December 14, 2022 - 5:30pm

Angela Merkel is no longer “the most powerful woman in the world”, as TIME Magazine described her in 2015, but when she talks, her words continue to have a global resonance. Her recent interview in Die Zeit is a perfect case in point. In it, she made a rather controversial statement regarding the Minsk agreements negotiated in 2014-15. This series of international agreements aimed to end the Donbas war fought between Ukraine and armed Russian separatist groups, by agreeing to a ceasefire and the start of negotiations on some form of autonomy for the self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The agreements, however, mediated by France (President Hollande) and Germany (Chancellor Merkel), failed to stop the fighting, and were never really implemented — eventually culminating in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

For the past eight years, the two sides have been blaming each other for the breakdown of the negotiations. Russia has always claimed that Ukraine was never serious about implementing the agreements. Ukraine — and Western countries — have always denied such allegations, putting them down to Russian disinformation. Now, Merkel describes the Minsk agreements as “an attempt to give Ukraine time” to build up its own military capacities. “[Ukraine] used this time to get stronger, as you can see today”:

The Ukraine of 2014-15 is not the Ukraine of today. As you saw in the battle for Debaltsevo in early 2015, Putin could easily have overrun them at the time. And I very much doubt that the NATO countries could have done as much then as they do now to help Ukraine.
- Angela Merkel, Die Ziet

State-backed media in Russia (as well as Putin himself) have leapt on Merkel’s words as evidence that Ukraine and Western countries never had any intention of negotiating a peace deal in which the Donbas republics would enjoy a degree of autonomy. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has even said that Merkel’s comments could be used for an investigation in an international tribunal.

Regardless of who you blame for the failure of the Minsk agreements, it’s clear that from Ukraine’s perspective there was a logic to the ‘buy time and rearm’ strategy. But what interest would Germany have had in passively facilitating an all-out war between Ukraine and Russia — an outcome that was bound to unravel German-Russian economic relations that Germany, and especially Merkel, had spent more than a decade building? Indeed, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a massive infrastructural project part-financed by Germany, was completed only months before the outbreak of the war.

Pro Russian analysts claim, unsurprisingly, that provoking Russia into invading Ukraine was part of Germany’s plan to revamp its defence capabilities and (re-)impose its military hegemony over Europe. They offer as evidence of that Chancellor Scholz’s claim that “the crucial role for Germany at this moment is to step up as one of the main providers of security in Europe”.

This explanation seems far-fetched. It seems more likely that Merkel is now coming up with a way to justify what many view as her irresponsible appeasing of Russia. Indeed, her explanation for the decision to build Nord Stream 2 — that refusing to do so would “have dangerously worsened the climate” with Moscow — is hard to believe. Betting Germany’s long-term gas supplies on Russia just to deceive Putin seems too Machiavellian even for a shrewd politician like Merkel. As for Germany’s military build-up, it seems more like an attempt to transform an unwelcome crisis into an opportunity rather than part of a grand strategy. Unfortunately for the former Chancellor, her legacy has been irrevocably tarnished — and there is nothing she can do to restore it.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.