BERLIN – Angela Merkel is not angry, she is just disappointed.
She always knew Vladimir was a problem, but this? Barbaric.
It’s not Germany’s fault, let alone theirs. After all, no one could have expected it Catastrophe.
So unfolded Merkel’s unexpected return to the political arena this week after a six-month hiatus from the public eye. In a 90-minute one-on-one interview with a German journalist, Merkel was not only able to absolve herself of any responsibility for the war in Ukraine, but for the entire German nation.
“I will not apologize,” she declared when the subject of Ukraine came up, signaling her compatriots not to do the same either.
At a time when several of Germany’s eastern partners, from Poland to the Baltics, are urging Berlin to conduct an honest public reckoning on Germany’s role in paving the way for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Merkel’s defiant stance given her unsurpassed credibility in Germany, is destined to further complicate these relationships.
Such considerations could not have been further away, however, when the 67-year-old retired Chancellor emerged from behind the curtain to face a sold-out audience on Tuesday.
Befitting the setting – a baroque-style playhouse in central Berlin that served as the artistic home of playwright Bertolt Brecht – it was political theater at its finest.
Outfitted in one of her signature blazers and an amber necklace, Merkel appeared to be her old self – until she started talking.
“I think I can come to terms with this new phase of my life and be very happy,” confided the ex-Chancellor, recounting how she has spent the months since leaving office reading “thick” books Travel to Italy and stroll along the beaches of the German Baltic Sea coast.
As harmless as these tidbits may seem to most politicians, it was the personal details that Merkel, as chancellor, guarded like state secrets. The one trait of her private life that Merkel allowed her staff to give to desperate reporters trying to profile her was that she liked to cook Pomeranian potato soup.
By that standard, Tuesday’s performance was the Merkel equivalent of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
However, the primary goal of Merkel’s appearance was not to share her feelings, but to set things right.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Merkel has faced severe criticism from abroad, including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because what her critics say has amounted to practically sacrificing Ukraine to Russia in order to secure Germany’s access to cheap energy to back up. After months of quietly taking beatings for this policy, Merkel decided it was time to defend her reputation.
Ukraine’s criticism of Merkel is rooted in two key decisions she made as chancellor: first, her move to block Ukraine’s entry into NATO in 2008; second, their pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia even after the country annexed Crimea in 2014 and ignited a separatist war in Donbass.
On stage in Berlin, Merkel defended NATO’s move, saying that if Germany had allowed Ukraine’s membership, as the US advocated, Putin would have taken it as a “declaration of war”. She also argued that Ukraine was then an immature, corrupt democracy and under the control of oligarchs.
Your reasoning was flawed on both counts.
First of all, the issue on the agenda of the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest was not Ukraine’s immediate membership, but putting the country on the path to accession. Preliminary arrangements for its security within the Alliance, such as the bilateral assurances the UK and others have made to Finland and Sweden in recent weeks as they prepare to join NATO, could have been extended to Ukraine at the time.
And though Ukraine was hardly a bedrock of democracy in 2008, a clear membership perspective could have helped cement its democratic path, just as it did for another once-troubled NATO member – West Germany. When Germany joined NATO in 1955, the country’s government administration was still crammed with ex-Nazis and its military was barely existent. Nonetheless, it was brought into the fold.
Merkel also dismissed the notion that she had effectively failed Ukraine and encouraged Putin to test the West’s resolve by not being harsh on his aggression towards his neighbors. In fact, the former chancellor argued that she actually helped Ukraine buy time to prepare for its defense by engaging Russia in a series of protracted negotiations that culminated in the so-called Minsk Accords, a flimsy attempt at peace that neither side ever took seriously.
“Just because diplomacy might not work in the end doesn’t mean it was wrong from the start,” she said.
Their argument is reminiscent of a common defense by Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose appeasement of Hitler in the run-up to World War II has made his name synonymous with disastrous miscalculations in foreign policy. Despite Chamberlain’s misjudgment of Hitler, his defenders argue, his course ultimately helped Britain by giving it more time to prepare for war.
Such reasoning is of no consolation to people like Poland, who suffered most from Hitler’s wrath in the wake of Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy.
While Merkel declared on Tuesday that her “heart always beats for Ukraine,” her actions as chancellor tell a different story. Had she really wanted to help Ukraine brace herself against the threat of a Russian attack, she and her coalition would have provided Kyiv with the necessary weapons. Instead they refused.
Not that Merkel regrets her dealings with Ukraine or anything else.
“Personally, I’m doing very well,” she said with a smile at the beginning of her stage show and said she had a “clear conscience”.
As irritating as this may sound to some foreign ears in light of the war, Merkel’s words offered ointment to many Germans, whom they regard as a moral authority and miss her constant presence at the head of government.
Though Merkel has been known to balk at the image of her as the mother of the nation – a stern but reassuring presence looming in the background – it has stuck precisely because it rings true.
For example, in response to the sharp criticism of the current federal government’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, Merkel said she had full confidence in her successor, Olaf Scholz.
“If I thought things were going the wrong way, there would be a lot of people I could call,” she told her audience. “I haven’t had to.”
If only there was someone to call about Merkel.