Merkel unplugged and unconvincing – POLITICO

Merkel unplugged and unconvincing – POLITICO

BERLIN — Angela Merkel isn’t mad, she’s just disappointed.

She always knew Vladimir was a problem, but this? Barbaric.

It’s not Germany’s fault, much less hers. After all, no one could have anticipated this Disaster.

So unfolded Merkel’s unexpected return to the political stage this week after a six-month hiatus from the public eye. Sitting for a 90-minute, one-on-one conversation with a German journalist, Merkel managed not only to absolve herself of any responsibility for the war in Ukraine, but did the same for the entire German nation.

“I won’t apologize,” she declared when the subject of Ukraine came up, signaling that her compatriots shouldn’t either.

Agela Merkel rejected the notion that she failed to take a tough line on Putin while in office | Adam Berry/Getty Images

At a time when several of Germany’s eastern partners, from Poland to the Baltics, are urging Berlin to pursue an honest public reckoning of the role Germany played in paving the way for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Merkel’s defiant stance, given her unmatched credibility in Germany , is intended to further complicate those relations.

When the 67-year-old retired chancellor emerged from behind the curtain to face a sellout crowd on Tuesday, however, such considerations couldn’t have been further from focus.

Befitting the setting — a baroque revival playhouse in central Berlin that served as the artistic home of playwright Bertolt Brecht — it was political theater at its finest.

Decked out in one of her trademark blazers and an amber necklace, Merkel seemed to be her old self — until she started talking.

“I think that I can come to terms with this new phase of my life and be very happy,” the ex-chancellor confided, recounting how she had spent the months since leaving office reading “thick” books, traveling through Italy and strolling the beaches of Germany’s Baltic coast.

As innocuous as those tidbits may seem for most politicians, they were the kind of personal details Merkel guarded like state secrets when she was chancellor. The one feature of her private life Merkel allowed her staff to hand out to desperate reporters trying to profile her was that she liked to cook Pomeranian potato soup.

By that standard, Tuesday’s appearance was the Merkel equivalent of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

That said, the primary aim of Merkel’s performance was not to share her feelings, but to set the record straight.

Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine, Merkel has faced intense criticism from abroad, including from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for what her detractors say effectively amounted to sacrificing Ukraine to Russia to ensure Germany’s access to cheap energy. After months of quietly taking jabs for those policies, Merkel decided it was time to defend her reputation.

The Ukrainian critique of Merkel is rooted in two important decisions she made as chancellor: first, her move to block Ukraine’s path to NATO in 2008; second, her pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia even after the country annexed Crimea in 2014 and fomented a separatist war in Donbas.

On the stage in Berlin, Merkel defended the NATO move, saying that had Germany allowed Ukraine’s membership to go forward, as the US advocated, Putin would have considered it a “declaration of war.” What’s more, she argued that Ukraine was an immature, corrupt democracy at the time and was under the control of oligarchs.

Her reasoning was flawed on both counts.

To begin, the question on the agenda at NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest was not immediate membership for Ukraine but to put the country on a path towards accession. Interim arrangements for its security within the alliance, such as the bilateral assurances the UK and others have made to Finland and Sweden in recent weeks as they prepare to join NATO, could have been extended to Ukraine at the time.

And while Ukraine was hardly a bedrock of democracy in 2008, a clear membership perspective could have helped solidify its democratic path, just as it did for another once-troubled NATO member — West Germany. When Germany joined NATO in 1955, the country’s government administration remained chock-full of former Nazis and its military barely even existed. Nevertheless, it was brought into the fold.

Merkel also rejected the notion that she had effectively abandoned Ukraine and encouraged Putin to test the West’s resolve by failing to take a tough line on his aggression towards his neighbors. In fact, the former chancellor argued that she actually helped buy Ukraine time to prepare to defend itself by engaging Russia in a series of lengthy negotiations that culminated with the so-called Minsk accords, a flimsy attempt at peace that neither side ever took seriously.

“Just because diplomacy might not work in the end, doesn’t mean it was wrong at the outset,” she said.

Her line of reasoning recalls a common defense of Neville Chamberlain, the British premier whose appeasement of Hitler in the run-up to World War II has made his name integral with catastrophic foreign policy miscalculation. Despite Chamberlain’s misjudgment of Hitler, his defenders argue, his course ultimately helped Britain by giving it more time to prepare for war.

Such reasoning is of little solace to the likes of Poland, which suffered the brunt of Hitler’s ire in the wake of Chamberlain’s appeasement strategy.

While Merkel declared on Tuesday that her “heart always beats for Ukraine,” her actions as chancellor tell another story. If she had really wanted to help Ukraine steel itself against the threat of a Russian attack, she and her coalition would have supplied Kyiv with the weapons it needed. Instead, they refused.

Not that Merkel has any regrets about her handling of Ukraine or much of anything else.

“I’m personally doing very well,” she declared with a grin at the outset of her stage show, saying that she has a “clear conscience.”

As jarring as that may sound to some foreign ears, considering the war, Merkel’s words offered a salve to many Germans who regard her as a moral authority and miss her steady presence at the government’s helm.

Though Merkel is known to bristle at the image of her as the mother of the nation — a stern, yet reassuring presence looming in the background — it has stuck precisely because it rings true.

Responding to the sharp criticism of the current German government’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine, for example, Merkel said she had full confidence in her successor, Olaf Scholz.

“If I thought things were going in the wrong direction, then there would be plenty of people I could call,” she told her audience. “I haven’t had to yet.”

If only there were someone to call about Merkel.

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