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‘I can’t act as if he isn’t there’: Merkel defends record on Putin as opinion divided like never before

Former German chancellor tells interviewer she does not believe her actions contributed to Ukraine war

Warm applause greets Angela Merkel when she pops out from behind the red curtain of the Berliner Ensemble theatre. The giddy audience at Bertolt Brecht’s old theatrical home wonder what kind of performance awaits them.

Exactly six months after her departure, Europe has slid into war that has shaken old certainties and exposed Germany’s vulnerabilities. With conflict as a catalyst, Germans are now ambivalent about their four-term leader.

Some see Merkel as a much-missed Mutti Courage – a woman who survives even war by making impossible choices. Others see her as Brecht’s Mackie Messer, Mack the Knife of the Threepenny Opera, who – when disaster strikes in the original Brechtian lyrics – is never to be found on the scene.

With Berlin’s main political journalists in the stalls and Der Spiegel author Alexander Osang interviewing her onstage, this one-night-only event could go either way.

The atmosphere between Merkel and Osang is mock friendly: both are from the former East Germany and have known each other for 30 years. But their relationship cooled in recent years when he suggested power had frozen her into a political “woman in amber”.

On Tuesday evening, he says covering Merkel as a journalist in her final years was like “watching her, before my eyes, transform into a painting”.

When the painting walks onstage, Osang – nervous and rambling – warms her up with some softer questions about how she has spent the last six months. Walking the Baltic Coast, she says, discovering the joys of audiobooks.

“I finished up as chancellor of my own volition and that is a nice feeling,” she said, learning to her relief that that – even after 30 years of “appointments, appointments, appointments ... I can get along nicely in this phase of life”.

“But I remain a political person,” she said, “and like most people I am like others, depressed.”

With that Russia’s war in Ukraine is centre stage. Other elements of the Merkel legacy – Germany’s uneasy rise, on her watch, as Europe’s indispensable power; the refugee and climate crises; Obama; Trump – are all sidelined.

Anyone hoping that Merkel, freed of the constraints of power, will offer a critical assessment of her political thinking and actions will go home disappointed.

She bats away Osang’s questions about her record on Russia and Ukraine, replying often in the third person – or with questions of her own.

“What I naturally asked myself is: ‘What might have been missed?” said Merkel. “Could one have done more to prevent such a tragedy – I already consider this situation to be a great tragedy – could it have been prevented? And that’s why you ask yourself, and of course I keep asking myself these questions.”

She soon makes clear that she does not think she had a role in the current war or its build-up – through her actions or inaction. During her four terms in office, she said she sometimes felt as if she was “dealing constantly with the questions surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union” and the resulting constellation of states in eastern Europe.

As early as 2007, Merkel said she noted her fundamental difference with Russian president Vladimir Putin over recent European history. Both experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall in East Germany: Merkel in Berlin, Putin as a KGB agent in Dresden.

“For me these were fortunate circumstances, I could do whatever brought joy and fun – in freedom,” she said, while Putin viewed the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

Merkel spoke of her sadness that her diplomatic efforts to bind Russia into western structures failed – “but I am not reproaching myself for not trying”.

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

This war, she hastened to add, was an “objective breach of all international law agreements” with “no justification whatsoever”.

“If we went through history and said which territory belongs to whom we would have nothing but war and that’s not on,” she said.

But was the war inevitable? In 2008, Osang pointed out, Ukraine applied to join Nato but was blocked – by Washington, Berlin and other capitals. Why? Because, she said, no one wanted to extend the alliance’s mutual defence clause to a country which, back then, was a corrupt, oligarch-dominated kleptocracy. If they had opened the door to Ukraine she was certain that, during the accession process, “Putin would do something to Ukraine and it wouldn’t be good”.

“The country back then was not able to put up the kind of extraordinary defence it has mounted today,” she said.

Seven years later, Merkel found herself at the heart of a high-stakes negotiations in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, to avoid a full-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine. War was avoided – or, in hindsight, postponed – with the so-called Minsk agreement, an arrangement to end conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Though Merkel admitted it was far from perfect – and ignored by both sides in many areas – Merkel said it bought Ukraine time to develop its democracy – and defence capabilities – further.

“The seven years since were very important for Ukraine,” she said. “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.”

Throughout the evening, Merkel urged her audience to lay aside the benefit of hindsight and come back with her to the circumstances of the time – and to see things through Putin’s perspective. Not because his thinking is justifiable, she said, but because “I can’t act as if he isn’t there”.

“Ultimately, Ukraine is also a geopolitical hostage to the West,” she said. “Putin’s hatred, Putin’s enmity is towards the western, democratic model. I remember well how I often spoke to people and said, ‘You know that he wants to destroy Europe. He wants to destroy the European Union because he sees it as an ante-hall to Nato’.”

Pressed on whether she was too soft on Putin, the former chancellor insisted she hadn’t been naive but had to factor into her all of her actions how Putin viewed the west: as a source of humiliation.

As a member of the post-unification government, Merkel had a front-row seat as ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl negotiated with Moscow on everything from Soviet troop withdrawals to Germany’s Nato accession. It was a lucky break, she said, that Europe then had Mikhail Gorbachev to deal with and not Putin.

“What is tragic for Ukraine is that it is being made endlessly more difficult for them to go the way they want to go,” she said.

Her only regret – half-uttered and not expanded upon – is that “after Crimea we should have gone harder”.

She said there was no majority among EU leaders for more far-reaching sanctions, though Russia was thrown out of the G8 and Nato members committed to spending two per cent of their economic output on defence.

Given she had no illusions about Putin, why did she continue the close “transformation-through-trade” policy of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, which created huge German economic – and energy – dependencies on Russia? Merkel 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”.

On becoming chancellor in 2005 she inherited the Nord Stream project from Schröder, who later joined the project’s supervisory board; after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Merkel backed Nord Stream 2, a second gas pipeline on the same route under the Baltic Sea.

Though completed, this second pipeline sits unused, halted by Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That Putin attacked his neighbour before waiting a few more weeks for the pipeline to be certified and activated, she said, showed that the Russian leader had long ago “decided on another model for pursuing his geopolitical goals”.

Throughout the evening, Merkel is a lively and often amusing performer, but even as a political pensioner she remains as slippery as ever.

Outside the gilded theatre auditorium, on the banks of the river Spree and around Germany, opinion is divided about Merkel like never before.

She left office with nearly two-thirds public support, as unprecedented in modern politics as her crisis-heavy workload, from the 2008 banking crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But conflict is a powerful catalyst for political reappraisal and, in the fabled Berliner Ensemble cellar canteen, audience members are arguing about Merkel as they queue up for drinks and food.

“We have so many experts in Germany telling us everything she did wrong on Russia, but I don’t remember them speaking out at the time,” said Kristina, a 35-year-old audience member.

“It’s too soon to say anything for sure about her legacy but I think it’ll be mixed – and not just because of Russia,” said Annalena Schneider, a 52-year-old local woman. “We don’t know where things are going on energy supply, on the climate; our transport network and bureaucracy are antiquated. She rarely took daring, sovereign decisions and we voters never pressed her to.”

Behind the counter, the chef serves up potato salad and bouletten – a cross between burgers and meatballs – and whistles along to Marlene Dietrich on the sound-system.

The English translation of her most famous hit, Falling in Love Again is a soft romantic ballad but the German original is a different affair. The singer warns people of the dangers of falling in love with her. “You will forgive me,” sings a young Marlene, “but you just have to understand.”