Pipeline proves to be a sticking point in Biden and new German Chancellor’s show of unity

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After an Oval Office meeting, Biden was explicit that the project would not go ahead if Russia invaded Ukraine. That’s the position he and U.S. officials have taken for weeks, and has been a key point of discussion with the new Scholz administration, according to senior administration officials.

But Scholz himself declined to even name the project and again refused on Monday to commit to shutting down the pipeline if an invasion unfolds.

Appearing later on CNN, Scholz reiterated his vow to remain aligned with the United States – although he did not once again clarify his intentions for the Nord Stream project.

“Every action we take, we’ll do together,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”

“There will be no differences in this situation. What we are doing today is giving this very strong answer to Russia, saying that if you invade Ukraine, it will have a very high price for you,” he said.

At the press conference, he made a similar promise.

“I say to our American friends, we will be united. We will act together and we will take whatever action is necessary and whatever action is necessary will be taken by all of us together,” he said, speaking in English to make his point. of sight. to a wider audience of US officials, Democrats and Republicans, who expressed concern over Germany’s willingness to confront Putin.

The Nord Stream pipeline, which carries Russian natural gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany, bypassing Ukraine, underscores Scholz’s predicament with Russia for its aggression in Europe. Germany is heavily dependent on Russian energy, making it difficult to impose harsh sanctions without risking an oil and gas shutdown during the cold winter months.

The United States opposes the pipeline and has clearly stated that it will not go ahead if Putin decides to invade.

“If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops are crossing the Ukrainian border again, then there will be no more Nord Stream 2,” Biden said Monday. “We will end it.”

Yet Scholz declined to elaborate on what he is prepared to do to stop Nord Stream 2, saying only that Germany would take the same steps as the United States to punish Russia.

Pressed by an American reporter on whether that meant “pulling the plug” on Nord Stream, Scholz hesitated again, appearing to roll his eyes slightly at the question.

“As I said, we are acting together. We are absolutely united and we will not take different measures. We will take the same measures and it will be very, very hard for Russia and they should understand,” he said. he declares.

It was not the full-throated declaration that Nord Stream 2 would be shut down that some in the United States expected as a show of resolve against Russia.

For his part, Biden brushed aside the idea that Germany could “regain confidence” by publicly committing in more explicit terms to ending the Nord Stream project if Russia goes ahead with an invasion.

“There is no need to regain trust. He has the full trust of the United States. Germany is one of our most important allies in the world. There is no doubt about the partnership of Germany with the United States. None,” he said.

Privately, Biden has made it clear that he believes the Nord Stream 2 issue should not get in the way of improved relations with Germany and acknowledges the politically delicate Scholz faces with the project. His comments at Monday’s press conference suggested an agreement between the two men over the pipeline, which is not yet operational as it undergoes environmental reviews.

But even Biden declined to say how the United States would stop Nord Stream, as he had promised to do if Russia invaded Ukraine, without Germany’s help.

“I promise you we can do it,” he said.

Scholz has resisted sending lethal aid to Ukraine and will not detail his plans to impose sanctions if Russian troops cross the border during an invasion. But in a friendly joint appearance at the White House, the pair said US officials’ fears that Germany was hiding from a leadership role were misplaced.

“Germany is completely reliable. Completely, completely, completely reliable. I have no doubts about Germany,” Biden said at a joint press conference, giving his visitor a shout-out during his first official visit to Washington.

Scholz took office in December, succeeding a prominent figure in world politics – Angela Merkel – whose absence during the current crisis is being felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
He arrived at the White House as Putin amassed 70% of the military personnel and weapons on Ukraine’s borders that he would need for a full-scale invasion of the country, based on US intelligence estimates – although no one seems to know what his intentions may really be.

“I don’t know if he knows what he’s going to do,” Biden said Monday.

Amid the uncertainty, Biden was eager to demonstrate Western unity against Putin’s aggression.

“There is no need to regain confidence. (Scholz) 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 Germany’s partnership with the United States, none,” Biden said. .

Ahead of the president’s meeting with Scholz, US officials said the two leaders would spend most of their time together discussing the Ukraine issue, including a “robust sanctions package” in preparation to punish Moscow in the event of invasion.

As they sat in the Oval Office in front of a roaring fireplace, Biden said the United States and Germany were “working together” to deter Russian aggression.

The dire facts on the ground gave Monday’s meeting in the Oval Office the air of crisis talks, although Biden also hoped to use the session to get to know Scholz personally, given that they will likely spend much more time. time together in the years to come. . They had met once before, when Merkel took Scholz to the top of the Group of 20 in October, but never on equal footing. Biden has sought to restore ties with Germany after former President Donald Trump publicly accused the country of evading its international obligations.

The question of Scholz’s determination to take on Putin loomed over the meeting, however. Of the US’s key European allies, Germany has emerged as the most reluctant to commit to lethal aid, sending thousands of helmets instead of weapons and refusing to allow another NATO ally , Estonia, to send German-made howitzers to Ukraine.

Germany has not joined the United States, France, Spain and other allies in bolstering troops along NATO’s eastern flank. And Scholz did not specify in detail what sanctions he might be prepared to impose on a country that is still a major trading partner for Germany.

Frustrated US officials

The impression that Germany is unwilling – or, because of its energy dependence on Russia, unable – to offer serious deterrents has frustrated some US officials.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have expressed displeasure, and even Biden has hinted at the divisiveness, saying last month that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would spark some disagreement among NATO members over how to react.

Ahead of Scholz’s arrival, a senior administration official on Sunday sought to downplay any concerns about Germany’s position, saying NATO members each bring their own strengths.

“The beauty of having an alliance with 30 NATO allies is that different allies are stepping in to take different approaches to different parts of the problem,” the official said, noting that the United States and Germany were working closely. cooperation on sanctions and that Germany was an important economic player. donor to Ukraine and provided humanitarian aid.

The official also highlighted Germany’s diplomatic efforts, alongside France, to revive a ceasefire agreement between Ukraine and Russia. And the official said the United States and Germany were aligned on their views on building up troops along the Ukrainian border.

US intelligence says Russian officers have doubts over large-scale invasion of Ukraine
The United States hastily searched the world for alternative sources of energy that could be diverted to Europe, from Asia to the Middle East to domestic American suppliers. The success of the initiative is unclear, and some countries have said their gas supplies have already been reserved.

Scholz, meanwhile, faced the awkward association of a predecessor of his political party with close ties to Russia’s energy industry. Gerhard Schroeder, the latest Social Democratic Party politician to serve as chancellor, sits on the board of Nord Stream 2. And last week Russian gas giant Gazprom announced that Schroeder had also been appointed to its board. administration.

There has been only one other Chancellor since Schroeder left office in 2005: Merkel, whose absence from the world stage after her 16-year term has been keenly felt, particularly as Putin tests the determination of the West.

When Russia last invaded Ukraine in 2014, Merkel played a pivotal role as an intermediary between Putin and Germany’s Western allies. She spoke with him constantly and encouraged other leaders to tighten their sanctions to punish Moscow for annexing Crimea. She also played a pivotal role in updating Washington through the close relationship she had cultivated with then-President Barack Obama.

This time, it is not the German leader who emerges in this role but the Frenchman. President Emmanuel Macron has spoken several times a week with Putin and made his third phone call in a week to Biden on Sunday evening. Macron visited Moscow on Monday and is expected in Kyiv later this week.

Scholz has not played such a visible role in defusing the latest crisis, earning him criticism from Germans who accuse the chancellor of making himself invisible in a tense moment. In an apparent attempt to deter that impression, Scholz will also travel to Russia and Ukraine later this month.

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