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German Chancellor Scholz on a mission to Washington

February 8, 2024

The prospect of Donald Trump's possible reelection has cast doubt over the US' continued support for Ukraine. Chancellor Scholz wants to help the beleaguered US President Biden in Washington.

Scholz and Biden in the White House during a visit in 2023
Scholz and Biden have met before — here in 2023 — but the upcoming talks come at a crucial timeImage: Susan Walsh/AP/picture alliance

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travels to Washington this week, he will not be coming empty-handed: A few days ago, the European Union decided to pay a total of €50 billion ($54 billion) to Ukraine until 2027. Scholz had eagerly campaigned for this, not least with a view to the domestic political situation in the US: "This is also a good message for the USA," he said.

US President Joe Biden assured Ukraine that he will support the country "for as long as necessary" in its war against Russia. But the Republicans in Congress are also blocking the release of further funds.

German chancellor in US to rally support for Ukraine

"All indications are this bill won't even move forward to the Senate floor. Why? A simple reason: Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump thinks it's bad for him politically," Biden said in a speech at the White House, visibly annoyed. "The clock is ticking. Every week, every month that passes without new aid for Ukraine means fewer artillery shells, fewer air defense systems, and fewer tools for Ukraine to defend itself against this Russian onslaught. Just what Putin wants."

Olaf Scholz hopes that this "gift" of €50 billion for Ukraine will help break the deadlock in Washington. But Henning Hoff of the German Council on Foreign Relations believes this will likely be a forlorn hope. "The Republicans seem unwilling to help the Biden administration for electoral reasons," he told DW. "It now looks very much as if the US will drop out as a supporter of Ukraine."

Ukraine hopes EU's aid package will prompt US to follow suit

Ukraine solidarity is crumbling

As the US is by far Kyiv's most important arms supplier, this would be the worst-case scenario, and it would mean Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will hope that Germany can play a leading role. Scholz has already warned his compatriots that Germany may have to step in for the US. More than €7 billion have been earmarked in the federal budget for German arms aid to Ukraine this year alone. If the US were to stay, the already strained German budget would face further burdens.

Scholz has also said that as a medium-sized power, Germany could not replace a militarily highly equipped superpower. The EU must act together, he said. "Germany certainly cannot bear this leadership responsibility alone," agreed opposition leader Friedrich Merz, head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

However, solidarity with Ukraine is also beginning to crack in Europe. Hungary and Slovakia were difficult to win over to the €50-billion aid package.

Support for Ukraine is also coming under pressure in Germany itself. European Parliament elections will be held in June, followed by several German state elections, and two parties, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the newly-founded Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), have criticized the Ukraine aid packages and are demanding concessions to Russia.

US Republicans block funding for Ukraine

NATO invitation to Ukraine not an issue

Scholz and Biden seem to agree that inviting Ukraine to join NATO is not currently on the agenda. The alliance could extend such an invitation at its summit in Washington this summer. As well as Ukraine itself, the Baltic states, which once belonged to the Soviet Union, are pushing for this, as is Poland, which belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War.

Last year, Biden described suggestions of Ukraine's joining NATO in the near future as premature, saying that Kyiv was not yet "ready" — much to President Zelenskyy's disappointment. During a visit by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Ukraine "will become a NATO member," but did not want to say anything about the timing.

The German government is also vague on a timetable, apparently only wanting to talk about this once the war is over. It is concerned that being directly responsible for the defense of a new member state could lead to a direct confrontation with Russia.

But Stoltenberg's predecessor Anders Fogh Rasmussen considers this to be an "extremely dangerous argument."

"That de facto provides Putin with a veto over NATO and gives him an incentive to continue hostilities in Ukraine indefinitely," he told the US media outlet Foreign Policy.

Baltic States - How NATO is preparing to resist

And if Trump wins the election?

For now, Scholz is still dealing with Joe Biden, a Democrat. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Donald Trump will enter the presidential election campaign for the Republicans, and although Trump's victory at the end of the year is considered a horror scenario by many in Berlin, it can by no means be ruled out.

Scholz does not want to meet Trump during his visit to Washington. According to a YouGov survey, a majority of 55% of Germans surveyed agree with this. However, almost as many, namely 52%, believe that the German government is not preparing enough for a Donald Trump comeback: Only 10% consider the precautions to be sufficient.

What would a second Trump term in office mean for German-US relations, apart from a possible end to support for Ukraine? Henning Hoff thinks that the German government has at least been able to dispel some of Trump's earlier complaints about Germany: "That it spends too little on defense, for example," Hoff said. "At least this year German defense spending is above NATO's two-percent target; that it is too dependent on Russian gas — that is at zero; and that the transatlantic trade balance is so much in favor of Germany and Europe — that is no longer quite the case either. German foreign trade is currently weakening somewhat."

A US withdrawal from NATO, as Trump has repeatedly suggested, may be unlikely. This is because Trump would need a two-thirds majority in Congress, a very high hurdle. "But there are still many ways to reduce the commitment," said Hoff, thinking in particular of the US security guarantees for Europe. He believes that the Europeans are still ill-prepared for this: "The situation is serious, and we are facing difficult times."

This article was originally written in German.

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