By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz heads to Moscow on Tuesday to meet President Vladimir Putin in a high stakes mission to avert war, with Russia’s largest trading partner in Europe warning of far-reaching sanctions if it attacks Ukraine.
Scholz’s one-day trip, after visiting Kyiv on Monday, is part of frantic Western diplomacy to try to stop a potential attack as more than 100,000 Russian troops mass on Ukraine’s borders.
The chancellor has said he will hammer home the message from the West that they are open to dialogue about Russia’s security concerns but will impose sanctions if it invades Ukraine.
“We are ready for very far-reaching and effective sanctions in coordination with our allies,” he said in Kyiv on Monday before returning to Berlin.
Warnings of sanctions could hit home harder coming from Germany, Russia’s number one trade partner in Europe and the biggest consumer of Russian natural gas – although that could also limit Scholz’s room for manoeuvre.
He signalled last month “everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention” when asked about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is intended to bring more Russian gas to Western Europe, bypassing traditional transit country Ukraine.
But he has not vowed to end Nord Stream 2 or even named it in connection with sanctions, in contrast to U.S. President Joe Biden who said last Monday the pipeline would be halted if Russia invaded.
Russia denies planning to invade, accusing the West, which has sent a flurry of officials to Moscow and Kyiv, of hysteria.
Scholz, who took office in December, has faced criticism for his low profile during the crisis, contrasting with Angela Merkel’s leadership during Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in Europe, visiting Moscow a week ago and telephoning Putin regularly.
Merkel and Putin were able to speak in one another’s native tongues. She became his key interlocutor in Europe during her 16 years in power. This will be Scholz’s first meeting with Putin as chancellor, although he has met him in previous senior roles.
“Merkel had this special relationship with Putin – I think he respected her – and they had a long time to build their relationship,” said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council of Foreign Relations. “For Scholz, it will be trickier.”
Scholz’s government has been accused of giving mixed signals on the crisis, with disagreements among the three parties making up the coalition as well as within his ruling Social Democrats (SPD).
Junior coalition party the Greens, which holds the foreign ministry, wants to axe Nord Stream 2. Former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who took a job at Russian energy giant Gazprom after leaving office in 2005, continues to lobby for it.
The SPD’s traditional desire for closer engagement with Russia could be an asset in the talks with Putin, said Puglierin. “But Scholz cannot afford to be the weak link in the Western alliance,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday suggested to Putin that Moscow continue along the diplomatic path in its efforts to extract security guarantees from the West.