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UKRAINE

Clouds over Merkel’s legacy as Russian invasion lays flaws bare

Up to the final hours before Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, former chancellor Angela Merkel had been touted as the person favoured by Germans to try to talk President Vladimir Putin out of the conflict.

Clouds over Merkel's legacy as Russian invasion lays flaws bare
Former German chancellor Angela Merkel addresses chancellery workers and her successor Olaf Scholz (not in picture) as she handed over the office to Scholz in Berlin on December 8th, 2021. Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

But as Russian bombs fell on Ukrainian cities, a shadow has fallen on Merkel’s 16 years in office, with some observers now questioning if her detente policies with Putin had in fact left Germany, and Europe, vulnerable.

Once hailed as the leader of the free world, the veteran centre-right leader has been accused by some of increasing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and neglecting Germany’s defence in what appeared to be a devastating miscalculation of Putin’s ambitions.

Merkel’s push for diplomacy and bids to bind regimes to treaties and business contracts now look like “an error”, conservative daily Die Welt, long critical of Merkel, charged.

“What Germany and Europe has experienced over the last days is nothing short of a reversal of Merkel’s policies of guaranteeing peace and freedom through treaties with despots,” it wrote.

Over the last decade, Germany’s energy reliance on Russia rose from 36 percent of its total gas imports in 2014 to 55 percent currently, with the deal for the controversial Nord Stream 2 signed after the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Merkel calls Russian invasion ‘turning point’ for Europe

That has left Germany nearly helpless to follow allies like the United States and impose an oil and gas embargo against Russia.

And Germany’s defence profile had been blunted by successive years of under-investment. That has drawn the ire of the United States and allies which have repeatedly pressed Europe’s biggest economy to meet the NATO defence spending target of 2 percent of national output.

One of Merkel’s closest aides and former defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has condemned Germany’s “historical failure” to bolster its military over the years.

“After Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin,” she tweeted, referring to incursions carried out by Russia while Merkel was in power

‘Terrible mistake’
Merkel took power in 2005 after beating Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder at the polls.

Schroeder himself has been pilloried for his friendship with Putin, and his refusal to quit key posts at Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom.

But her critics say that while Schroeder had started the ball rolling on Nord Stream 1, a pipeline funnelling Russian gas to Germany, Merkel signed off on Nord Stream 2.

The controversial 10-billion-euro ($11-billion) pipeline is disputed because it bypasses Ukraine, depriving Kyiv of gas transit fees. It has been put on ice in the wake of the invasion.

READ ALSO:

Merkel “must take her share of the blame with her eagerness to seek close economic ties to Russia” as it led to Germany’s dependency on Russian energy, Sueddeutsche daily concluded.

“We are now seeing the consequences of that terrible mistake,” it said.

On the geopolitical front, her government’s reluctance in admitting Georgia and Ukraine to the NATO fold in 2008 — despite a push by Washington — was now also under scrutiny.

 ‘Limits’
Joerg Forbrig, director for central and eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund, rejected the notion that Merkel may have been too naive about the Kremlin boss.

“She had a pretty good appreciation of who Vladimir Putin is and what Russia is today,” he said.

But she had made her decisions in the face of pressure from her coalition partners during 12 out of 16 years — the Social Democrats — who favoured closeness with Russia, he said.

A business lobby that sought economic ties with Russia and Germany’s need to find alternative energy sources as it wound down nuclear power plants were also part of the considerations.

“All these cross pressures didn’t really allow her to implement a Russia policy that would have been commensurate with the problem that Russia is,” said Forbrig.

Marina Henke, professor of international relations at the Hertie School, said keeping her coalition together had been crucial for Merkel, “a bridge-builder” not known for lofty visions but who favoured step-by-step progress.

“She was much more thinking about… how can I make things better in the next one, two years,” said Henke.

While the analysts noted that she made a clear mistake over energy, they believe that the Russia question would not lead to a rewrite of her overall political legacy, and that she would still be credited for steering Germany through a multitude of crises and for keeping the EU together.

For Henke this is because the responsibility of the SPD far outweighs Merkel’s in Germany’s past stance towards Russia.

“If you don’t know Germany, and think that the chancellor or the head of state is omnipotent, then it might come across like (Merkel’s to blame). But if you’re German… then you know… it’s basically a major mistake of the SPD.”

Forbrig pointed to a meeting when Merkel told Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya “not to overestimate” how much she could help because the leeway she is working with is “much more limited than many people think”.

“She had an acute understanding of the limits of her power,” he said.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How the Ukraine crisis could impact Germany

Member comments

  1. Nobody knew Putin would invade Ukraine and in fairness to Merkel Germany has always taken a diplomatic approach to Russia, the Minsk Agreement was agreed by Germany and that could have resolved sone of issues as they relate to Ukraine.

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POLITICS

Scholz says Germany to become biggest NATO force in Europe

Germany's investments in defence in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine will transform it into the biggest contributor to NATO in Europe, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday.

Scholz says Germany to become biggest NATO force in Europe

Alongside the United States, Germany is “certainly making the largest contribution” to NATO, Scholz said in an interview with the ARD broadcaster.

Speaking at the close of a summit of leaders from the Group of Seven rich democracies, Scholz said Germany was in the process of creating “the largest conventional army within the NATO framework in Europe”.

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Scholz announced a 100-billion-euro ($105-billion) fund to beef up Germany’s military defences and offset decades of chronic underfunding.

READ ALSO: Germany’s Bundestag approves €100 billion fund to beef up defences

He also promised to meet NATO’s target of spending two percent of GDP on defence, answering years of criticism from close allies that Berlin was failing to contribute enough to the alliance.

Russia’s invasion had led to a renewed conviction “that we should spend more money on defence”, Scholz said.

“We will spend an average of around 70 to 80 billion euros a year on defence over the next few years,” he said, meaning “Germany is the country that invests the most in this”.

Scholz’s announcement in February was seen as a major policy shift, upending Germany’s traditionally cautious approach to defence as a result of its post-war guilt.

Germany had steadily reduced the size of its army since the end of the Cold War from around 500,000 at the time of reunification in 1990 to just 200,000.

NATO allies are from Tuesday gathering in Madrid for a summit, where the United States is expected to announce new long-term military deployments across Europe.

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