Former German chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her record on Russia, saying she had “nothing to apologise for” even as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine casts a shadow over her legacy.
Merkel insisted she had not been naive in her dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin who she met regularly during her 16 years in office.
“Diplomacy isn’t wrong just because it hasn’t worked,” the 67-year-old said in her first major interview since stepping down six months ago.
She recalled her support for economic sanctions against Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea, and German-French efforts to keep the Minsk peace process for Ukraine alive.
“I don’t have to blame myself for not trying hard enough,” the conservative ex-chancellor said.
“I don’t see that I have to say ‘that was wrong’ and that’s why I have nothing to apologise for.”
Speaking to Der Spiegel journalist Alexander Osang, she rejected criticism that she had been wrong to block Ukraine from joining NATO in 2008, arguing that Ukraine was too divided at that point and Putin would have seen membership as a “declaration of war”.
“That wasn’t the Ukraine we know today … The country was not stable, it was riddled with corruption,” she said, praising President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for his wartime leadership.
Merkel argued that the 2014-2015 Minsk peace agreements, seen at the time as the best way to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian soldiers, had “brought some calm” and given Ukraine time to develop as a democracy and strengthen its military, she said.
“The courage and passion with which they are fighting for their country is very impressive,” Merkel added.
Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker, also defended her policy of supporting trade with Russia, saying Europe and Russia were neighbours and could not ignore each other.
She said she had grappled with questions about the former Soviet Union throughout her time in office but it was never possible to end the Cold War.
“We simply didn’t succeed in creating a security architecture to prevent that,” she added.
There was “no justification whatsoever” for the “brutal” and Putin’s illegal war of aggression, she said, adding that the Russian president had made “a big mistake”.
“He wants to destroy Europe,” she warned. “It’s very important for the European Union to stick together now.”