Angela Merkel has said she feels no regrets for her handling of Vladimir Putin during her time in power, arguing that Russia’s president would have perceived a 2008 Nato membership plan for Ukraine that was blocked by her government as a “declaration of war”.
The former German chancellor also claimed that an oligarch-run and democratically immature Ukraine would have been less prepared for an invasion then than it is now.
“I would feel very bad if I had said: ‘There’s no point talking to that man [Putin]”, Merkel said in an onstage interview at the Berliner Ensemble theatre on Tuesday night – her first public appearance since leaving office half a year ago.
“It is a great tragedy that it didn’t work, but I don’t blame myself for trying,” she added in an unusually frank answer from a politician who rarely spoke freely while in office.
Asked about whether she regretted opposing the US-led membership action plan for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008, Merkel said: “Ukraine was not the country that we know now. It was a Ukraine that was very split … even the reformist forces [Yulia] Tymoshenko and [Viktor] Yushchenko were very at odds. That means it was not a country whose democracy was inwardly strengthened.” She said Ukraine at the time was “ruled by oligarchs”.
From the Russian president’s perspective, “it was a declaration of war”. While she didn’t share Putin’s perspective, Merkel said she “knew how he thought” and “didn’t want to provoke it further”.
She claimed to have blocked Ukraine’s route to membership of the military alliance with the country’s best interests at heart. “You cannot become a member of Nato from one day to the next,” Merkel said. “It’s a process, and during this process I knew Putin would have done something to Ukraine that would not have been good for it.”
The Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 were signed by then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko to reach a political settlement in east Ukraine, but have since been criticised for forcing concessions while the country was militarily on the back foot.
Merkel defended the accords, saying they bought Ukraine time. “It calmed down the matter and bought Ukraine time to develop into the country that it has become now.”
She praised president Volodymyr Zelenskiy for his wartime leadership, saying he represented a new Ukraine.
The interview with Der Spiegel journalist Alexander Osang began with Merkel talking about how she had spent her first weeks out of office going for solitary walks by the Baltic Sea, wearing a hoodie so as not to be recognised by passersby, and listening to an audiobook of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
But the conversation inevitably turned to the war in Ukraine, and whether Germany’s alleged leniency towards the Kremlin had emboldened Putin. Merkel said she felt the geopolitical problems created by the collapse of the Soviet Union had been present throughout her 16 years in power. “It wasn’t possible to properly end the cold war … the Russia question always remained.”
Merkel said she had started to take seriously the possibility of a looming invasion in her last few weeks in office, when she attended the G20 summit in Rome while Olaf Scholz’s successor government was still in the process of being formed.
“There were hints and we talked about it a lot,” the 67-year-old said. “I realised that Putin had finished with the Minsk process.”
While Merkel condemned Russia’s war of aggression in clear terms, she also seemed to suggest some blame needed to be apportioned to the west.
“What happened is a great mistake on Russia’s behalf … an objective break with all rules of international law that allow us to coexist in Europe in peace. If we started to go through one century after another arguing which territory belongs to whom, then we would be at war non-stop.
“I don’t share the opinion of Mr Putin, to make that very clear. But we didn’t manage to create a security architecture that could have prevented this [war in Ukraine]. And we should think about that too.”
She rejected the criticism that Germany under her leadership had fallen for an illusion that a militarily aggressive Russia could be democratised by expanding trade links with the west.
“I didn’t believe that Putin could be changed through trade,” Merkel said. But she said her belief was that if political cooperation was impossible, it was sensible to at least have some economic connections with Moscow.
Merkel’s defence of expanding economic ties with Russia seemed at odds with her claiming to have warned other politicians that Putin felt animosity towards the entire western model of democracy, and that he wanted to “destroy Europe”.
The former leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) conceded that European countries had failed to spend sufficiently on their militaries, even though she rejected criticism that the German army had fallen into disarray under her watch.
“What should we have enforced more strongly?” she asked rhetorically when reviewing the decisions of her last two terms in office. “It [the military] is the only language that Putin understands. He saw that we, and not just Germany but others too, no longer had the strike power of the cold war.”