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14 June 2022

Angela Merkel’s self-justification on Russia does not add up

History will judge harshly her doctrine of passivity towards Vladimir Putin.

By Jeremy Cliffe

BERLIN – Angela Merkel is back. Germany’s former chancellor returned to the limelight last week, six months after she left office, for an “in conversation with” appearance with the journalist Alexander Osang in front of an audience heavy with politicos at the Berliner Ensemble theatre, established in 1949 as the post-war home of Bertolt Brecht’s theatre group. She started by revealing that she had spent the first weeks after leaving office taking long walks on the Baltic Sea coast, wearing a hoodie to avoid being recognised and listening to audiobooks, including one of Macbeth.

This made for a compelling image: the woman who led Europe’s anchor state for 16 years and was exaggeratedly deemed the de facto leader of the free world crunching through the snow, leaden sky overhead and a freezing wind whipping off the sea, absorbed in Shakespeare’s portrayal of another leader torn between will and fate. It is a reminder of what many valued about Merkel as chancellor: her unassuming, reflective humility. On stage in Berlin on June 7 her answers spooled forth, barely bidden by her rather doting interlocutor. They were strikingly frank. At no point did she appear to dodge a question or obfuscate. This was her unvarnished view on matters.

Yet this appearance also served as a vivid reminder of the disadvantages of Merkel’s leadership style. The world has changed since she left the chancellery in December. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the European order in a chastening new light, and Merkel’s own foreign policy in a significantly more negative one. Osang asked her about the two moments that look especially damning given the events since 24 February: her move to block Ukrainian membership of Nato at a summit in Bucharest in 2008 and her crucial role in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk Agreements, in which Ukraine was pressured into making concessions while on the back foot militarily after Russia’s initial annexation of Crimea and attack on the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Merkel accepted that the invasion had marked a turning point and had “no justification whatsoever”; she said that her “heart always beats for Ukraine”. But she also insisted that she had no regrets: “I tried to work in a direction that would prevent trouble, and diplomacy is not wrong just because it did not work. I do not think that I now have to say that this was wrong and, therefore, I will also not apologise.”

Her argument is essentially that Russia’s attack on Ukraine was in retrospect inevitable and that her actions if anything delayed it, buying Ukraine time to develop politically, institutionally and militarily by keeping Putin at the negotiating table. “That was not the Ukraine that we know today,” she said of 2008. “The country was not yet firmed up, it was riddled with corruption, it was a country run by oligarchs. So I could not say, ‘Let’s take them into Nato tomorrow.’” Putin would not have accepted that, Merkel argued, citing his invasion of Georgia a few months after the summit. Her argument on 2014 was likewise that the alternative would have been worse. “What would have happened if, in 2014, no one had cared and Putin had simply continued?” she said. Later she added: “Those seven years [from 2014 until the build-up of Russian forces in 2021] were very, very important for the development of Ukraine.”

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It is not totally unconvincing. Ukraine did come on a long way in the years between 2014 and 2021. The term most often used when, in January, I asked Ukrainians in Kyiv about this period was that the country had gained “resilience”, in every sense. That development doubtless did contribute to the country’s robust resistance this year.

Moreover, Merkel’s comments are a reminder that, unlike many German politicians and business leaders, she was never naive about Putin. She speaks Russian, thanks to her East German education, and Putin speaks German after a spell in Dresden as a KGB officer in the 1980s; Merkel told Osang that Putin speaks her language better than she does his. When last week she claimed that she had told other world leaders in 2014 that “he wants to destroy Europe, you know”, it rang true. She also claimed to have recognised Putin’s feindschaft (a hard-to-translate German word that is sometimes conveyed as “hostility” but is stronger than that, explicitly defining its subject as an enemy). Merkel knew of what Putin was capable, in other words.

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[See also: The fateful chancellor: What the end of the Merkel era means for the world]

Yet despite and indeed because of all of that, her arguments fail on their own terms. To recap: Merkel professes solidarity with Ukraine, claims she saw the Russian invasion coming and thus acted in a way that bought Kyiv time to prepare for the onslaught. Yet it is really hard to square those claims with the reality of her own policies in those “very, very important” seven years from 2014 to 2021. Her arguments are evidence for the imperative of Germany using those seven years to arm Ukraine and limit Russia’s power and international leverage. But it did nothing of the sort.

