WASHINGTON — President Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany on Friday showed a united front on the war in Ukraine, vowing to keep Western support intact amid mounting concerns that China could move to supply weapons to Moscow.
Speaking to reporters before a private meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Biden said that both leaders would work in “lock step” for as long as it takes to provide military support to Kyiv.
“As NATO allies, we’re making the alliance stronger and more capable,” Mr. Biden said, more than a year into a Russian offensive that has persisted despite bruising losses on the battlefield and ongoing economic isolation.
With a series of in-person meetings and calls — they spoke several times in January alone — Mr. Biden and Mr. Scholz are trying to show the world that they are the stewards of a strong NATO alliance against Russian aggression and Chinese interference.
But the war has devastated Ukraine, even as the Western alliance has held up far better than President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and many analysts expected. The meeting came at a dire moment, with Moscow’s forces in recent weeks making gains in the battered Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, putting the critical roads in and out of the city in jeopardy.
On Friday, neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Scholz publicly acknowledged the looming concerns over Chinese involvement in the conflict. At one point, Mr. Biden declined to answer a question about whether he and Mr. Scholz would discuss the matter.
Still, Mr. Scholz arrived in Washington hours after speaking to the German Parliament and directly calling on Beijing — his country’s largest trading partner — to “use your influence in Moscow to press for the withdrawal of Russian troops.” And in recent days, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, have warned that Beijing may be preparing to send weapons and ammunition to Russia, which would be a major shift for China.
The State of the War
- An Unexpected Meeting: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia spoke face-to-face for the first time since Moscow’s invasion during a Group of 20 summit.
- Reinforcing Bakhmut: Kyiv is sending reinforcements to the devastated city in eastern Ukraine, leading more troops into a bloody crucible where Russian forces have gradually tightened their grip.
- A Rout for Russia’s Tanks: A three-week fight near the town of Vuhledar in southern Ukraine produced the biggest tank battle of the war so far, and a stinging setback for the Russians.
- Softening Support: With U.S. public support for arming Ukraine waning, proponents of more aid fear that growing taxpayer fatigue could undercut the war effort.
In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has accused the United States of spreading lies. Though Beijing released a paper last week that reiterated China’s neutral stance and called for an end to the fighting, Mr. Biden has threatened to respond with sanctions should China supply weapons.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said on Friday that “every step China takes toward Russia makes it harder for China with Europe and other countries around the world.”
Still, she added a note of caution: “We have not seen China do anything yet as it relates to lethal weapons and we believe that Russia’s war in Ukraine has put China in a difficult position to actually move forward in that direction.”
In a statement on Friday, the White House said that the two leaders discussed their “commitment to impose costs on Russia for its aggression for as long as necessary,” and that they “exchanged perspectives on other global issues,” without naming China.
The meeting was unusually muted for such a high-level visit. There was no ceremony, and Mr. Scholz and Mr. Biden did not hold a news conference after their meeting. The chancellor also did not travel with a contingent of journalists, which would be typical.
The work-trip nature of the visit underscored the high-stakes conflict playing out overseas. On Friday, Washington announced it would send another arms and ammunition delivery to Ukraine, a package worth some $400 million that would include howitzers, large firearms that are reloaded with ammunition, and HIMARS launchers, which fire satellite-guided rockets with a range of around 50 miles.
“This is a very, very important year because of the dangerous threat to peace that comes from Russia invading Ukraine,” Mr. Scholz said to reporters, adding that it was important to send a united message on protecting Ukraine. “At this time I think it’s very important that we give the message that we will continue to do so as long as it takes.”
Mr. Biden has stressed the importance of working as an international collective as public support for arming the Ukrainians flags and some congressional Republicans balk at the price tag as an election year approaches. Mr. Scholz, who faces an election in 2025, needs to return to Germany with assurance from an American president that the two will cooperate, said Jackson Janes, a resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a non-partisan policy organization.
“They need each other for domestic purposes,” Mr. Janes said, “to be clear about the fact that they’re both going to be facing some headwinds with regard to the long run sustainability of political support in both countries.”
At times during their short but eventful alliance, Mr. Biden has appeared keen to let Mr. Scholz and other Western leaders take a public lead on decisions related to penalizing Russia or aiding Ukraine, a strategy designed to bolster the idea that Europe is acting in concert with — instead of at the direction of — the United States.
At other times, neither leader has wanted to make the first move. In January, Mr. Biden and Mr. Scholz announced that they would supply battle tanks to Ukraine, ending weeks of you-go-first tension with Germany, which had delayed an agreement to send its Leopard 2 tanks unless Washington agreed to the powerful M1 Abrams model.
“These tanks are further evidence of our enduring, unflagging commitment to Ukraine and our confidence in the skill of Ukrainian forces,” Mr. Biden said during that announcement. The president has denied that he was pressured by one of his closest allies to provide the tanks, though Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, suggested in a recent interview that the president had made the move to encourage the Germans to release the Leopards.
For his part, Mr. Scholz has emphasized the need for the United States and Germany to work closely together.
“We’re talking about very effective weapons systems here, and it’s proper that we never provide those weapons systems alone, but always in close cooperation,” Mr. Scholz told lawmakers in Parliament in January.
But it will take months for some 30 Abrams tanks to be built, and Germany has struggled to fulfill its promise to send some 62 of the vehicles to Ukraine. While Mr. Biden continues to try and rally support for assisting Ukraine amid grousing from Republicans, Mr. Scholtz is facing his own domestic obstacles as he works to deliver on a promise for the tanks amid antiwar protests in Berlin.
“I think that most of the Germans are on his side, but they balk at F-16s, and they balk at things where they think the red lines are going to be crossed with Putin,” Mr. Janes said. “He’s got to overcome those hurdles, so he’ll go back and be able to do that by having met one-on-one, right across the table from Biden. Then he can say with authority, ‘We’ve got backup here.’”
As the two met in Washington on Friday, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland made an unannounced visit to Ukraine to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to help hold Russia responsible for war crimes, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.
In remarks delivered at the United for Justice Conference, Mr. Garland, a former federal judge whose family escaped the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, singled out Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Moscow-allied Wagner paramilitary group: “Mr. Prigozhin, who runs this thing, is in my view a war criminal — and maybe that’s an inappropriate for me to say as a judge before getting all the evidence,” Mr. Garland told the committee.
And President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, in his nightly address, said the thrust of the conference was to hold Russia’s leadership to account for atrocities committed by its army, a position he has hammered home repeatedly over the last year of war.
Glenn Thrush in Washington and Erika Solomon in Berlin contributed reporting.