Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday defended her longstanding policy of detente against Moscow, saying she had “nothing to apologize for” even as the war in Ukraine is putting a damper on her legacy.
In her first major interview since she stepped down six months ago, Merkel insisted she had not been naive in her dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Diplomacy isn’t wrong just because it hasn’t worked,” the 67-year-old said on stage at a Berlin theater, in an interview broadcast on the Phoenix news channel.
She recalled her support for economic sanctions against Russia in connection with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the Franco-German effort to keep the Minsk peace process for Ukraine alive.
“I don’t have to blame myself for not trying hard enough,” said the conservative ex-chancellor.
“I don’t see the need to say ‘that was wrong’ and so I have nothing to apologize for.”
The veteran leader, who often met Putin during her 16 years in power and advocated a trade-driven, pragmatic approach to Moscow, said the February 24 invasion of Ukraine marked a “turning point”.
– ‘Want to destroy Europe’ –
There was “no justification whatsoever” for the “cruel” and illegal war of aggression, she said, adding that Putin had made “a big mistake”.
“He wants to destroy Europe,” she warned. “It is very important for the European Union to stick together now.”
But she brushed aside criticism that she had been wrong in preventing Ukraine from joining NATO in 2008, saying it wasn’t ready by then and that she wanted to avoid “further escalation” with Putin, who was already seething. on the perceived expansion of the military alliance eastwards.
She also insisted that the 2014-2015 Minsk peace accords, now in tatters, were seen at the time as the best chance to end fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian soldiers.
The peace process “brought some serenity” that gave Ukraine an extra seven years to develop as a democracy and bolster its military, she said, in a nod to Kiev’s acclaimed resistance to the invading Russian forces.
“The courage and passion with which they fight for their country is very impressive,” Merkel said, adding that she had “the utmost respect” for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But Merkel insisted there was no way to deal with Putin because Russia, like China, was too big to ignore.
“We have to find a way to coexist despite all our differences,” she said.
– ‘Language of force’ –
Faced with criticism of successive German governments’ “change through trade” policies, Merkel said she was never under the illusion that closer trade ties would spur democratic reforms in Russia.
“I never thought that trade would change Putin,” she said. But in the absence of political rapprochement, “it makes sense to have some economic ties”.
Germany, under Merkel’s supervision, became hugely dependent on Russian energy imports, and she long annoyed Western allies with her support for the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would double Russia’s gas supplies to Germany.
The project was shelved by current Chancellor Olaf Scholz in late February over Russia’s aggression, and Europe’s top economy is now joining EU partners in a race to buy off Russia’s oil, gas and coal.
In another major turnaround, Scholz has pledged to invest 100 billion euros ($107 billion) in modernizing the German military, which was seen as chronically underfunded during the Merkel era.
Scholz, a Social Democrat who served as finance minister in Merkel’s last coalition government, has also vowed to spend more than two percent of annual gross domestic product on defense, exceeding NATO’s target.
Merkel expressed support for her successor’s decisions, saying that strength is “the only language Putin understands”.
During the interview, Merkel, who is still hugely popular in Germany, also offered a rare glimpse into her private life since she retired, spending time alone on the Baltic Sea coast, taking walks and catching up on her reading.
After 30 years in politics, Merkel said she liked not having to rush from appointment to appointment.
“Personally I’m fine,” she told the audience, even though she felt gloomy about the war in Ukraine, “like so many people”.
“I imagined my time after leaving office a little differently,” Merkel said.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)