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Biden, Scholz Underscore Transatlantic Unity on Ukraine, China


President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2023.
President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 3, 2023.

Maintaining transatlantic unity in supporting Ukraine and handling Beijing's potential arming of Russia were two key agenda items in U.S. President Joe Biden's meeting Friday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, amid still minor but growing anti-war sentiments in Europe that in the long run could threaten a unified front against Moscow.

The working visit at the White House was devoid of ceremonial fanfare and designed to get down to the business of projecting an image that the two key NATO allies are in lockstep when it comes to stopping Russian President Vladimir Putin's expansionist ambition.

Scholz last visited the White House in February 2022 as Putin was amassing troops on the Ukrainian border.

"We made it clear that if he moved, we would both respond. And together we made good on that promise," Biden said, thanking the chancellor for his "strong and steady leadership" that drove "historic changes" domestically, including increasing Germany's military spending and moving to diversify from Russian energy sources.

Berlin is the second-largest donor after Washington, committing almost $15 billion in support to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees since the start of Russia's invasion.

"At this time, I think it's very important that we give the message that we will continue to do so as long as it takes," Scholz said.

Both leaders highlighted their strong partnership in support of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's effort to defend his country despite a growing sense of urgency to find a road map to end the conflict a year after it started.

While most Germans support Ukraine, last week more than 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Berlin to protest the war and the sending of arms to Kyiv — amid economic difficulties due to high energy prices.

"U.S. domestic initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act will likely exacerbate Germany's economic troubles," said Suzanne Loftus, research fellow at the Quincy Institute's Eurasia program, referring to a recent law designed to shelter U.S. companies from the impact of rising prices and subsidize climate-friendly investments.

"It favors U.S. industry, threatens the German auto industry and incentivizes European businesses to move to the [United] States with its provision of high green-energy subsidies," she told VOA.

White House officials dismissed concerns about German domestic political pressure.

"The president is not at all concerned about a crack in allied unity," said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, in an interview with VOA on Friday.

Kirby said that throughout the year the allies had been "incredibly resilient, resolved and unified" toward Ukraine. Fresh off his trip to Kyiv and Warsaw in February, where Biden met with Zelenskyy, Polish President Andrzej Duda and leaders of the Bucharest Nine of NATO's most eastern flank, the president is "even more convinced that allied unity will continue," Kirby added.

Washington also announced a new military aid package for Ukraine worth $400 million that includes ammunition and tactical bridges to move tanks and armored vehicles.

Weapons and endgame

In January, both leaders ultimately agreed on sending tanks to Kyiv. They are aligned on holding off sending F-16 fighter jets for now, said Jackson Janes, a resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

"The questions to be confronted involve the speed and the quantity with which these supplies can be delivered to enable a Ukrainian spring offensive," Janes told VOA. "Time is short."

Neither leader is indicating he is seeking an immediate endgame to the conflict, nor succumbing to domestic political pressures, including from some Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, to press Kyiv to negotiate.

"This is not a time to emphasize the potential endgame scenarios before we see how the battle lines unfold this year into next," Janes said, adding that Putin is not willing to negotiate and will concede only if Ukraine makes headway in regaining territory.

However, the longer the conflict continues, the more potential there is for war fatigue to settle among their citizens, and sooner or later the leaders will need to focus more effort on finding a road map to end the conflict, he said. Within a year or so, the pressure to envision a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, will likely increase.

"But this year has to be a full-throttle push to give Kyiv all the tools it needs," he said.

There have been reports that Germany, France and the United Kingdom are considering the possibility of a defense pact with Ukraine to boost their security amid future potential peace talks with Russia.

China factor

Biden and Scholz share concerns that China is considering providing lethal weapons to Russia, and both have publicly urged Beijing not to do so.

"We have been very honest about the fact that there will be ramifications for doing that," Kirby said, without outlining what those consequences might be. "Clearly, at the very least one of them is a blow to China's standing in [the] international community."

A focus between Biden and Scholz, and with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who will be visiting next week, is whether Europe will join Washington to impose sanctions on China in the event that it sends arms to Russia.

Whether the calls will deter Beijing depends on their cost-benefit calculus, said Liana Fix, fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations. Particularly significant is how convinced Beijing is that Europeans are serious about joining U.S. sanctions.

"So far, Beijing perceives Europeans as weak geopolitical actors, interested primarily in business, and especially Germany," Fix told VOA.

Public pressure alone on China to refrain from delivering weapons to Russia will likely not work, she added. "A joint effort to strengthen ties within the global south areas, with other nations engaged with China, can help increase leverage with [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping]."

Jeff Custer contributed to this report.