German chancellor Olaf Scholz has stepped up his rhetoric on Russia, warning that military action against Ukraine will come at a “high cost” for Moscow – with sanctions no longer ruled out for a new Russian gas pipeline to Germany.
Mr Scholz’s remarks followed talks with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in Berlin just as his foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was in Moscow for what her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called “interesting and constructive” talks.
Mr Lavrov will meet US secretary of state Anthony Blinken on Friday in Geneva, it was announced on Tuesday, after further talks for the US chief diplomat in Berlin and Kyiv.
Ms Baerbock arrived in Moscow on Tuesday wielding what she called a “thick folder” of disagreements with Moscow: Russian-linked political assassinations and cyberattacks in Berlin, jailed dissidents, forcibly closed human rights groups.
Yet overshadowing everything is how Europe and Nato members should respond to the 100,000 Russian troops and tanks assembled in recent weeks on the Ukrainian border, with, Ms Baerbock noted, “no understandable reason”.
“It’s hard not to perceive that as a threat,” she said.
While Moscow insists it is not seeking a pretext to invade Ukraine, Ms Baerbock pressed her Russian counterpart to avoid conflict by rejoining negotiations with Ukraine in the so-called Normandy format – co-chaired by France and Germany.
“We are ready for serious talks about mutual agreements and steps that will bring more security to all in Europe,” she said at a chilly press conference alongside Mr Lavrov.
The 41-year-old chief diplomat added that Berlin was prepared to pay an economic price for ensuring international agreements were met and peace was maintained in Europe, seen as a nod to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Mr Lavrov stressed Moscow’s wish for close bilateral ties with the new Scholz administration, and signalled a willingness to engage in further talks. But Russia sees Kyiv in breach of peace agreements, and also Nato after previous assurances not to expand further east.
The Russian minister cited the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, carrying natural gas directly under the Baltic sea from Russia to Germany, as the biggest commercial project of the last decade, “providing energy security for Germany and all of Europe”.
It was, he added, “counter-productive to attempt to politicise this project”.
Hours later, further west in Berlin, Mr Scholz made a significant shift in his rhetoric on the pipeline.
Since taking office last month the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader and senior party officials have insisted the project is a private business venture. On Tuesday, however, Mr Scholz that there would be “high costs” for Moscow because “everything would be up for discussion if it comes to a military intervention against Ukraine”.
“We expect from Russia that it de-escalates the situation, which could for example include a reduction in troops on the border to Ukraine,” he said.
Mr Scholz added that Nato members were making plans to respond “immediately and precisely” to any movement on the border.
Nato secretary general Mr Stoltenberg said that the “threat of military action was real” between Russia and Ukraine, and invited Moscow to fresh talks to discuss European security and arms controls.
“We are willing to listen to their concerns but we will not compromise on core principles. We must remain clear-eyed about the prospects of progress.”
With a fresh round of talks this week, and Nord Stream 2 on the negotiating table, German officials say the fate of the pipeline may ultimately be out of Berlin’s hands as it also requires backing of EU regulators.
Last week the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell insisted approval was tied to any potential conflict with Russia over Ukraine.