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Ukraine’s Zelensky visits Germany, turning a page on fragile ties

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz inspect a German honor guard in Berlin on Sunday. (Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged Sunday to support Ukraine for as long as needed to repel Russia’s invasion as President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Berlin and the two leaders tried to bolster their countries’ sometimes strained relationship.

Zelensky followed that with a surprise trip to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday evening.

While Germany is Ukraine’s second-biggest supporter when it comes to overall humanitarian, military and financial aid during the war — second only to the United States — this was Zelensky’s first trip to Berlin since the invasion began. His travels to the Netherlands, France and Finland all preceded his arrival in Berlin.

Ukrainian officials and analysts blamed the delay on Germany’s prior ties to Russia, its perceived dithering at the beginning of the war and its foot-dragging on sending heavy weaponry. Zelensky’s visit came with its own road bumps and was almost upended because of media leaks that were deemed to present a security risk.

But as the two leaders appeared together at a news conference on Sunday, they put on a show of unity. Germany has also provided Ukraine with more military aid than any other country in the European Union, announcing a day ahead of the visit a new package for Ukraine totaling $2.95 billion, which almost doubles Berlin’s total commitment since Russia invaded in February 2022.

“I have said it many times, and I repeat it here today: We will support you for as long as it is necessary,” Scholz said. The weapons deliveries he outlined, which will include new IRIS-T air defense systems and Leopard 2 tanks, come as Ukraine prepares a counteroffensive against Russia.

“This is about fighting back an attack on Ukrainian territory,” he said.

Yet the chancellor sidestepped a question over whether Germany supports a road map for Ukrainian membership in the NATO alliance, saying the current focus is on the counteroffensive. He rejected the characterization of Ukrainian-German relations as rocky, describing them as “very good.”

Zelensky said that the new defense package is “a very strong pillar of support” and said that although Germany is already Ukraine’s second-biggest supporter, “we are going to work on making Germany supporter number one.”

“We want this war to finish, but this war must end with a just and fair peace,” Zelensky said. “We can gain a victory over the aggressor.”

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The Ukrainian leader arrived from Italy, where he met with Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. He received military honors as he was greeted in Berlin. “Already in Berlin. Weapons. Powerful package. Air defense. Reconstruction. EU. NATO. Security,” he tweeted in the early hours of Sunday.

He also met on Sunday with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a politician who has been criticized for his previous cozy relations with Moscow. The session represented a thaw after Zelensky rejected a visit by Steinmeier to Kyiv last year, setting off a diplomatic spat.

On Sunday afternoon, Zelensky traveled to the western German city of Aachen to receive the International Charlemagne Prize for services to Europe.

France then dispatched a plane to pick Zelensky up in Germany, France 24 reported. Macron’s office said the two presidents would discuss Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs and “long term perspectives for a return to peace in Europe.”

Zelensky’s visit to Germany almost didn’t happen after details of his itinerary, including the hotel he had booked, were published by a Berlin newspaper, according to a Ukrainian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government deliberations.

“People were furious,” the official said, adding that it was the first time such explicit details had been made public so far in advance of a Zelensky visit abroad.

Berlin police have launched an investigation into how the information reached the media. Chief Barbara Slowik described it as “unbearable” that “a single employee is damaging the reputation of the Berlin police in such a shameful way nationally and internationally.”

The Ukrainian official speculated as to whether more nefarious reasons were at play. “Was the intention to destroy this relationship?” the official said of the impact on German-Ukrainian ties. “It’s very fragile.”

Kremlin tries to build antiwar coalition in Germany, documents show

The tension in the relationship — rooted in the two countries’ differing views of the Russian threat — long predates the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine last year. In Ukraine, Germany is regularly blamed for laying Russia’s path for the war by ignoring Kyiv’s warnings that construction of the Nord Stream pipelines threatened its security by allowing Russian oil deliveries to Europe to bypass its territory. Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, is also criticized for pushing the government to accept the maligned Minsk agreements following Russia’s 2014 invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea.

After Russia’s invasion last year, Scholz announced a “zeitenwende,” or turning point, in the country’s defense strategy and pledged to send weapons, a move that had previously been a red line for Berlin. Still, Kyiv has regularly criticized Berlin for being slow to act when it comes to deliveries of heavy weapons and tanks.

Scholz acknowledged on Sunday that Germany has been “cautious” with deliveries but said that may have helped the country’s support to be more continuous. The issue remains contentious in Germany.

According to a YouGov survey carried out for the anniversary of the invasion, 40 percent of Germans felt that Berlin had already shipped too much weaponry to Ukraine. Only 22 percent thought the military aid was too little, and 23 percent thought it was the right amount.

For Ukraine, pragmatic considerations influence trips such as Zelensky’s to Germany, said Susan Stewart, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. The country is keen to shore up continued supplies of tanks from Europe, and Zelensky is also lobbying for fighter jets. Germany has so far ruled out sending jets.

Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield has added impetus to the political debate over sending arms, she said.

“Germany continues to be an extremely important partner for Ukraine and one that Ukraine appreciates,” Stewart said. “It’s just that because of this sort of an initial hesitance and because of the previous positions toward Russia, there is this kind of lingering lack of complete trust or a sense that others are perhaps even more on Ukraine’s side.”

Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.