WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met privately in the Oval Office for more than an hour Friday after declaring themselves in “lockstep” on maintaining pressure on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Even their top advisers were left out of the conversation. When the meeting ended, Biden and Scholz walked across the hall to the Roosevelt Room, where the American and German officials had been mingling. Biden joked that the two leaders had solved all the world's problems by themselves, according to a senior administration official, who requested anonymity to describe the closed-door discussions.
If any agreements were reached or plans made, the White House wasn't saying. The official readout of the meeting provided little additional detail, except to say the two leaders discussed the war and “exchanged perspectives on other global issues.”
The conversation came at a delicate moment in the conflict. Ukraine and Russia are preparing for spring offensives, meaning a steady flow of Western weapons will be important for Kyiv's success on the battlefield.
However, there are fresh concerns that public support for ongoing military assistance may be waning. In addition, U.S. officials have warned that China could step off the sidelines and begin providing ammunition to Moscow, a decision that would change the trajectory of the war by allowing Moscow to replenish its depleted stockpiles.
China is Germany’s top trading partner, and European nations have generally been more cautious than the United States in taking a hard line with Beijing. However, there are signs that may be shifting as global rivalries grow more tense.
In a speech to the German parliament on Thursday, Scholz called on China to “use your influence in Moscow to press for the withdrawal of Russian troops, and do not supply weapons to the aggressor Russia.”
During brief public remarks Friday, Scholz said Western allies would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
“This is a very, very important year because of the dangerous threat to peace that comes from Russia invading Ukraine,” he said.
Biden thanked Germany for providing “critical military support.”
“And I would argue, beyond the military support, the moral support you’ve given Ukrainians has been profound,” he said.
Biden said, “Together, we worked lockstep to supply critical security assistance to Ukraine,” and Scholz also described the U.S.-German effort as “lockstep.”
The White House announced $400 million more in U.S. assistance as their meeting began. The U.S. and Germany have worked closely together to supply Ukraine with military and humanitarian assistance. But there has also been friction over issues such as providing tanks, and Washington has occasionally grown frustrated with Berlin's hesitance.
Scholz last visited the White House a little more than a year ago, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Unlike formal state visits, such as when French President Emmanuel Macron came to Washington last year, there was no pomp and ceremony. Scholz's trip lacked the customary press conference where the two leaders take questions from reporters representing both countries.
John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, described it as a “true working visit between these two leaders."
In an interview with German broadcaster Welt, opposition leader Friedrich Merz accused Scholz of being secretive about his trip to Washington, which was taking place without the customary press pack in tow. Merz suggested that Scholz had to smooth ruffled feathers over the deal to provide tanks to Ukraine.
Scholz dismissed any notion of discord between allies before he left on his trip.
Asked by The Associated Press about the circumstances of his visit, Scholz said he and Biden “want to talk directly with each other," and he described “a global situation where things have become very difficult."
“It is important that such close friends can talk about all of these questions together, continually,” he said.
Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, hinted at some tension between the two countries on Sunday when appearing on ABC's “This Week.”
He said Biden originally decided against sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine, believing they wouldn't be immediately useful for Ukrainian forces. However, Sullivan said, Germany would not send its Leopard tanks “until the president also agreed to send Abrams.”
“So, in the interest of alliance unity and to insure that Ukraine got what it wanted, despite the fact that the Abrams aren’t the tool they need, the president said, ‘OK, I’m going to be the leader of the free world,’” Sullivan said. “'I will send Abrams down the road if you send Leopards now.' Those Leopards are getting sent now.”
Scholz's government has denied there was any such demand made of the U.S.
Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who leads the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. has often wanted Germany, the world's fifth-largest economy, to be more forceful on the global stage.
“There’s a hope that, instead of us having to push all the time, that Germany would take a leadership role," he said.
Bergmann said Germany has gone a long way toward strengthening its defense, but added that there's more work to do.
“The German way of seeing the world doesn’t always align with the U.S. way of seeing the world,” he said.