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The German leader’s stance on Russia looms after his first visit to the US

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BERLIN (AP)

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz departed Sunday for Washington to reassure Americans that his country stands with the United States and other NATO partners in opposing any Russian aggression against Ukraine. .

Scholz has said Moscow would pay a “heavy price” in the event of an attack, but his government’s refusal to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons increased the German military’s presence in Eastern Europe. or introduce sanctions they would support against Russia has been criticized. abroad and domestically.

“The Germans are currently missing in action. They’re doing a lot less than they need to do,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, recently told a Ukrainian-American audience. in his state of Connecticut.

Republican Senator Rob Portman questioned why Berlin had not yet approved a request for NATO member Estonia to hand over old German artillery pieces to Ukraine. “It didn’t make any sense to me, and I made that very clear in conversations with the Germans and others,” Portman told NBC.

Before his trip, Scholz had defended Germany’s position not to supply Kyiv with lethal weapons, but insisted that his country was making an effort by providing substantial economic assistance to Ukraine.

When asked about the future of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that seeks to bring Russian gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, Scholz declined to make any explicit commitments.

“Nothing is ruled out,” he told German public broadcaster ARD.

Germany has been criticized for being too dependent on Russian natural gas supplies, and the pipeline has long been opposed by the United States. But it has strong support from some in Scholz’s centre-left Social Democrats, including former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Schroeder, 77, is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has headed Nord Stream AG’s shareholder committee and Nord Stream 2’s board of directors.

In a move that is likely to confound Scholz ahead of his first official trip to Washington, Russian state gas company Gazprom on Friday announced that Schroeder, who has accused Ukraine of “disrupting” the relations with Russia – has been nominated to join its board of directors.

A spokesman for Scholz has repeatedly declined requests for comment on Schroeder’s relationship with Putin.

Despite Germany’s reluctance to officially bring the new pipeline – which has yet to receive an operating license – to the negotiating table with Russia, the US has made it clear that even without Berlin’s agreement, the project would have failed. die if Moscow launches an attack.

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

Scholz will meet with President Joe Biden and members of Congress on Monday to try to resolve differences. The 63-year-old’s performance in Washington could have broad implications for US-German relations and Scholz’s standing at home.

While former President Donald Trump has frequently criticized Germany, accusing it of failing to exert weight on the international stage, his successor has sought to rebuild relations with Berlin.

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

Rathke said: “(Scholz)’s visit to Washington was an opportunity for him to try to turn that page.

After succeeding longtime German leader Angela Merkel last year, Scholz also needs to placate skeptics at home, who accuse him of dragging a diplomatic vanishing act. compared to his European counterparts. With the phrase “Where is Scholz?” Trending on social media last week, conservative German opposition leader Friedrich Merz called for “clear words” from the government on the Ukraine crisis.

“We cannot rule out a response to a further military escalation, although he also expressed skepticism about being able to send arms shipments,” said the leader of Mrs Merkel’s centre-right bloc. from Germany to Ukraine.

Others in Scholz’s tripartite alliance have taken a more harsh stance toward Russia.

Speaking with his Russian counterpart in Moscow last month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the branded Green Party Russia deploys troops on border with Ukraine a danger.” She plans to visit Ukraine on Monday and Tuesday and examine the front lines between Ukrainian troops and areas held by Russian-born separatists in the east.

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party and chair of the German parliament’s defense committee, said Schroeder’s work with Moscow “harms the country he should be serving” and offers to remove the privileges he has enjoyed since leaving office.

Anything Germany does to support Ukraine could come at a cost.

Germany’s approval of 5,000 helmets for the Ukrainian army last week drew widespread ridicule. Kyiv has since asked Germany for additional military hardware, including mobile and medium-range air defense missile systems, as well as ammunition.

Meanwhile, some German officials fear that any mention of further sanctions against Russia, let alone a full-blown conflict, could drive Europe’s already high gas prices down. Europe increased. Constanze Stelzenmueller, an expert on transatlantic relations at the Brookings Institution, notes that Europe will bear the brunt of the blowback costs from economic sanctions against Russia.

“You have populists in Europe who are always looking to exploit political differences and tensions,” she said. “That’s what’s at stake here.”

During an unusual outbreak at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Scholz – then Germany’s Finance Minister – announced that he would create a figurative “bazooka” to help businesses cope with the crisis. crisis by setting aside more than 1 trillion euros (US$1.1 trillion) in state aid.

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

“Germany will have to show that it is not only committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also puts real resources behind and not just towards what has been done in the past,” he said. .

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Geir Moulson in Berlin and Ellen Knickmeyer and Nathan Ellgren in Washington contributed to this report.

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