Angela Merkel defends her policy: towards Russia and Ukraine, towards the refugees. In doing so, she reveals a lot about her self-image. We learn: she was a shrewd tactician. She wasn’t a strategist.
Can chancellor policy be plausible and yet wrong? This is what happens when a head of government bases his policy on what is feasible, but not what is desirable. On what can be achieved in the short term, but not on what is sustainable. Angela Merkel herself explains her politics along this line – and reveals a lot about her style of government.
In an interview with Die Zeit, Merkel says a sentence that Helmut Kohl would probably never have said – and, as far as I can remember, never said. The war in Ukraine will “one day end with negotiations. Wars end at the negotiating table”. Merkel, who has often been described as the negotiating queen, the master of night meetings – by Vladimir Putin, among others – apparently cannot imagine a war ending in an air-conditioned room other than on the bloody battlefield.
One notices at this point: she speaks of a graduate physicist who has learned to come to a solution through trial and error, with trial and error. Helmut Kohl, who was a historian, knew that wars do not have to end at the negotiating table.
The First World War ended with a dictated peace. World War II ended with a declaration of surrender. There was nothing more to negotiate for the war loser for the respective Allies against the German Reich. The Vietnam War ended with the ignominious withdrawal of the Americans. The older ones among us still have in mind the iconic photo from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, from which the last US helicopter flies off.
The war in Afghanistan ended for the Russians the way the war in Vietnam ended for the Americans. They went away like beaten dogs. This is how the West’s war against the Taliban ended – who routed not only the Germans, but even the Americans. Which at the same time refutes another popular thesis:
You can win a war even against a nuclear power. The Taliban were not deterred by either the Russian or the American nuclear missiles. They were less timid than the Germans and their chancellor, who, shortly after the start of the Ukraine war, took the Russian nuclear threat very seriously.
Why is it common sense in Germany to rely on negotiations? That’s probably why: Germany has become a pacifist society, and the saying: He who talks, doesn’t shoot, is considered the truth. But the Ukraine war teaches something else: you can talk and shoot at the same time. You can also just shoot. That is the fundamental difference between the Germans and Putin’s Russians: Putin and his clique consider the West to be decadent because it cannot imagine doing without shooting.
Walodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin are demonstrating why a negotiated peace in the Ukraine war is far away. Neither of them can negotiate at all because of domestic political goals, because neither of them has achieved their goal. Zelensky not the liberation, Putin not the annihilation of Ukraine. Negotiating now could carry both out of office.
Back to Merkel, who was asked by Die Zeit whether “when and under what circumstances negotiations can be started can be left to Ukraine alone”. What Merkel says is interesting because it is different from what her successor says about it. Namely:
“There is a difference between a dictated peace, which I, like many others, do not want, and friendly, open discussions with each other. I don’t want to say more about it.” Scholz always gives the same answer to the same question – Ukraine decides “alone”. The window that Merkel opens with her diplomatic response is far larger than the diplomatic leeway that Scholz – after various talks with Putin – believes is possible.
To this day, Merkel has had to put up with the accusation that it was a mistake not to admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO in 2008, as the Americans and British wanted. Merkel says: Ukraine and Georgia were not ready for this (in the sense of being prepared) and the topic had not been thought through to the end – with a view to NATO “and its rules of assistance”. At the time, Merkel believed that Ukraine’s early accession would have led to an early attack by Putin on the country and then made NATO a direct participant in the war.
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Merkel also does not want to put up with accusations from her successors that they are making Germany too dependent on Russia for energy. But how can it be that she already saw through Putin’s aggressiveness in 2007 and still approved Nord Stream 2 after his invasion of Crimea?
Merkel argues that she could not have negotiated the Minsk Agreement with Putin and then alienated him at Nord Stream. However, this contradicts the ex-Chancellor’s (and her successor’s) long-standing claim that the Nord Stream pipeline was a “private-sector project”.
Merkel still stands by her refugee policy – and for the sake of justice one should see that Merkel not only left the borders open to the refugees, but also afterwards tightened the asylum law and closed the Turkish deal.
She also did not later say, as is often claimed, that 2015 should not be repeated, but at the CDU party conference in Essen: “A situation like that of summer 2015 cannot, should and must not be repeated.”
2015 must not be repeated, which means that borders are tight. The “2015 situation” must not be repeated, which means: as head of government, do everything possible so that you don’t have to decide again whether to leave the German border open or close it. A big difference.
Merkel sits in her office on Unter den Linden, near Pariser Platz, looks at the Brandenburg Gate and has to experience that almost everyone distances themselves from her – least of all Friedrich Merz, by the way. And she can’t go over to the Bundestag, give a speech there and tell the new government: It didn’t go the way you told my story.
It’s the lot of a has-been, an ex-government leader. Everyone can imagine what that means, and perhaps has already experienced it: You leave a job and the successor tells people how stupid his predecessor was. Something like that causes a very special pain. Which grows again, because it’s difficult to defend yourself against such things.