Russian offensive in Ukraine: Merkel acknowledges that she wonders if the invasion of Ukraine could have been avoided, although she does not regret her decisions | International
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His return to the public arena had generated many expectations, and Angela Merkel did not disappoint. The one who was German chancellor for 16 years, until last December, she reappeared this Tuesday in the first interview that she grants since leaving the Chancellery in the hands of the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz. She hadn’t spoken for six months and for the last three her opinion on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his role as leader in Berlin’s relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia had been especially missed. It was obvious that Merkel wanted to talk. She not only harshly condemned the invasion; she also wondered if it would have been possible to avoid the war in what sounded like a very light self-criticism and she ended up justifying her policy towards Moscow.
“It is a brutal attack that violates international law for which there is no possible excuse,” said the former chancellor during the interview, which was broadcast live on television from a Berlin theater. In front of an audience full of people who laughed and applauded some of her answers, the journalist Alexander Osang toured Merkel’s political career through an hour and a half of questions that every so often returned to Putin and Ukraine. The invasion, in addition to being unacceptable, “is a great mistake on Russia’s part,” declared the Christian Democrat policy. “It was not possible to create a security architecture that would have prevented war,” she added, lamenting that after the end of the Soviet Union, European countries have not managed to “end this cold war” in their relationship with Russia.
Merkel began the meeting by telling what she has been doing since she left the Foreign Ministry. After 30 years in politics, she confessed, at first she realized that she didn’t know how to sit idly by. She had said that she wanted to rest and get away from public life, and that is what she has done. In these six months she has spent time in a country house near the town where she grew up, Templin (Brandenburg), and she has taken long walks along the beaches of the Baltic Sea reading —rather listening; she has taken a liking to audiobooks—Shakespeare, specifically Macbeth.
The invasion of Ukraine, in addition to causing him “great sadness”, has made him rethink decisions he made when he was in office: “Could I have done more to prevent such a tragedy, because I think this situation is a great tragedy. Could it have been avoided? Of course, I ask myself these questions over and over again.”
Osang, a journalist from Der Spiegel, and East German like Merkel, asked extensively about the former president’s relationship with Putin. From the most relevant issues — ”In 2007 she told me that for him the disintegration of the USSR was the worst catastrophe of the 20th century. I told him that for me it was a liberation. It was already clear then that there was a big disagreement”—until the episode of the Russian president’s dog on a visit to Sochi, when Merkel, who is afraid of dogs, froze in front of Putin’s labrador, going through the language in which they communicated: “Putin speaks German better than I speak Russian,” he acknowledged.
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The former foreign minister always maintained an open channel of dialogue with Putin, although she assured that she was aware of what kind of leader the Russian president is. She rejected the accusations of naivety. “Putin’s hatred, Putin’s hostility, yes, it has to be said, goes against the Western democratic model,” she said. She always knew that Putin “wants to destroy Europe. He wants to destroy the European Union because he sees it as a precursor to NATO”. But the diplomatic solution was the only possible way to avoid an open conflict. Although she acknowledged that she wonders if he did the right thing, she doesn’t think she should apologize for his political decisions. “Diplomacy is not bad even if it doesn’t work,” she said.
Much questioned in Germany for its energy policy, which over the years has entrenched dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, Merkel has not admitted mistakes in the construction of gas pipelines through the Baltic. In fact, she acknowledged that the sanctions imposed by the United States on the construction of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline had “bothered” her and that they affected German companies. That “is done with a country like Iran, but not with an ally,” she said, and she thanked President Joe Biden for ending the sanctions last year. In her opinion, maintaining good trade relations with Russia made sense because they are neighboring nations that cannot ignore each other.
The former foreign minister also reviewed past decisions on Ukraine, such as not granting the country the status of a candidate country to join NATO. It happened at the Bucharest summit in 2008, from which both that country and Georgia emerged with vague promises about future accession. At that time, Merkel said, Ukraine was not the country it is today. It was not “democratically stable” and was “dominated by oligarchs.” Facilitating entry into the Alliance would have provoked Putin, she added, and he would have retaliated against kyiv.
The Minsk protocol also found a place in the talk. Merkel piloted, together with François Hollande, the agreements signed in 2014 by Ukraine and Russia to end the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian fighters that broke out that year in eastern Ukraine. “The Minsk agreements were not optimal for Ukraine, but they gave kyiv time to develop,” said the former foreign minister. At least she sided with her: “It makes me very sad that they didn’t work, but I don’t blame myself for trying,” she added: “What would have happened if no one cared in 2014 and Putin had gone on? I wouldn’t want to know.”
Merkel’s appearance at the Berliner Ensemble theater is part of her plan for a quiet return to public life. The excuse for the talk with the journalist is the publication of the book So what is my country?, published last year by the Aufbau publishing house. It includes three of the most outstanding speeches of the former chancellor: the one she offered on the Day of German Unity in 2021, one of the last; the one she delivered to the Israeli Knesset in 2008, and the statements she made in 2015 about her decision to keep Germany’s borders open in the face of the migration crisis. Until now Merkel had only issued a brief statement condemning the aggression in February. Last week she participated in a public act but hardly made any statements. The interview in the theater marks the beginning of her new life as a former chancellor, which she faces at the age of 67 with at least one budding project: writing her political autobiography.
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