US President Joe Biden will come face-to-face with German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the two take part in a virtual edition of the annual Munich Security Conference this week. It will be the third time Mr Biden has attended the conference, having made the trip in-person as Vice President in 2009 and 2015. Much has been made of how the Biden administration is likely to make a clean break from Donald Trump’s stand-offish approach to Mrs Merkel, and other EU leaders. Mr Biden has made no secret of his willingness to promote transatlantic cooperation, but Washington and Berlin have already seen tensions rise over the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
The White House has made its position extremely clear, as new Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims he is “determined” to prevent Nord Stream 2’s completion.
Mrs Merkel has said she wants to discuss the pipeline with Mr Biden’s team, confirming that her “basic attitude has not changed”.
Her comments are unlikely to quell fears of tension with a White House already said to be unimpressed with the EU’s decision to sign an investment pact with China and its luke-warm condemnation of Vladimir Putin over the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny in Russia.
But Mr Biden and Mrs Merkel have previous and the looming Munich Security Conference will no doubt bring back memories of a high-stakes row between the two world leaders.
Then serving as Vice President in the Obama administration, Mr Biden flew to Munich for a conference set to be dominated by events in Ukraine.
In 2015, Ukraine found itself in crisis after its parliament had voted to remove pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich when his forces killed more than 100 protesters and wounded scores more the year before.
Mr Yanukovich fled to Russia and, in a retaliatory move, Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula.
In what became known as the Revolution of Dignity, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroshenko formed a coalition government against Putin’s wishes.
But in 2015, pro-Russian separatists were wreaking havoc in Ukraine and Putin’s tanks circled the border.
Mr Biden, writing in his memoir ‘Promise Me, Dad’, recalled the importance of his trip to the Munich conference.
He wrote: “Putin was willing to test European resolve on the principle of sanctity of borders ‒ and he was doing it with impunity in Ukraine.
“My main objective in Munich was to continue to encourage our European allies to stand with us: to make sure Putin understood that Russia would pay a price for bullying a weaker neighbour.
“The Ukrainian people had been on a thrilling and sometimes harrowing rollercoaster for the previous year and I felt like I’d been on it with them.”
Mr Biden claimed then US President Barack Obama was sympathetic to Kiev but was not prepared to allow a “hot war with Russia”.
He added that Mrs Merkel was “on record worrying about a confrontation in Ukraine which risks spiralling out of control”.
So, the now US President felt compelled to arrange a three-way meeting between himself, Mrs Merkel and Mr Poroshenko while they were all in Munich.
He recalled: “Merkel had a phone call with Putin scheduled for the next day.
“I wanted to be there at Poroshenko’s side to make sure Merkel understood that the US remained ready to stand tough for him and his nation’s borders.”
But when Mrs Merkel addressed the Munich Security Conference, her speech “was not strong enough” for Mr Biden and her “flat refusal” to provide weapons to Ukraine “disappointed” the US delegation.
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He immediately ordered his team to revise his own speech, scheduled for later in the conference, to make it much tougher and clearer in its condemnation of Putin.
And when Mr Biden met Mrs Merkel with Mr Poroshenko at his side, the American’s disappointment made a row inevitable.
He added: “Putin was the bad actor here, the Chancellor assured Poroshenko, but she nonetheless pressed him to construct some sort of off-ramp for Putin.
“She was looking for concessions to take to Putin in her meeting with him the next day.
“She believed he needed to claim a victory. The term she used for what Putin needed was: ‘A face-saving way out.’”
At this point, Mr Biden lost his patience and brutally shut down his German counterpart, leaving her frustrated.
He continued: “‘We can’t blame the victim here,’ I said.
“What should come first was action from Putin. What should come first was Putin withdrawing his tanks and his soldiers and Putin handing control of the border back to Ukraine.
“The restoration of Ukraine’s border had to come before President Poroshenko conceded anything.
“Merkel seemed frustrated with me by the time the meeting broke up.”
Joe Biden’s ‘Promise Me Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose’ was published by Macmillan USA in 2017. It is available here.
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