Merkel defends her personal record in dealings with Russia

Former chancellor rejects claims that she put German interests with Russia ahead of Ukrainian demands to join Nato and EU

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted her political dealings with Russian president Vladimir Putin to avoid war with Ukraine were motivated by far-sighted diplomacy and not appeasement or naivete.

In her first public appearance since retiring after four terms last year, the former politician said there was “no justification” for the war that “breached all agreements in international law”.

Dr Merkel dismissed claims that she put German trade and energy interests with Russia ahead of the demands of Ukraine to join Nato and the European Union.

On the contrary, she insisted that her conflict-resolution efforts between Moscow and Kyiv in 2014, the so-called Minsk process, avoided war then and gave Ukraine extra time to strengthen its democracy.

“I tried to work in a direction of diplomacy and diplomacy, when it doesn’t work, wasn’t wrong . . . so I won’t apologise for that,” she said in a public interview on Tuesday evening in the Berliner Ensemble theatre. “It is a great tragedy that it didn’t succeed but I am not going to reproach myself for not trying.”

Asked why, in 2008, she was not in favour of letting Ukraine join Nato, she said this would have extended the alliance’s mutual defence clause to a country which, back then, was a corrupt, oligarch-dominated kleptocracy.

“In this process I knew Putin would do something to Ukraine and it wouldn’t be good and the country back then was not able to put up the kind of extraordinary defence it has mounted today,” she said.

She said she “never gave into the illusion that Putin would be changed by trade” with Germany but that “at least when trade relations are good you cannot completely ignore each other”.

Dr Merkel, raised in East Germany, said she realised as early as 2008 that Mr Putin had a very different perspective to her on the years 1989/1990. For her the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union brought personal liberation and for him it marked a tragedy.

“It was clear there was a big dissent and it developed from there. It wasn’t possible really to end the cold war . . . the Russian question always remained,” she said. “It wasn’t possible to create a security architecture that could have prevented this.”

After 16 years as chancellor, and 30 in active politics, she said she had adapted well to life out of the spotlight, taking long walking holidays and “reading the thick books I never had time for”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin