There will be no state dinners, no press entourage and little fanfare. On a two-day visit to Washington to see President Biden, Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wants to get straight to business. The question many in Berlin are asking is what that business is.
“What is the purpose of your trip to Washington today? Why are you traveling there? You should have actually explained that here,” Friedrich Merz, the leader of Germany’s main opposition party, the Christian Democrats, said to Mr. Scholz in a speech at the German Parliament on Thursday.
Only a one-line statement announcing the visit to Washington was published by the chancellor’s press office in advance of the trip: The two leaders will discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one year on, and Western support for Kyiv.
The quiet nature of the visit — with no traveling press invited, and no news conferences, and not even an outline of his plans in his speech to German Parliament before his journey — has led some within Berlin’s foreign policy circles to wonder whether it is a reflection of a growing sense of urgency, on both sides of the Atlantic, to find a new road map for ending the conflict in Ukraine.
“I think we are at a difficult moment, because the question about the end game is becoming louder, bigger, and more important in the U.S., but also in Europe,” said Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy analyst. “So I think it is one year on and looking back, it’s also looking forward, and to the question: How will this end?”
Mr. Scholz’s spokespeople say the muted nature of the trip is an “exception” but have stressed it is not a reflection of any grave situation, merely the “work focus” of the visit.
Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesman in Parliament for Mr. Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats, dismissed the notion that talks would focus on an “end game.”
The State of the War
- An Unexpected Meeting: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia spoke face-to-face for the first time since Moscow’s invasion during a Group of 20 summit.
- Reinforcing Bakhmut: Kyiv is sending reinforcements to the devastated city in eastern Ukraine, leading more troops into a bloody crucible where Russian forces have gradually tightened their grip.
- A Rout for Russia’s Tanks: A three-week fight near the town of Vuhledar in southern Ukraine produced the biggest tank battle of the war so far, and a stinging setback for the Russians.
- Softening Support: With U.S. public support for arming Ukraine waning, proponents of more aid fear that growing taxpayer fatigue could undercut the war effort.
“Foreign policy is always about scenarios, and of course, they will pass through these different scenarios,” he said. “But the idea is to have a real working visit. It’s not a state visit. It’s really sitting together, putting all the cards on the table, weighing the options, sharing assessments and having a very free debate without being obliged to produce any immediate result on any of the files.”
But speculation has been growing in Europe and Washington that, despite vocal public statements that they would back Kyiv “as long as necessary,” as Mr. Scholz has put it, some Western leaders have begun to worry how long a strong, unified front can last.
European leaders are fretting over how support for Ukraine will fare during a U.S. presidential election next year, with parts of the Republican Party skeptical of military support for Kyiv. And nearly all Western leaders have concerns over whether their populations may tire of sustained and costly backing of Ukraine, especially as the war exposes many shortcomings in their own countries — from military preparedness to energy supplies.
In Berlin, a protest against military backing for Ukraine last Saturday drew 13,000 people, police said — reflecting the fact that a notable portion of Germany’s population remains leery of Western involvement in the war.
Trying to balance between that domestic wariness and European allies’ calls for bolder military support for Ukraine from Germany, Mr. Scholz gave a measured statement reaffirming support for Ukraine before setting off for Washington.
“The majority of citizens want our country to continue to stand by Ukraine,” he said. “And to do so as we have since the beginning of the war: decisively, in a balanced way, closely coordinated with our friends and partners.”
Another agenda point may be Iran, lawmakers said, because Germany has been under growing pressure from Israel to address reports that Iran has been temporarily increasing uranium enrichment. In turn, Germany has concerns about the rule of law in Israel under its new right-wing government that it may want to discuss with Washington as well, Mr. Schmid said.
China is also expected to be a topic, particularly as Washington has warned that it believes Beijing is considering sending weapons to Russia. Mr. Scholz made sure to warn against such deliveries in his parliamentary speech, although Germany has yet to be provided with evidence of that, according to lawmakers.
In his speech to Parliament, Mr. Scholz also praised the trans-Atlantic relationship as “closer and more trusting than ever before.”
Yet the nature of that relationship may also need to change, some observers warn.
So far, Mr. Scholz has remained adamant that every step Germany takes in providing military support to repel the Russian invasion is to be done in coordination with its allies — but most importantly with Washington.
That position came under heavy strain last month, when Washington and European allies heaped pressure on Germany to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine. The chancellor only agreed to the move when Washington also pledged to send some of its sophisticated Abrams tanks, over U.S. military objections that the vehicles would not be useful to Ukraine.
Germany has described the plan as a joint agreement between the nations. But a week before the chancellor’s visit, Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, suggested in an interview with ABC News that the move was taken by the president to placate the Germans.
“In the interest of alliance unity, and to ensure that Ukraine got what it wanted, despite the fact that the Abrams aren’t the tool they need, the president said, OK, I’m going to be the leader of the free world. I will send Abrams down the road if you send Leopards now,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And this is actually an example of Joe Biden rallying the global coalition to get Ukraine what it needs.”
The statements immediately reignited debate in Berlin over whether Washington had felt forced to agree to something it did not want to do. Mr. Scholz’s spokesman, Steffen Hebestreit, dismissed the idea: “I have a hard time imagining a German chancellor dictating terms or making any demands of an American president.”
Sudha David-Wilp, the director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank, said that while she did not interpret the statement as an attempt to jab at the chancellor, it may be “a signal that this kind of cover can’t last forever.”
“Those sort of transactions may not be something that Germany can depend on for the future,” she said. “The United States also wants to encourage Germany to act in coordination with its European allies,” she added, without Washington needing to join in.
That may not be something Mr. Scholz, who has consistently stated his desire to work in lock step with Washington, will be willing to accept.
Nonetheless, officials in both countries say the working relationship between the two leaders is a good one.
“On foreign policy, they are very similar,” Mr. Schmid said. “So I think on a personal level, they really like to chat, to sit together and chat and to think things through.”
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.