IRPIN, Ukraine (Reuters) – Germany’s opposition leader met Ukraine’s president in Kyiv on Tuesday and said its battle against Russian invaders was a fight on behalf of freedom everywhere, raising pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz to make an appearance in the Ukrainian capital.
Although Germany has become among the largest suppliers of arms to Kyiv, Berlin has been criticised for hesitating before agreeing to send heavy weapons and for its earlier support for dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Friedrich Merz, leader of Germany’s Christian Democrats who lost power in last September’s election, said he would brief Scholz on his Ukraine trip, during which he toured the bombed-out town of Irpin before heading to nearby Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“These aren’t images you forget in a hurry,” he said of the destruction. “It’s not enough to see it on television: you have to see it in person to understand the extent of the tragedy.”
Merz added: “The Chancellor (Scholz) is right that it’s not just Ukraine that’s being defended here, but democracy and freedom – the very way we live in Germany,” Merz said.
Russia calls its actions a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and that the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
Merz became an increasingly vocal critic of the Social Democratic (SPD)-led coalition government’s inaction in the face of Ukrainian pleas for supplies of heavy weapons before finally announcing it would send tanks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
But Scholz now faces calls to follow the United Nations Secretary-General, members of the U.S. cabinet and the British prime minister in visiting Kyiv, several weeks after Russian forces failed in attempts to capture it and then withdrew to focus on an offensive hundreds of km (miles) to the east.
On Monday, Scholz said he would not go to Kyiv since it had been unwilling to receive German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Steinmeier, Scholz’s SPD ally, is unpopular in Kyiv because he is associated there with an earlier German policy of pursuing close trade and other ties with Putin’s Russia.
Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s outspoken ambassador in Berlin, called Scholz’s reasons those of an “offended liver sausage”, implying he was behaving like a petulant child.
(Reporting by Rachel More and Thomas Escritt, editing by Mark Heinrich)