BERLIN — Angela Merkel defended her diplomatic legacy as German chancellor Tuesday, rejecting accusations that her policies while leading Europe’s largest economy for 16 years were indirectly to blame for Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine.
In her first public interview since leaving office in December, Merkel argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have fully invaded his neighboring country much earlier if she and other allies had not taken controversial decisions such as blocking Ukraine’s membership bid for the NATO military alliance in 2008, or negotiating the Minsk peace accords in 2014 and 2015, which Ukraine viewed as disadvantageous for its own security.
“I don’t blame myself,” Merkel told an audience at the fully sold-out Berliner Ensemble theater in the German capital. “I have tried to work in the direction of preventing mischief. And if diplomacy doesn’t succeed, this doesn’t mean that it was therefore wrong. Thus I don’t see why I should say: ‘That was wrong.’ And therefore I won’t apologize.”
However, Merkel — who condemned Putin’s invasion as “a brutal assault in defiance of international law for which there is no excuse whatsoever” — also showed some cautious self-criticism: She said she had failed during her tenure “to create a security architecture that could have prevented this [war] from happening.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April called out Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, arguing their longstanding policy of “concessions to Russia” and opposition to putting Ukraine and Georgia on a path toward NATO membership had encouraged Moscow to think “they are allowed to do anything they want” with Ukraine and commit “even the most horrific war crimes” such as in Bucha.
Yet Merkel on Tuesday defended her decision not to grant Ukraine the so-called NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the alliance’s Bucharest summit in 2008, citing two reasons: First, she said Ukraine “was not a democratically consolidated country” then, still strongly influenced by oligarchs and plagued by corruption. Second, Merkel said she was convinced taking such a step would have certainly led to war.
“I was very sure that Putin would not just let [Ukraine’s NATO membership] happen. That would have been … a declaration of war for him,” she said, arguing that the Russian leader would have used the NATO accession process, during which Ukraine probably would not have yet benefitted from the alliance’s mutual security guarantees, to “do something.”
“My assessment is quite clear: If the Membership Action Plan had come back then, [the war we are facing now] would have happened even faster,” Merkel said.
She used a similar argument to defend her legacy on the ultimately failed Minsk accords, meant to secure peace in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists had engaged in an armed conflict with Ukrainian troops since 2014.
If those peace deals had not been negotiated, “Putin could have caused huge damage in Ukraine” in 2014, she argued, adding that the seven years since then had been “very important” for Ukraine to develop both democratically and militarily, now able to resist Russia troops more effectively than it would have been able to in 2008 or 2014.
Merkel also said she had “at no time given in to illusions” that Germany’s Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) policy would really change Putin’s behavior. “I was not naive,” Merkel said, arguing that she repeatedly warned that Putin “wants to destroy the EU because he sees it as a precursor to NATO.”
Still, she argued she had seen it as right to pursue “at least some trade relations” with Russia, including the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline (which her successor Olaf Scholz ultimately shelved ahead of the Ukraine invasion), saying: “You cannot ignore each other completely.”