Merkel says she has 'nothing to apologise for' in dealings with Russia

Former German chancellor gives first interview since Ukraine war clouded her legacy

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel fields questions in Berlin on Tuesday. AP
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Former German chancellor Angela Merkel has defended her efforts to make peace with Russia, in her first interview since the war in Ukraine clouded the legacy of her time in power.

Mrs Merkel left office to much acclaim last year, but events in Ukraine have exposed what critics see as flaws in her record: an unchecked Russia, an ailing German military and a power grid reliant on Siberian fossil fuels.

Her overtures to Moscow have been described as a failure by some of her former ministers, and her successor Olaf Scholz turned a page on the Merkel era by scrapping the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and ordering a military refurbishment.

Interviewed at a Berlin theatre on Tuesday, she admitted she was never able to reconcile a Russian leadership nostalgic for the Soviet days with western powers, meaning it was “never possible to truly end the Cold War”.

But she said it had been right to try diplomacy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was in power throughout her 16-year term.

“It’s a great shame that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself for having tried,” said Mrs Merkel, 67. "I don't see that I should now say it was wrong, and I won't apologise."

She defended her decision to block Ukraine’s Nato membership at a summit in 2008, recalled bitterly by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a moment when western powers failed to stand up to Russia.

Ukraine was not a stable democracy back then, was "ruled by oligarchs" and Russia would not have tolerated its accession to Nato, said Mrs Merkel, who urged her critics to consider the circumstances at the time.

But she insisted she was not defending Mr Putin or his worldview, describing the invasion of Ukraine as tragic, inexcusable and a breach of international law.

Angela Merkel through the years - in pictures

Russia's invasion in February marked a dramatic escalation of the eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine. Mr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday that Ukrainian forces were mounting a "heroic defence" of the Donbas, the focus of recent fighting.

Ukraine said it was still holding back an assault on the city of Severodonetsk but being pounded with mortars, artillery and rocket-propelled grenade launchers by Russian troops.

Mr Zelenskyy claimed that more than 31,000 Russian troops had died in more than 100 days of what he described as a "completely pointless war".

Mrs Merkel said the Minsk peace process between Ukraine and Russia, brokered by Germany and France but now in tatters, had bought time for Ukraine to develop as a country.

While never fully successful, the 2015 accords "brought some calm", and the defiance of Mr Zelenskyy and today's Ukraine showed how the country had changed, she said.

She said sanctions on Russia could have been tougher after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but said she had supported keeping them in place in subsequent years.

But she said there was no way to avoid dealing with Mr Putin, because Russia was too big to ignore.

"I can't pretend he doesn't exist," she said. "Before you start waging war with Russia, you have a duty to try everything diplomatically ... we have to find a way to coexist despite all our differences."

Ukraine-Russia conflict latest - in pictures

Mrs Merkel, a Russian speaker who grew up in communist East Germany, promoted trade ties with Russia during her term in office and defended Nord Stream 2 as a purely economic project despite criticism from Washington.

Building on the work of her even more Kremlin-friendly predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, her policies reflected a longing by many German politicians to heal the scars of the past by making peace with Russia.

She won four successive elections in Germany and was widely admired for her calm, reassuring style, remaining the country’s most popular politician until the end of her term.

However, her detractors had long accused her of lacking the vision to tackle deep-rooted problems, such as an energy dependence on Russia that has slowed Germany's efforts to punish the Kremlin over Ukraine.

She also defended avoiding the spotlight as questions mounted over her record. A trip to Florence while Mr Zelenskyy blamed her in part for the grisly discoveries in Bucha "made clear that I am no longer chancellor", she said.

Updated: June 08, 2022, 11:45 AM