German FM Heads to U.S. As New Chancellor Reportedly Seeks Reset With Putin

By Patrick Goodenough | January 4, 2022 | 4:10am EST
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SDP) and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) at their swearing-in session of the Bundestag in Berlin last month. (Photo by John MacDougall /AFP via Getty Images)
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SDP) and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens) at their swearing-in session of the Bundestag in Berlin last month. (Photo by John MacDougall /AFP via Getty Images)

( – Germany’s new foreign minister heads to Washington this week for talks likely to be dominated by the Russia-Ukraine crisis, amid reports that her boss, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is looking to reset strained relations with Moscow and plans to meet with President Vladimir Putin this month.

Germany has just assumed the rotating presidency of the G7 for 2022, and any disunity within its three-party coalition government over confronting challenges posed by Russia or China could have far-reaching implications.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of the Greens, favors a tougher approach to Moscow and Beijing than does Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The third coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats Party (FDP), is also more assertive on Russia and China than the SPD.

Baerbock is traveling to the U.S. on Wednesday for meetings with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials, with the Russia situation high on the agenda.

Meanwhile Bild, a mass-circulation German tabloid that often breaks political stories, reported Monday that Scholz is seeking a “qualified new beginning” in relations with Russia and hopes to meet with Putin during January.

The report brought strong reactions from critics of the Kremlin.

Sergej Sumlenny, a Berlin-based expert on Eastern Europe, said Scholz’s desire for a restart was “not only a clear conflict with the Greens, but also an [sic] bomb under German commitment for democracy, a sell-out of Europe to Moscow dictator.”

Russian opposition activist and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov concurred.

“Restart, reset, engagement, dialogue, negotiations …” he tweeted. “They all come down to appeasement of a Putin dictatorship that has only become more hostile. Concessions to thugs and terrorists just encourage more aggression, as always.”

Taking a different tack Ulrich Speck, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, argued, “Leaders need to talk. The assessment of this move depends on the message Scholz is going to deliver to Putin.”

Speck said Putin needs to understand that the economic partnership can only continue if Russia honors the principles of respect for national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and borders.

“And Scholz must make clear to him that he is serious, ready to impose substantial costs on Russia for further aggression against Ukraine.”

The diplomacy comes against the backdrop of Russia’s troubling military buildup near Ukraine’s borders, and Putin’s demands for security guarantees from the West relating to NATO enlargement and activities.

The Biden administration and the G7 have warned Russia that any military incursion into Ukraine will lead to unprecedentedly harsh sanctions, as well as further measures to bolster NATO members on the alliance’s “eastern flank” – precisely the type of NATO actions Moscow says it’s wanting to end.

Three sets of meetings next week will aim to address these issues – U.S.-Russia strategic stability talks in Geneva, a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, and an Organization for Security and Co-operation permanent council session in Vienna.

As the E.U.’s largest economy, and now G7 president, Germany’s position will be key.

‘Speaking with one voice’

Central to its current relationship with Russia is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project now completed but awaiting the green light from German regulators before Russian natural gas can flow westward under the Baltic Sea.

The pipeline is strongly opposed by Ukraine and by European Union member-states in the formerly communist east, and also by some U.S. lawmakers, due to concerns that Putin will use it as a lever in political disputes with Ukraine and Europe.

The Biden administration says that it, too, views Nord Stream 2 as a worrisome Russian geostrategic project, but chose to waive congressionally-mandated sanctions against its central players – in the interests, it said, of the important alliance with Germany.

The future of the pipeline is a major point of difference among the German coalition partners.

Like his predecessor Angela Merkel, Scholz supports the pipeline as an important private-sector project, while the Greens are against it, and the FDP skeptical.

In a year-end interview with the German news agency dpa, Baerbock was asked about internal differences over Nord Stream 2, and responded carefully.

“Olaf Scholz and I have described this state of affairs in different ways,” she said. “However, the last German government – together with the U.S. administration – made it clear that energy should not be used as a weapon and that doing so would have serious consequences. And that still holds true today.”

“The last few years have shown the geostrategic role of Nord Stream 2, also in light of the different perceptions in Europe,” Baerbock said. “The last German government therefore conceded that this pipeline also raises security issues.”

The interviewer asked about potential friction between the foreign ministry and the chancellery

Again, the diplomat replied cautiously, but did not dispute that differences exist.

“The defining feature of foreign policy is cultivating an ongoing dialogue. That’s true both internally and externally,” Baerbock said. “That can perhaps be an advantage in diplomacy, especially when it comes to issues which people perhaps view from different angles.”

She did add, however, that having a strong German foreign policy “means speaking with one voice. It means reaching an agreed line on key issues.”

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