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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visits President Biden at the White House

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Russia's troop buildup on Ukraine's border will be high on the agenda today when Germany's new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, meets with President Biden for the first time at the White House. Germany has tried to walk a careful line with Russia over the potential conflict, and that's because Germany depends on Russia for energy. NPR's Rob Schmitz is with us now from Berlin.

Rob, Ukraine's ambassador to Germany recently said that Germany was being, quote, "ostrich-like," head buried in the sand. How does the chancellor see a potential conflict between Russia and Ukraine?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, all along, Scholz has been pushing for more dialogue with both Ukraine and Russia. Germany's been under fire for not sending weapons to Ukraine. Instead, it sent thousands of helmets and medical gear. And this is based on Berlin's policy of not delivering weapons to conflict regions. There have been exceptions to this rule. Germany sent weapons to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria years ago. But so far, Berlin hasn't made the same decision for Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: And is Germany pushing diplomacy because it needs Russia's natural gas?

SCHMITZ: Well, that's what critics are alleging. But it's important to point out here that this is a long-standing policy of Germany's. And Chancellor Scholz has played a big part in working with the EU and the U.S. to come up with a range of economic sanctions against Russia should it attack Ukraine. Scholz has also said that if Russia does invade, the country's Nord Stream 2 project - this is the new pipeline that would deliver more natural gas from Russia to Germany and elsewhere - will be on the table, meaning that Germany would halt the project.

MARTINEZ: Now, Chancellor Scholz does not have a - good poll numbers in Germany. How are Germans seeing this issue?

SCHMITZ: Well, there's been a lot of domestic criticism of what many see as a hesitant response to this crisis - one that does not sit well for Europe's largest country and economy.

I spoke to Sabine Fischer about this. She's a senior fellow at the German Institute for International Security Affairs. She says this crisis on Europe's doorstep was bad timing for Scholz's new coalition government, which has not ironed out its own positions on these issues.

Here's what she said.

SABINE FISCHER: It's the first time that Germany has a coalition consisting of three parties. And there are quite a few issues where these three parties have different positions. And, of course, it's very difficult for a new government to have to deal with such a serious and urgent and explosive security crisis right at the beginning of their term.

SCHMITZ: And Fischer says the other challenge here is that Scholz's party, the Social Democrats, have historically had a close relationship with Moscow. Social Democrat Gerhard Schroder, for example, joined the board of Russian energy company Rosneft after he was chancellor. And he publicly defends his friend, Vladimir Putin. Last week, he actually blamed Ukraine for what he called saber rattling. And then he promptly joined the board of Gazprom, another Russian energy giant. None of this is helping Scholz's image.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what will Scholz try to get out of today's meeting with President Biden?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think both sides have a list of things to talk about - trade, energy and China, which is another topic where the two have slight differences on. I think he's going to want to use this international stage that he's going to get today to clarify what has been quite a murky German position on this crisis.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's NPR's Berlin correspondent Rob Schmitz.

Rob, thanks.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.