June 9, 2022 - 11:20am

In her first public appearance since leaving office, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended Berlin’s Russia policy during her 16-year tenure and expressed confidence in her successor, Olaf Scholz.

Judging by the newspaper headlines following her statements, there apparently was an expectation that she would apologise and take some responsibility for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, due to her policy of close economic and political cooperation with Moscow.

While in hindsight it is easy to condemn Ms. Merkel’s policy as a failure now, it is important to remember that just a few years ago she was hailed as both the leader of the West and the free world. This is in spite of the fact that her Russia policies were well-known, including opposition to a Ukrainian NATO membership, insistence on North Stream 2, and continuing to be an unreliable partner in matters of international security or financial commitments to NATO.

In fact, representatives of her government mocked then-President Donald Trump’s remarks at the 2018 UN General Assembly that “Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course.”

In many ways, Ms. Merkel’s refusal to condemn her own Ostpolitik is understandable if we recognise that she was following the same playbook the US has been using in their own East-Policy with regards to China. Using economic integration as a means to open up and liberalise autocratic systems has been a popular concept in Berlin and Washington, until the more confrontative style of the Trump administration.

The idea of stability through economic cooperation was a clear continuation of Willy Brandt’s “change through rapprochement” that began in the 1960s. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was, according to Ms. Merkel, “an objective breach of all international laws and of everything that allows us in Europe to live in peace”, but insisted that diplomacy isn’t wrong just because it hasn’t worked.” She also claimed, however, that “military deterrence is the only language he understands”, leaving open the question why Germany did not do more to establish precisely such a deterrence, including being a more reliable NATO member in terms of defence spending and keeping her armed forces at a high level of readiness.

Ultimately Angela Merkel is not that different from her contemporary critics, who were happy to use Russia as a geopolitical boogeyman for domestic purposes (like the Trump collusion allegations) or a reliable supplier of energy, without believing that Moscow could have an independent agenda of its own.

It should have been clear that Russia’s cultivation of ties with former European politicians was part of a more ambitious strategy that openly unfolded with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. One is left wondering if it might have been a lack of imagination and knee-jerk opposition to everything coming from Donald Trump that caused such blindness on part of the political class and the media in the West. But to this day, none of them — Merkel included — have even apologised.