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Merkel defends Russia’s legacy, says ‘nothing to excuse’


Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday defended her years-long policy of détente towards Moscow, saying she had “nothing to apologize for” even as the war in Ukraine casts a pall over her legacy.

In her first major interview since resigning six months ago, Merkel insisted she had not been naïve in her dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Diplomacy isn’t bad just because it didn’t work out,” the 67-year-old said on stage at a Berlin theater in an interview broadcast on the Phoenix news channel.

Read also | Merkel’s party on course to win regional elections in northern Germany

She reiterated her support for economic sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and for Franco-German efforts to keep the Minsk peace process alive for Ukraine.

“I can’t blame myself for not trying hard enough,” said the former Tory Chancellor.

“I don’t see that I have to say ‘that was wrong’ and that’s why I have nothing to apologize for.”

The veteran leader, who met frequently with Putin during her 16 years in power and championed a business-like and pragmatic approach to Moscow, said the February 24 invasion of Ukraine marked a “turning point”.

“Wants to destroy Europe”

There was “no justification” for the “brutal” and illegal war of aggression, she said, adding that Putin had made “a big mistake”.

“He wants to destroy Europe,” she warned. “It is very important for the European Union to stick together now.”

But she pushed back against criticism that she was wrong to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO in 2008, saying she was not ready then and wanted to avoid ‘further escalation’ with Putin, who was already worried about the perceived expansion of the military alliance eastward.

She also insisted that the 2014-2015 Minsk peace pacts, now in tatters, were at the time seen as the best bet to end fighting in eastern Ukraine between separatists. pro-Russian and Ukrainian soldiers.

The peace process “brought some calm” that gave Ukraine another seven years to develop as a democracy and strengthen its military, she said, in a nod to the resistance so popular with Kyiv against invading Russian troops.

“The courage and passion with which they are fighting for their country is very impressive,” Merkel said, adding that she had “the greatest respect” for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

But Merkel insisted there was no way to avoid dealing with Putin because Russia, like China, was too big to ignore.

“We have to find a way to coexist despite all our differences,” she said.

“Language of the Force”

Faced with criticism of the policy of “change through trade” pushed by successive German governments, Merkel said she had never had the illusion that closer trade ties would boost democratic reforms in Russia.

“I never thought Putin would change through trade,” she said. But in the absence of political rapprochement, “having economic ties makes sense”.

Germany has become hugely dependent on Russian energy imports under Merkel’s watch, and it has long antagonized Western allies with its support for the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was to double Russian gas deliveries to Germany.

The project was scrapped by current Chancellor Olaf Scholz in late February due to Russian aggression, and Europe’s biggest economy is now joining EU partners in a race to wean itself off oil, gas and Russian coal.

In another major U-turn, Scholz pledged to invest 100 billion euros ($107 billion) in modernizing the German military, seen as chronically underfunded during the Merkel era.

Scholz, a social democrat who served as finance minister in Merkel’s last coalition government, has also pledged to spend more than 2% of annual gross domestic product on defence, exceeding the NATO target. .

Merkel expressed support for her successor’s decisions, saying force was “the only language Putin understands”.

Read also | Angela Merkel rejects Zelensky’s criticism and stands by her decision to block Ukraine from NATO

During the interview, Merkel – who remains hugely popular in Germany – also offered a rare glimpse into her private life since retirement, spending time alone on the Baltic Sea coast, taking walks and catching up on her reading.

After 30 years in politics, Merkel said she appreciates not having to rush from one nomination to the next.

“Personally, I’m fine,” she told the audience, though she was gloomy about the war in Ukraine, “like so many people.”

“I had imagined my time after leaving the office a little differently,” Merkel said.

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