German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travelled to Kyiv on February 14 to meet with his counterpart Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and show Germany’s solidarity with Ukraine as it faces down Russian aggression.
The trip was important for Scholz, who has come in for criticism at home for failing to show leadership, and for Germany, which has been criticised for being soft on Russia.
“These are very serious times, but that Germany stands closely by Ukraine’s side and is impressed with the country’s democratic movement,” Scholz said.
“No other country has supported Ukraine as much financially as Germany,” adding that Germany will offer another €150mn credit with immediate effect, followed by another credit of €150mn thereafter.
Germany has been refusing to sell arms to Ukraine, but Scholz reminded the audience that German law forbids the government to sell arms to countries in a crisis.
Germany has sent military support in the form of trainers and treating injured civilians, adding: “the sovereignty and territorial independence of Ukraine are non-negotiable.”
“If Russia again violates the territorial integrity of Ukraine, we will know what to do … There’s one central challenge: to de-escalate the situation and for troops to draw back,” Scholz said.
Speaking of his meeting with Putin the following day, Scholz said he expects clear steps towards de-escalation from Russia, adding that he will tell Putin that any invasion would have heavy economic consequences and a sanctions package is being prepared in co-ordination with Germany’s EU allies.
Scholz added: “there is no reasonable justification for Russian military activity on the Ukrainian border, and that Germany expects Russia to use the offer of security dialogue.”
Fear of an attack skyrocketed following a briefing by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan on February 12 saying Russia was ready to attack any day. US President Joe Biden later said the attack could start on February 16.
Zelenskiy called on the US to share the new intelligence with Kyiv, and Ukraine’s defence ministry later said they have no evidence of an impending Russian invasion.
In defiance of the threat Zelenskiy has declared February 16 a public holiday, the day of Unity, and called on the citizens to hang flags and wear blue and yellow ribbons.
"They tell us February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity," he said in a video address to the nation. "They are trying to frighten us by yet again naming a date for the start of military action."
Over the last year Zelenskiy has been repeatedly calling on the Nato members to give Ukraine a definite timetable for Ukraine to start the admission process, only to be met with a stony silence.
Scholz maintained the uncertainty when asked about Ukraine’s possible membership, saying that Ukraine’s Nato membership was “not on the table at the moment”, so it is “strange that Russia would raise the issue.” However, he went on to affirm that Nato’s “Open door” policy to potential candidates had not changed.
The issue of Ukraine’s membership was further confused on the day after the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko suggested in an interview with the BBC that Ukraine may drop its desire to join Nato to avert a war – comments he later walked back from, saying that the aspiration to join Nato was enshrined in the constitution.
Zelenskiy was equally vague when asked about Nato membership, saying Ukraine was “on a path” towards membership but that it was “not up to Ukraine” to decide on the membership question. He also suggested that the path may have no end, but that Ukraine will “continue to walk this path.”
But in other remarks Zelenskiy was clearer saying: “Some leaders hint that Ukraine shouldn’t talk so much about joining Nato but this decision is our decision.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was even more explicit on twitter, saying: “Ukraine’s strategic course on joining Nato remains unchanged. It is enshrined in our Constitution and National Foreign Policy Strategy, supported by a growing majority of Ukrainians. It’s only up to Ukraine and thirty Nato allies to decide on the issue of membership.”
Nord Stream 2
Germany’s support for Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline has remained a thorn in the side of Ukraine-German relations, which Berlin says is an “economic project,” but Kyiv believes is an energy weapon that will be used to hurt Ukraine’s economy. Currently Ukraine earns $2bn a year in transit fees from Russia under a deal signed in December 2019.
“We have certain disagreements in our assessments” of the Russia-Germany energy link, Zelenskiy said after talks with Scholz in Kyiv.
“We clearly understand that it is a geopolitical weapon.”
Scholz has been reluctant to explicit say that Nord Stream 2 will be shuttered if Russia attacks Ukraine and dodged the question again in his press conference.
Without mentioning Nord Stream 2 by name, Scholz said that “no one should doubt the determination and preparedness” of Berlin to punish Russia in case it attacks its neighbour.”
“We will act then and they will be very far-reaching measures that will have a significant impact on Russia’s economic development opportunities,” Scholz said.
Lavrov talks still on
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu were called in for a meeting and sat at a table even longer than the one used for the meeting between Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron earlier that quickly became the butt of many jokes and memes on Social media.
Lavrov told Putin that there was still a "chance" to agree on a security stance with the West in what appeared to be a possible backtrack amid an impasse over Ukraine.
Lavrov used his meeting with Putin to urge him for more time for negotiations, adding Russia has prepared a 10-page response to the American letter with its formal answer to the Russian Foreign Ministry eight-point list of demands as well as Nato offers of arms agreements.
“There is still a way forward. Talks shouldn’t continue endlessly, but at this stage, I would propose to continue and increase them,” Lavrov said.
The ruble rallied sharply in trading following Lavrov’s comments.
However, the veteran foreign minister continued that he had received "unsatisfactory" responses to a letter he sent to dozens of European Union and Nato members on the issue of "indivisible security" – a reference to Russia's complaint that Ukraine and Western countries are strengthening their security at Russia's expense and that this is in breach of international agreements.
"I received unsatisfactory answers; none of my fellow ministers responded to my direct message," he said. "Therefore we will continue to seek a concrete reaction from each country."
The Kremlin has been using the argument of “indivisible security” as the justification for keeping Ukraine out of Nato.
Shoigu exercises wind down
Shoigu reported on joint military exercises in Belarus – which some feared would be used to disguise an invasion – saying they were drawing to an end.
“Some of the exercises have already finished and some are drawing to an end,” Shoigu said.
Following his meeting with Putin, Macron claimed he had been given an assurance by Putin that the Russian troops in Belarus would be withdrawn once the exercises were over. But that comment was later contested by the Kremlin, without giving any details.
Russia’s ambassador to the EU said on the same day that Moscow would be within its rights to launch a “counterattack” if it felt it needed to protect Russian citizens living in eastern Ukraine in comments in an interview with the Guardian.
“We will not invade Ukraine unless we are provoked to do that,” said Vladimir Chizhov, who has represented Russia in Brussels since 2005. “If the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn’t be surprised if we counterattack. Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere – Donbas or wherever,” he added as cited by the Guardian.
According to a study by Center for Economic and Business Research (CEDR), the war with Russia has already cost Ukraine $280bn over six years and continues to cost it $40bn per year. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict to date.