high price” in the event of an attack, but his government's refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster Germany's troop presence in Eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia has drawn criticism abroad and at home.

Asked about the recent criticism of Berlin's alleged reluctance, Biden responded by saying that Germany has "the full confidence of the United States".

"Germany is one of our most important allies in the world. There is no doubt about the alliance between Germany and the United States. None," Biden said.

Prior to the meeting, Biden said that the US and Germany were “working in lockstep to further deter Russian aggression in Europe".

“We are closest allies and we are working intensely together, and this is necessary for doing the steps that we have to do, for instance, fighting against Russian aggression against Ukraine," Scholz added.

Ahead of his trip, Scholz defended Germany's position not to supply Kyiv with lethal weapons but insisted that his country was doing its bit by providing significant economic support to Ukraine.

Germany has come under criticism over its heavy reliance on Russian supplies of natural gas, and the US has long opposed the pipeline. But it is strongly supported by some in Scholz's centre-left SPD, including former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The 77-year-old Schroeder is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and already heads the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream AG and the board of directors of Nord Stream 2.

In a move likely to embarrass Scholz ahead of his first official trip to Washington, the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom announced Friday that Schroeder — who has accused Ukraine of “saber-rattling” in its standoff with Russia — has been nominated to join its board of directors.

Scholz's spokesman declined repeated requests for comment on Schroeder's ties to Putin.

Putin: 'Some' of Macron's ideas could help resolve the crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that some of French President Emmanuel Macron's ideas for defusing the Russia-Western crisis over Ukraine could help create a way forward, after more than five hours of talks in Moscow.

"Some of his ideas, his proposals [...] can possibly lay the foundations for joint progress," Putin said at a press conference, adding that it is too soon to publicly expose them.

After the meeting, Macron said that he proposed "concrete security guarantees" to Putin, and deemed him "ready to commit".

"President Putin assured me of his willingness to commit to this logic and his desire to maintain the stability and territorial integrity of Ukraine," he said.

However, the Russian head of state once again made allegations against NATO, accusing them of having expanded over the past thirty years to the point of threatening Russia.

"They are trying to calm us down with assurances that NATO is a peaceful and defensive organisation," he said, before citing "Iraq, Libya, Belgrade" as counter-examples.

In his interview on Sunday prior to the meeting, Macron said that in response to reports that Russian operations were imminent, the "intensity of the dialogue" with Russia, including his Moscow visit, aimed to lower the tension and avoid conflict.

He said that for weeks there had been "an escalation of very strong tensions, a militarisation of the Ukrainian border on the Russian and Belarusian sides, [with] land, air and naval capabilities and multiple military exercises".

"The geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU," the president said, adding that dialogue "should not pass through the weakening of any European state".

"The security and sovereignty of Ukraine or any other European state cannot be compromised in any way, while it is legitimate for Russia to ask about its own security."

Recognising the concerns of "sovereign European states that built their independence thirty years ago and live in the living memory of a traumatic relationship with Russia", Macron said they must be protected "by proposing a new balance capable of preserving their sovereignty and peace".

"This must be done while respecting Russia and understanding the contemporary traumas of this great people and this great nation," the French leader went on, adding that Europe needed a "new order... based on the cardinal principle of the sovereign equality of states".

Borrell: Troops at the border not there 'to have tea'

Questioned over US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, at a joint news conference in Washington with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Borrell said they shared "a strong concern" about the situation on the ex-Soviet state's borders.

"We are living, to my understanding, the most dangerous moment for security in Europe after the end of the Cold War," Borrell told reporters.

"Nobody masses 140,000 soldiers heavily armed in the border of a country" without it representing "a strong threat," he said.

"140,000 troops massed in the border is not to go to have tea," Borrell underscored.

US officials say Moscow has assembled 110,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and is on track to amass a large enough force — some 150,000 soldiers — for a full-scale invasion within weeks.

Blinken denied Washington's stance was alarmist, saying, “This is not alarmism. This is simply the facts."

Both the US and EU are threatening to retaliate with unprecedented economic sanctions should Russian President Vladimir Putin move ahead with an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

"We don't believe that... Putin has made a decision, but he has put in place the capacity, should he so decide, to act very quickly against Ukraine, and in ways that would have terrible consequences for Ukraine, for Russia, but consequences also for all of us," said Blinken.

Nevertheless, both Blinken and Borrell stressed that diplomacy was still hard at work to bring the standoff to a peaceful resolution.

"We believe that a diplomatic way out of the crisis is still possible," summed up Borrell. "We hope for the best but we prepare for the worst."

'Where is Scholz?'

Despite Germany's reluctance to officially put the new pipeline — which has yet to receive an operating permit — on the negotiating table with Russia, the US has made clear that even without Berlin's agreement, the project is dead should Moscow launch an attack.

“One way or the other, if Russia invades Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 will not move forward,” US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told “Fox News Sunday”.

Scholz's meeting with President Joe Biden and members of Congress on Monday to try to smooth out differences could have broad implications for US-German relations and Scholz's standing at home.

While former President Donald Trump frequently slammed Germany, accusing it of not pulling its weight internationally, his successor has sought to rebuild relations with Berlin.

“Biden has taken some real risks, including on the issue of the German-Russian gas pipeline,” said Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

“[Scholz's] visit to Washington is an opportunity for him to try to turn that page,” said Rathke.

Having succeeded long-time German leader Angela Merkel last year, Scholz also needs to appease doubters at home who accuse him of pulling a diplomatic vanishing act compared to his European counterparts. With the phrase "Where is Scholz?" trending on social media last week, German conservative opposition leader Friedrich Merz called for "clear words" from the government on the Ukraine crisis.

"We must rule nothing out as a reaction to a further military escalation," the leader of Merkel's centre-right bloc said. However, he too has been sceptical about sending possible German arms shipments to Ukraine.

Others in Scholz's three-party governing coalition have struck a harsher tone toward Russia.

Speaking alongside her Russian counterpart in Moscow last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party branded Russia's troop deployment at the border with Ukraine a "threat". 

She plans to visit Ukraine on Monday and Tuesday and inspect the front line between Ukrainian troops and areas held by Russian-based separatists in the east.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a member of the Free Democrats who chairs Germany's parliamentary defence committee, said Schroeder's work for Moscow "harms the country he should serve" and suggested removing the privileges he enjoys since leaving office.

The costs of support for Ukraine

Whatever Germany does to support Ukraine will likely come at a cost.

Germany's approval of 5,000 helmets for Ukrainian troops last week drew widespread mockery. Kyiv has since asked Germany for more military hardware, including medium-range and portable anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as ammunition.

Meanwhile, some German officials worry that any mention of further sanctions against Russia, let alone a full-blown conflict, could drive up Europe's already high gas prices. Constanze Stelzenmueller, a specialist on trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution, noted that Europe would bear the brunt of blowback costs from economic sanctions against Russia.

"You have populists in Europe always looking for ways to exploit political differences and tensions," she said. "That's what's at stake here."

In an uncharacteristic outburst at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Scholz — who was then Germany's finance minister — announced that he would be pulling out a figurative "bazooka" to help businesses cope with the crisis by setting aside more than 1 trillion euros in state aid.

Scholz may need to make a similarly expansive gesture to ease concerns in Washington and beyond, said Rathke.

"Germany is going to have to show that it is not only committed to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but that it's putting real resources behind it now, not just pointing to what it's done in the past," he said.