So far, former Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) has not explained how she sees her role in the failed German Russia policy of the past few years. Merkel declined an interview with FOCUS Online a few days ago and did not answer any questions. Russia expert Joachim Weber has a clear opinion on her role-
As Chancellor from 2005 to 2021, Angela Merkel (CDU) played a very large and active part in German and European policy towards Russia and Ukraine. However, she has not yet commented on the war in Ukraine.
At her first public appearance in six months on Thursday in Berlin, the 67-year-old spoke of a “barbaric war of aggression by Russia” and a “profound caesura”. Her solidarity applies to Ukraine, which she also granted the “right to self-defence”. Not to mention German arms deliveries, which she had always refused despite the annexation of Crimea in 2014. And she said nothing about her Russia policy either.
FOCUS Online asked the former Chancellor for an interview a few days ago. Among other things, we wanted to know her explanation for the fact that the “Minsk 2” agreement, which she spearheaded negotiating between Russia and Ukraine, ended in Putin’s brutal attack on a sovereign country.
Merkel refused. We therefore asked the Russia expert Joachim Weber from the University of Bonn for an assessment.
dr Joachim Weber is a senior fellow at the strategic think tank CASSIS at the University of Bonn and deals with questions of strategic foresight. He is an expert on Russia and the Arctic, studied Eastern Europe history and has been dealing with security policy issues for decades. Recent publications include two books on geopolitical developments in the Arctic.
Question 1 to Angela Merkel: Madam Chancellor, in 2008 you spoke out with the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy against the admission of Ukraine to NATO. From today’s perspective, was your “no” a mistake?
Comment by Joachim Weber: This question is an extremely critical point in the historical assessment of which decisions favored the outbreak of the Ukraine war – perhaps the most delicate of all. The proposal came unsolicited from the US government at the time. The question of whether such a step would have brought greater security to Europe or merely pre-empted Russian military intervention may never be answered unequivocally. What is clear is that Russia has waged war in Georgia six months after Ukraine’s intention to join NATO was announced. Overall, this step – i.e. the announcement of Ukraine’s accession, but without real implementation – has created an unfortunate situation.
Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and her time
I think Angela Merkel did the right thing, in principle, by voting with Sarkozy against rapid NATO admission. The problem: Even if it was she who prevented it, this perspective has been there ever since. An intention that has infuriated Putin. This actually only caused damage, so it was a bad compromise. It would probably have been wiser to definitely reject accession or at least to formulate a long-term perspective of accession much more vaguely. The fact that Ukraine later wrote accession as a goal in its constitution made things even more complicated.
Question 2 to Angela Merkel: With Sarkozy’s successor Francois Hollande you mediated very actively in the Ukraine conflict and negotiated the follow-up agreement “Minsk II” in 2015. Are there any serious mistakes that you see in the contract today? What caused the agreement to fail?
Joachim Weber: The view is somewhat clearer here. It is a central weakness of the treaty that in both Minsk agreements Russia was not treated as a party to the war and conflict, but as a quasi-neutral partner like the real mediator states Germany and France. That was of course exactly the goal of Putin, who unfortunately was able to assert himself in the negotiations.
I believe in Angela Merkel’s good intentions to de-escalate the conflict with the agreement. But with the illegal annexation of Crimea a year earlier and the massive arms deliveries to the Russian-born separatists in Donbass, Merkel and Hollande should have recognized that Russia was not really interested in de-escalation. Russia deliberately kept the conflict simmering to further destabilize Ukraine. Putin just says: ‘Where many Russians live, there is Russia’, even if they only form a strong minority.
Question 3 to Angela Merkel: “Minsk 2” gave Ukraine time to rearm its army. At the same time, however, you refused arms deliveries. And despite the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the door for Ukraine’s NATO membership remained open. Many see this as an accelerant for war. How do you see it today?
Joachim Weber: The biggest mistake here was that after the annexation of Crimea, Germany and other European states neither correctly read nor understood the motives or the actions of the Russian side. One should not have blindly clung to the illusion of Minsk 2 and provided Ukraine with weapons for self-defense. Instead, even after 2014, people muddled through with one and a half closed eyes in typical Merkel fashion. It would have required a clear decision: either a cooperative approach or show strength and a clear edge.
The first variant would have meant that an urgent attempt was made to reach an understanding with the Russians about what a security architecture for the whole of Europe could look like in the future. In this way, Kyiv would have oriented itself economically and socially to the west, but would definitely not have become a member of NATO for at least two or three decades. Or one would have found out that Putin would not under any circumstances tolerate such a westward orientation of Ukraine, because he only sees it as a renegade Russian province. Then Ukraine would have had to be supported and strengthened with massive arms deliveries in order to raise the threshold for a Russian attack. So it became neither one nor the other.
Question 4 to Angela Merkel: With the “Nord Stream 2” gas pipeline project, which you defended until the end of your term of office, Germany’s dependence on Russia in the energy sector would have become even greater than it already was. Are you still convinced that the project had no geopolitical significance?
Joachim Weber: At this point, the then Chancellor deliberately looked the other way and denied the geopolitical context against her better judgment. It may be true that from the German point of view the pipeline was planned as a ‘purely economic project’ in order to establish peaceful coexistence through a trading partnership. But under no circumstances can that be said from a Russian point of view. Here the geopolitical aspect of the project has always been evident.
What really surprises me is that Merkel simply ignored a basic rule of economics. Because if a company or a country accumulates more than 30 percent of a market segment, one speaks of a monopoly position that is no longer legitimate. For example because of the dangers of too much dependence. I have repeatedly pointed this out to other colleagues over the past 15 years.
Even without Nord Stream 2, Germany’s dependence on Russian gas had now risen to over 50 percent! All of this would have been feasible if Angela Merkel and her coalition partner SPD had ensured that sufficient gas reserves were maintained in Germany and, above all, liquid gas terminals were built. Instead, nothing happened.
Question 5 to Angela Merkel: There are leading German Russia experts who say that you knew the Russian President better than any other heads of state in the West because of your socialization in the GDR and your special connection to Putin. Then how do you explain that Putin was able to deceive you like that?
Joachim Weber: Only Angela Merkel herself can probably answer this question. Nevertheless, I am very surprised that an experienced politician could not or did not want to notice from her intellect in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine for years that Putin was playing a double game with marked cards the whole time.
It is a truism that Russians understand and respect the language of strength, but not the language of impotent weakness. At the latest since the events of 2014, the then Chancellor Angela Merkel should have recognized this and made efforts to reduce German dependencies. And despite the pacifist “I look away zeitgeist”, she should have done one or two uncomfortable things that were still unpopular at the time. If you don’t do that, it won’t do well in international politics in the long run. That’s the best way to win elections in Germany.