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Olaf Scholz ventures to Ukraine and Russia amid warnings of war

BERLIN — Even before Washington warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was facing a daunting double mission to Kyiv and Moscow this week.

In Ukraine on Monday, his main task is to pacify national leaders angry at Berlin’s refusal to supply defensive weapons and take a more explicit line on sanctions against Russia.

But that delicate diplomatic undertaking is dwarfed by his task the following day in Moscow, particularly after the dramatic U.S. warning on Friday and the decision of multiple Western governments to tell their citizens to leave Ukraine.

If Washington’s fears are well-founded, Scholz could be the last Western leader to get the chance, in person, to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin not to launch a new assault on his western neighbor.

A similar visit by French President Emmanuel Macron last week appears to have done little to convince Putin to defuse the crisis, triggered by the Russian leader massing more than 100,000 troops close to Ukraine’s borders.

Speaking ahead of his trip on Sunday, Scholz said there was “a very, very serious threat to peace in Europe.”

German officials have sought to lower expectations that Scholz — who has been in office for just over two months — could strike any sort of deal with Putin and said the main goal is to keep Russia engaged in international peace talks.

But just the fact that Scholz is entering the arena may be enough to win some points with allies abroad and critics at home, who were alarmed by his silence and muddled messaging in the first weeks of this crisis.

“It is important that Scholz visibly intervenes in this European and international negotiating framework,” said Stefan Meister, an expert on Russia and Ukraine at the German Council on Foreign Relations who’s been advising the chancellor ahead of the trip.

“He has long been criticized for basically saying nothing — or not being intelligible when he does say something — and for not playing a central role in this process like [former Chancellor] Angela Merkel did.”

Coming a week after Scholz tried to repair damage to Germany’s reputation in Washington over the crisis, the visits to Kyiv and Moscow represent a further attempt by the Social Democrat chancellor to assert himself on the international stage.

German policymakers within his three-party government and in the opposition ranks say that ramped-up role comes not a moment too soon.

“It’s essential that Germany is directly involved in talks with Russia and does not stand on the sidelines,” said Bijan Djir-Sarai, foreign policy spokesperson of the Free Democratic Party, one of Scholz’s coalition partners.

In Kyiv, Djir-Sarai said, the chancellor must make clear that “we stand on the side of Ukraine” and that the inviolability of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is “a top priority.”

On both points, Scholz has some convincing to do. Berlin’s refusal to deliver defensive weapons to Kyiv, its moves to block allies from sending arms as well, and its reluctance to plainly state that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany would be hit by sanctions if Moscow attacks Ukraine have caused severe frustration among Ukrainian politicians.

Last week, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy even canceled a meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock — reportedly due to outrage over Berlin’s position.

Cash for Kyiv

Scholz will try to deliver a carefully calibrated message, making clear the arms export policy is not going to change while also pointing out that Kyiv gets substantial support from Germany in other forms.

Berlin justifies its decision not to send weapons to Ukraine by arguing that historical responsibility for World War II atrocities mean Germany should not ship arms to conflict zones. Critics have pointed out both historical and present-day inconsistencies in that argument but any major shift in Germany’s stance would trigger a fight within Scholz’s party and coalition.

However, Germany is Ukraine’s largest donor in the civilian sector alongside the United States, having contributed €1.83 billion since 2014. The German argument is that such economic aid is particularly vital against the current backdrop.

The ongoing conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine means the country “basically already is in a state of war, and now it’s also quite acutely threatened by war,” said Meister. “No investor is going to go in there now.”

A German official said that Berlin had drawn up plans for further financial and economic aid for Ukraine, which “will be a topic” in the discussions between Scholz and Zelenskiy.

Scholz has stepped up his diplomatic engagement and public messaging in recent days. His U.S. trip helped reassure members of the U.S. Congress and won praise at home. He also received leaders from the Baltic trio of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in Berlin on Thursday to reassure them that he won’t put EU unity on the line during his trips to Kyiv and Moscow.

“We see a change for the better in the chancellor’s activity. I believe we’ll also see that strength manifest itself in Ukraine,” said Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesperson of Germany’s opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In a possible sign of just how volatile the security situation is in Ukraine, Scholz will fly back to Berlin on Monday night from Kyiv and then head to Moscow from there the following day, rather than overnight in the Ukrainian capital. A government spokesperson declined to comment on whether security concerns were the reason for the two separate trips.

Russian test

In Moscow, Scholz will attempt to pursue what he called a “dual strategy” — an approach generally in line with that of other EU governments — at his meeting with the Baltic leaders.

“Further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine would have very serious political, economic and strategic consequences,” Scholz said. “At the same time, we are ready for serious talks with Russia, for a dialogue on issues of European security.”

Berlin has close political and economic ties to Moscow. Germany is Russia’s second-biggest trading partner after China, while Germany is heavily dependent on Russian gas, which makes up 55 percent of the country’s gas imports.

Whether those factors will cut much ice with Putin, however, is very much open to question.

Scholz will raise other difficult issues with Russia, such as Moscow’s decision earlier this month to ban German media outlet Deutsche Welle from operating in Russia. The move came in retaliation to an announcement by Germany’s media regulator, which said that the Kremlin-backed outlet RT’s German-language channel can’t broadcast in Germany due to a license dispute.

The CDU’s Hardt said he expects that “Putin will use all instruments of political influence toward Scholz.” He recalled that Putin can come up with unpleasant surprises for visitors, as he famously did in 2007, when he allowed his large black dog “Koni” to walk into a meeting with Merkel, who has a well-known fear of dogs.

“I would hope that the Russian president will refrain from such trivialities,” Hardt said. “That absolutely does not fit into the 21st century.”

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