Merkel concedes failings in Russian energy and defence policy

Former German chancellor accepts she did not respond adequately to Moscow’s aggression before invasion of Ukraine

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel has conceded for the first time that she did not respond adequately to “Russian aggression” in the lead-up to its invasion of Ukraine in February.

A year after leaving office, Dr Merkel agreed that her four terms in office had seen a growing German dependency on Russian gas. At the same time, Germany, on her watch, had never met its Nato defence spending obligations – even after a minimum spend of 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) was agreed in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“We too should have reacted more swiftly to Russia’s aggression,” she told Die Zeit weekly. “In spite of [defence spending] rises, Germany did not reach its 2 per cent target.”

She defended her opposition to Ukraine’s Nato membership in 2008 as correct at the time, saying it was a very different country to today. That was in part thanks to the breathing space for reforms through the Minsk process she helped create, brokering a Moscow-Kyiv ceasefire over breakaway Ukrainian regions.


Nord Stream 2

In previous interviews since leaving office, Dr Merkel said she had recognised early on Vladimir Putin’s enmity towards Europe and the corresponding danger. Asked by Die Zeit why, given that, she backed the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas pipelines from Russia to Germany while in office, she conceded that “one could be of a different opinion on that”.

She pointed out that the pipeline was planned and built by a private consortium – without mentioning it was led by Russia’s state-owned Gazprom – and that halting it would have required a tailor-made law from her government.

“Such a cancellation… would, in my view, have worsened, in a dangerous way, the climate with Russia,” she said. “Also the energy policy dependency arose because there was less gas from the Netherlands, the UK and limited capacity from Norway.”

Reminded by Die Zeit that the dependency grew, too, through her decision in 2011 to expedite Germany’s departure from nuclear power by this year, Dr Merkel insisted that other energy alternatives were either not yet available or more expensive than Russian gas.

Energy and defence

“Through the pressure of the war things are now being negotiated which I supported, but which would have been a much bigger political decision then,” she said. “There would have been absolutely no political acceptance.”

Asked why she did not push harder to build political and public acceptance – on energy diversity or defence spending – Dr Merkel said she had always followed the political philosophy of Helmut Kohl: “What counts is what comes out at the end.”

“Giving a rousing speech only to end up like a paper tiger wouldn’t have helped the [defence] budget,” she said, while conceding that “we didn’t do enough for deterrence through higher defence spending”.

In a wide-ranging interview, Dr Merkel pushed back against a growing chorus of criticism of her political legacy since leaving office.

“On many points, my critics’ positions are not mine, so to yield completely to them simply because they expect it – that would be trite,” she said. “It would be a damning indictment, just for some peace, for me to say – without feeling it – ‘of course, now I see, that I was wrong’.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin