Olaf Scholz denies 'refusing' to meet with Joe Biden to discuss Ukraine crisis

The alleged refusal comes as top US and Russia diplomats in crunch meeting to avert Ukraine invasion

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are meeting in Switzerland for crunch talks
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are meeting in Switzerland for crunch talks Credit: Tass

Berlin has been forced to deny reports that Chancellor Olaf Scholz had snubbed a face-to-face meeting with Joe Biden to discuss the Ukraine crisis, as divisions within Nato widened over how to respond to the threat of a Russian invasion.

Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that Mr Scholz had turned down a short-notice invitation from the White House to fly to Washington last week. Mr Biden was then seeking to smooth over concerns in Berlin about how far to go in opposing a possible war.

Both the White House and a spokesman for the Chancellor said the claim was untrue.

But the report threatened to undermine Western unity as top diplomats from Russia and the United States failed to achieve a breakthrough in emergency talks in Geneva.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said a 90-minute consultation with Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, on Friday had been "constructive" and “useful” but had not addressed the demands Moscow had issued.

He said Russia would wait for the United States to produce written answers to its security ultimatums next week before deciding "if we are on the right path."

Mr Blinken described the talks as "frank and substantive".

"We didn't expect any major breakthroughs to happen today, but I believe we are now on a clear path in terms of understanding each other's concerns and each other's positions," he told reporters.

He reiterated warnings that the United States and its allies would respond strongly if Russian troops crossed into Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has massed tens of thousands of troops near Russia’s border with Ukraine and in neighbouring Belarus,  in what the White House says is preparation for an invasion.

He has denied planning a war, but has threatened unspecified ‘military-technical” measures if the West does not deliver on a string of demands, including guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed to join Nato.

Russia’s foreign minister on Friday also said it wanted all foreign Nato forces to leave Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the alliance in 2014.

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Soldiers of assault engineer and recovery-and-salvage units of the Russian Army 1st Guards Engineer Brigade are seen during tactical and special training Credit: Vadim Savitsky\\TASS via Getty Images

Romania neighbours Ukraine. Both countries have Black Sea coastlines that will make them critical to any Nato effort to deter a Russian operation against Ukraine's south.

The US, UK, and European governments have rejected those demands as non-starters, and threatened “severe” economic sanctions, though not direct military action, if an attack goes ahead.

But the on-going diplomatic crisis has laid bare divisions within Nato over how far to go in facing down such an attack.

Germany has refused requests from Ukraine for military assistance and resisted pressure from the United States, UK, and Ukraine to consider cancelling its Nord Stream II pipeline, which will pump gas from Russia, in the event of war.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Geneva Airport ahead of talks with Russia Credit: Reuters

Ukraine accused it last month of also blocking arms supplies via Nato.

It has meanwhile pushed back on proposals to include suspending Russian from the Swift international payments system in any sanctions package.

Mr Scholz, who faces pressure from a left-wing faction in his Social Democratic Party that is traditionally sympathetic to Russia, reportedly told Mr Biden he had other commitments when the White House invited him to discuss the crisis.

The White House instead sent Mr Blinken to Berlin on Thursday to tell Mr Scholz that he must back serious sanctions if he continues to block arms deliveries to Ukraine, according to Der Spiegel.

Earlier William Burns, the director of the CIA, had flown to Berlin to show Mr Scholz intelligence about the Russian military build up.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, was this week accused of blind-siding allies and sabotaging efforts to contain the crisis when he told the European parliament that the EU should launch its own security dialogue with Russia.

A service member of the Ukrainian armed forces is seen at combat positions near the line of separation from Russian-backed rebels Credit: REUTERS/Anna Kudriavtseva

Le Monde cited French government sources on Friday saying Paris and Berlin were  "perplexed" about the "alarmist" tone coming from Washington and London about troop deployments.

"We can see the same number of trucks, tanks, personnel. We have observed the same movements but we cannot deduce from all this that invasion is imminent," a source told Le Monde, asking whether "perhaps the British and Americans have intelligence" permitting them to come to this conclusion.

The source said France is willing to help but "we don't know what the Americans want to do militarily or otherwise" in the event of war.

Mr Biden admitted on Wednesday that Western countries could be divided over how to respond if Vladimir Putin launches a "minor incursion" rather than a full invasion.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, hit back at the remarks, saying there were “no minor incursions” into a sovereign country.

Britain began airlifting anti-tank weapons to Ukraine earlier this week.

The Czech Republic and the Baltic States have said they will supply weapons to Ukraine including artillery rounds.

Wokpe Hoekstra, the Dutch foreign minister, said on Friday that his government would “look sympathetically” at any new Ukrainian requests from weapons via Nato.

The Netherlands previously joined Germany in blocking a request in December. Mr Hoekstra said the context had changed since then.