Not only did Merkel’s governments not arm Ukraine, but they led the international case against doing so. “Germany will not support Ukraine with weapons,” she proclaimed in a press conference with the authoritarian and Putin-friendly Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in 2015. At the Munich Security Conference that year she argued: “I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily.” When General Philip Breedlove, then the top Nato commander in Europe, suggested arming Ukraine, sources in Merkel’s chancellery termed this “dangerous propaganda”.

Nor did Merkel act to restrict Russia’s wider tools of leverage in the event of war. In fact she did the opposite. As chancellor she pushed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, clearly designed in the Kremlin to bypass Ukraine and increase Russian leverage over the West. Her governments’ post-2014 energy policies continued to put Russian gas at their heart, substantially adding to Putin’s ability to blackmail Germany and the wider West. None of this makes much sense when compared with the former chancellor’s claims at the Berliner Ensemble last week.

How to explain it? My former colleague Andreas Kluth published a typically erudite piece for Bloomberg last week in which he argued that Merkel would go down in history as “the Neville Chamberlain of our time”. Yet somehow that does not feel to me like the right comparison. The late 1930s British prime minister was naive (“Chamberlain wrote to his sister that he thought Hitler was a man to be trusted,” noted the historian Richard Evans in the New Statesman in January) and yet his agreement with Hitler did buy Britain and France time to arm themselves, including the crucial modernisation of the RAF.

[See also: Shadows of the First World War hang over Germany’s ambiguous response to Russia]

Merkel is the opposite. It is totally credible that she recognised the danger of Putin in advance, yet she did not use the time that her appeasement of the Russian president bought to arm Ukraine. The temporal is important in Merkelology. “I’m a person who gives time to time,” she once said. This, as I argued in my portrait of her last year, was the essence of her method as chancellor: to wait, and let events unfold, even if doing so closed down options. Merkelism means giving priority to events over options. As I argued in that piece, it all makes for a very humble or even pessimistic view of a leader’s ability to shape the world, perhaps rooted in the three deterministic creeds that shaped her 35 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall: the Lutheran church, quantum chemistry and the historical materialism taught in East German schools.

That approach – to give priority to events over options – makes some sense of her actions towards Putin over the years and her arguments now. Merkel sees Putin’s megalomaniacal expansionism and paranoia as something wild, uncontrollable and at most temporarily containable; an expression of the deep Russian soul and its yearning for land and glory. (She did, after all, keep a portrait of Catherine the Great in her office in the chancellery.) It is a line of thinking that would explain the seeming mismatch between Merkel’s apparently sincere professions of alarm about Putin and her failure to do more to prepare Germany, Ukraine and the rest of Europe for the realities that were so brutally and dismally confirmed on 24 February.

This line of thinking is dangerous. It would let Putin continue his assault on Ukraine, and perhaps even try his luck with the Baltics or eastern Poland, without Germany finally drawing and policing a red line. It is worrying how closely Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, whose government is a clear improvement on hers when it comes to domestic policy, seems to share Merkel’s instincts on Ukraine and how to deal with Putin’s Russia. Merkel may be gone from the chancellery, but her deterministic spirit seems to live on there.

One phrase in Merkel’s discussion at the Berliner Ensemble stood out for me more than any other. She called Russia’s invasion “a great tragedy”. And of course it is a tragedy in the colloquial sense of the word. But after her long weeks on those Baltic sands listening to Macbeth, the longest-serving chancellor of reunified Germany seems to have meant it in the classical sense. The Thane of Cawdor’s tale is one of free will battling with the powerful forces of fate. It is not too fanciful to wonder whether the “de facto leader of the free world” chose to plunge into his story because she too feels that, in geopolitics, fate will ultimately sweep all before it. If so, it is a dangerous delusion.

[See also: After the Zeitenwende: Jürgen Habermas and Germany’s new identity crisis]

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