Angela Merkel says she will not apologize for her policies during her 16 years as Germany’s chancellor, rebuffing criticism that they were somehow responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in her first extensive comments to the public since leaving office last year.
“I don’t need to blame myself,” Ms. Merkel told an audience on Tuesday at the Berliner Ensemble theater in Berlin during an interview with a reporter from Der Spiegel magazine.
“I tried hard,” she said. “It’s a great shame that it didn’t work.”
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Germany’s political class has been forced to rethink its decades-long approach to Moscow, seen as a policy of “change through trade.” Critics long argued it was too soft on Moscow.
Ms. Merkel has come under fire for pushing German-Russian business interests during her tenure — in particular, for supporting the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Both Ukraine and eastern European neighbors objected to the Kremlin-backed project, which Berlin froze after the invasion.
In the interview, Ms. Merkel said she was never under the illusion that “change through trade” would soften President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and she defended maintaining at least some trade relations. She toughened her stance toward Moscow after war broke out with Ukraine in 2014, but “you cannot ignore each other completely,” she said.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has sought to portray the approach as leading to the February invasion.
In April, after atrocities were documented in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha as Russian forces retreated, Mr. Zelensky said, “I invite Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy to visit Bucha, to see what the policy of 14 years of concessions to Russia has led to,” referring to Nicolas Sarkozy, who was president of France from 2007 to 2012.
Ms. Merkel did not shy away from self-reproach in the interview. She cited the fact that “it has not been possible to create a successful security architecture” as a failure of her government. The former chancellor said she was now left asking herself: “Could more have been done to prevent such a tragedy?”
She defended one of her most criticized moves relating to Ukraine — her opposition to Ukraine and Georgia being given a formal “membership action plan” to join NATO in 2008. She and other leaders argued that the countries were not ready, and that such a move would have disrupted relations with Moscow. It “would have equated to a declaration of war” for Mr. Putin, she said in the interview.
Ultimately, all NATO member states agreed not to offer a membership action plan to the two countries, but promised them membership at some point in the future.
Ms. Merkel said that Ukraine had dangerously divided between pro-reform political forces and forces closer to Russia, and that its democracy would not have withstood a Russian invasion as it has today.
She also defended her role in negotiating the Minsk peace accords in the Belarusian capital in 2014 and 2015, an effort to resolve a war in the Donbas region that did not stop the hostilities. She said Mr. Putin might have caused huge damage in Ukraine if the agreements were not in place.
“Diplomacy isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t succeed,” she said. “So I don’t see why I should say that was wrong, and I won’t apologize for it.”