Olaf Scholz will use his trip to Moscow on Tuesday to press home the economic cost of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, German government sources have said in what some European leaders fear could be a last opportunity to defuse the “extremely dangerous” situation on the border between the two eastern countries.
The German chancellor, who has faced criticism at home for cutting a low-key profile in the diplomatic effort around the military buildup on the Ukrainian border until now, first arrives in Kyiv on Monday as US intelligence over the weekend claimed that Russia had accelerated plans for an invasion and could move troops across the border as soon as Wednesday, before the end of the Winter Olympics on 20 February.
Joe Biden spoke to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Sunday morning, after ordering a near-total evacuation of the US embassy in Kyiv.
A White House statement said Biden made clear the US would “respond swiftly and decisively to any further Russian aggression” and the two leaders agreed on the need to continue pursuing diplomacy and deterrence.
“We have seen over the course of the past 10 days, dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces and the disposition of those forces in such a way that they could launch a military action essentially at any time,” Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, told the CBS News programme Face the Nation.
“But of course, it still awaits the go order. And so therefore, we cannot predict the precise date or time that they make any action.”
Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine, but there were reports on Sunday of attack and troop-carrying helicopters, being moved close to the Ukrainian border. Moscow failed to reply to a formal request from Ukraine to clarify the purpose of its military manoeuvres in Belarus by the 48-hour deadline set by the Vienna document, an international agreement intended to provide transparency and reduce the risk of war. The Belarus government responded to a similar request for Baltic nations, but said that some of the Russian units on its territory were there to guard its southern border, suggesting they would not be leaving on 20 February, when the military exercises are supposed to end.
A submarine armed with cruise missiles from Russia’s Baltic fleet also sailed through the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea. Meanwhile, Lithuania announced a delivery of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine while the US embassy said a 17th planeload of US military hardware had arrived in Kyiv, including shoulder-fired grenades.
German government circles on Sunday talked of a “very worrying overall picture” on the Ukrainian border but rejected the suggestion that Scholz’s trip represented a “last attempt” at averting a war.
German government sources said Scholz would press home the “unity of the EU, the US and Great Britain” when it came to economic sanctions in response to an invasion. Biden has said a Russian invasion would spell the end of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, something Scholz has been more reluctant to spell out.
Russian diplomats have shown themselves unimpressed with threats of western sanctions, however. The Kremlin’s ambassador to Sweden told a Swedish newspaper his country “doesn’t give a shit” about economic repercussions.
“Excuse my language, but we don’t give a shit about all their sanctions”, Viktor Tatarintsev told the Aftonbladet newspaper in an interview posted on its website on Saturday evening.
“We have already had so many sanctions and in that sense they’ve had a positive effect on our economy and agriculture,” said the veteran diplomat. “We are more self-sufficient and have been able to increase our exports. We have no Italian or Swiss cheeses, but we’ve learned to make just as good Russian cheeses using Italian and Swiss recipes,” he said.
“New sanctions are nothing positive but not as bad as the west makes it sound”, he added.
Scholz’s options during his trip to Moscow are limited. The Russian president is demanding “security guarantees” from the west, which would effectively undermine the sovereignty of independent states in east-central Europe and the Baltics.
German government sources said on Sunday Scholz would offer Putin a dialogue and seek to find out more what Russia’s grievances entailed. The broadsheet Die Welt said he could stress Ukraine joining Nato is not a realistic prospect in the near future, adding that a compromise whereby Russia would be assured that Ukraine would not join Nato “in the next 10 years” had been discussed in Scholz’s circles as a “thought experiment”, though not as a concrete plan.
Ukraine has expressed an interest in joining since 2002 but it would require the unanimous approval of existing members, based on factors such as a functioning democracy and an absence of “unresolved external territorial disputes”.
Any symbolic concession would however face criticism from the Ukrainian side, whose ambassador in Berlin on Sunday accused the German government of “hypocrisy” over sticking to its restrictive stance on exporting lethal weapons, while continuing to supply Russia with dual-use goods that can be used for arms production.
As recently as 2020, Germany exported such goods worth €366m (£306m) to Russia.
Germany’s vice-chancellor and economy minister said on Sunday that “we could be on the verge of a war in Europe”. “It is absolutely oppressive and threatening”, the Green politician Robert Habeck told broadcaster NTV. He said Scholz’s trip was an important sign: “We won’t leave Ukraine alone.”
Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, told German tabloid Bild am Sonntag an invasion of Ukraine would be only the start of a campaign of Russian aggression that would also threaten states in the Baltics.
“If Olaf Scholz and other leaders of state speak to Vladimir Putin now, they should make clear to him: our entire country will defend itself against an attack and it will have serious consequences”, said the former boxer Klitschko, who spent a large part of his professional career in Germany.
During his trip to Kyiv, Scholz will talk to the Ukrainian president about ways in which Germany could help stabilise Ukraine’s economy after fears of an imminent war have taken a toll on the country’s currency.
Such measures would provide more immediate help to the Ukrainian side than any arms exports, German government circles said on Sunday.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko had earlier complained that the alarms being sounded by the West risked playing into Putin’s hands. “It’s not the best time for us to offend our partners in the world, reminding them of this act which actually not bought peace but the opposite, it bought war,” the diplomat told the BBC.