Angela Merkel has insisted that her position as a lame duck in the last months of her time in office made it more or less impossible for her to influence the behaviour of Vladimir Putin.
The former German chancellor appeared both defensive and quietly defiant about her inability to change the course of the Russian president’s decision-making in the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine in February.
In an interview with the German news magazine Spiegel, Merkel said she felt acutely aware that her ability to negotiate with Putin was minimal, owing to the fact it was known she would not stand for a fifth term in office.
“I no longer had the power to push my ideas through because everyone knew ‘she’ll be gone by autumn’,” she said, describing how she had tried to establish a round of European talks after a meeting in the summer of 2021 between the US president, Joe Biden, and Putin. “Had I been standing again in the September I’d have kept drilling down, but … at my final meeting in Moscow [with Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov], the feeling was clear: from a political power point of view, you’re finished. For Putin it is only power that counts.”
In her interviews with Alexander Osang, which took place over a period of a year and in various locations, Merkel insisted that her stance on the Minsk agreement – which brought a ceasefire after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula – had been right. Key points of the Minsk peace talks, including disarmament and supervision by an international body, were never followed through. But Merkel said the agreement had nevertheless helped buy Kyiv time to arm itself better against the Russian military.
According to Osang, she repeatedly implied that she felt misunderstood over what she had tried to achieve as German leader, facing as she now does a barrage of accusations over some of her choices, such as her decision to block Ukraine’s admission to Nato in Bucharest in 2008, seen by many as having harmed its ability to defend itself. Her refusal to acknowledge her mistakes in allowing Germany to become ever more dependent on Russian gas supplies is another major criticism.
Merkel also appeared to be loosely comparing her behaviour to that of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister associated with the flawed policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler by allowing him to expand the territory of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Having watched the Netflix drama Munich – the Edge of War, based on the Robert Harris novel, in which the actor Jeremy Irons plays Chamberlain, Merkel said she had been intrigued to see him portrayed in another, more positive light – “not as a fearful stirrup-holder for Hitler but as a strategist who used his country to create a buffer so that it could better prepare for German attack”.
Merkel added it was unfair to suggest she had not paid Ukraine enough attention in 2013 and 2014. “People write about 2013 and 14 as if I had had nothing else to concern myself with than the Minsk agreement, and ask: ‘How could you have taken your eye off Ukraine?’ But this is too simple. We had elections [in Germany], there was always…