A year ago, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last visited Washington, Russian forces had yet to cross the border into Ukraine and skepticism abounded at the dire warnings from the White House that an invasion was imminent.
Scholz returned Friday for meetings with President Joe Biden after a transformative 12 months that required Europe to dramatically rethink its own security and Germany to undergo its most significant shift in military and energy policy in decades.
“There’s been a lot of change since the last time you were here,” Biden said at the start of the Oval Office talks, which were expected to last about an hour.
Scholz concurred: “A lot’s happened since last year, we’ve got a lot to talk about,” he said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Scholz, who took office two months before Russia’s invasion, into a crisis leader, overseeing Europe’s largest economy and most powerful democracy during the worst violence on the continent since World War II.
And it has thrust him and Biden into one of the world’s most consequential relationships, sustained by shared opposition to Russia’s invasion but strained at moments over how to respond.
“You stepped up to provide critical military support. And I would argue, beyond the military support, the moral support you’ve given Ukrainians has been profound. Profound,” Biden told his counterpart in the Oval Office.
“I know it’s not been easy,” Biden said. “Very difficult for you.”
White House officials say over the past year, Biden has developed a solid relationship with Scholz, who succeeded longtime chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of 2021. They spoke by phone three times in January alone, and during Friday’s session at the White House they were expected to speak extensively one-on-one in the Oval Office.
The overwhelming topic of discussion was Ukraine, according to senior administration officials, including discussions the two men have each held recently with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is pressuring the West for more powerful weapons as he prepares for a spring counteroffensive against Russia.
“The overarching purpose of this meeting was a chance for the two leaders to be able to coordinate specifically on Ukraine,” a senior administration official said ahead of the visit.
They were expected to also touch on recent intelligence suggesting China is considering providing Russia with lethal aid, a step US officials fear could prolong the conflict, though China wasn’t a “driving focus” of the talks.
The White House also announced another round of military assistance for Ukraine on Friday, including ammunition for weapons systems that the Ukrainians already have. The package totaled around $400 million.
In inviting Scholz to the White House again, Biden hoped to fortify a leader who has endured a trying first year in office.
A year ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Germany supplying Ukraine with weapons like Howitzers, Stinger missile launchers and Leopard tanks to stave off Russian invaders. A largely pacifist outlook had dominated Berlin’s foreign policy in the decades following German violence in World War II.
But now, Germany is investing again in its military and sending increasingly advanced weaponry, though not at the pace Zelensky would like. Other critics say Scholz has failed to occupy a unifying role in Europe akin to Merkel, preferring to operate unilaterally instead of in conjunction with fellow leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France. And some US officials say Germany remains overly cautious compared to other Western allies.
Still, the so-called “Zeitenwende,” or turning point, that Scholz called for in the days following Russia’s invasion has been welcomed at the White House and reinforced by many of the steps he’s taken in the months since.
Germany’s decision in January to provide Ukraine with Leopard tanks is the latest example of the country overcoming its post-war hesitancy for foreign military intervention. The decision only came after diplomatic wrangling with the United States, who agreed to provide Ukraine with its own Abrams tanks, despite warnings from the Pentagon they wouldn’t be as useful on the battlefield.
There remains some dispute over how, exactly, the deal came about. After Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last weekend, “the Germans told the president that they would not be prepared to send those Leopards into the fight … until the president also agreed to send Abrams,” the German government insisted the decision to send tanks was arrived at jointly and without any demands from Berlin.
Either way, the result has been viewed positively by Biden’s aides, some of whom took a skeptical view of Scholz a year ago when he appeared reluctant to apply sanctions on Russia should it invade Ukraine or cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Scholz took both of those steps once the invasion began, despite the risk of Germany being cut off from one of its main energy suppliers.
For his part, Scholz could use Friday’s meeting to raise with Biden his ongoing discussions with other European leaders about providing security guarantees for Ukraine as a way to begin the process of negotiating an end to the war.
Fear are growing among US and European officials that the grinding conflict could turn into a bloody stalemate, with each side making only small gains while still refusing to come to the negotiating table.
Speaking to the German parliament before leaving for Washington, Scholz said Thursday that Germany and its Western allies were in talks with Kyiv over future security guarantees in preparation of a sustainable peace for Ukraine.
“Such security guarantees, however, come with the presumption that Ukraine successfully defends itself in this war,” Scholz said, emphasizing that Germany would continue to support Ukraine with weapons supplies.
Scholz went on to say that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was not currently open to negotiations to end the war in Ukraine.
“Is Putin even ready … to negotiate a just peace? Nothing suggests it at the moment,” Scholz said.