Angela Merkel, who served 16 years as German chancellor, said that she won’t apologize for her failed efforts to diplomatically resolve tensions between Russia and Ukraine, in her first extensive interview since retiring from politics last year.
But Merkel defended her decision in 2008 to oppose letting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. She also said she did not regret brokering a 2015 peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv, which failed to end conflict in eastern Ukraine that broke after Russian-backed separatists took up arms.
“I tried to work toward calamity being averted, and diplomacy was not wrong if it doesn’t succeed,” Merkel said, according to the Associated Press. “ … It is a matter of great sorrow that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself now for trying.”
The conservative leader’s foreign policy, which controversially included deepening economic relations with Moscow, has come under increased scrutiny since Putin started the war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April called out French and German opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, characterizing the position of Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy as a “concession” that helped create the horrors of the 2022 invasion.
Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, has partially reversed course since the Feb. 24 invasion. He announced a major increase in defense spending, as well as moved to send heavy weapons to Ukraine. But Berlin has still been criticized for its energy policy toward Moscow, upon which it is reliant for natural gas.
On Wednesday, Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak also pushed back against Merkel’s remarks on Twitter. He questioned her decision to proceed with the now-abandoned Nord Stream 2 pipeline that drew Berlin closer to Moscow, even as she claimed she was aware of Putin’s antipathy toward the West.
Merkel said that NATO membership would have damaged Ukraine and that Putin would have seen it as akin to a “declaration of war,” according to DW. Other observers have argued that the transatlantic alliance’s collective defense obligation would have deterred Putin from attacking a member state.
She also noted that Kyiv suffered from serious internal divisions and systemic corruption at that time, which would have made NATO accession challenging.
While Merkel admitted that the West could have imposed harsher sanctions after Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, she also noted measures such as the suspension of Russia from the Group of Eight nations, an assembly of major economic powers.
The former chancellor was one of a handful of female world leaders that Putin has dealt closely with since he came to power more than two decades ago. Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who unsuccessfully attempted to reset U.S.-Russian relations, told a literary festival last week that the Kremlin leader was “adversarial” in their interactions and “does not like critics, especially women critics.”