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Former German chancellor Angela Merkel gave an interview to the Zeit - but the Zeit is paywalled and I don't speak German. In that interview, she supposedly said:

I thought that the introduction of NATO accession of Ukraine and Georgia, discussed in 2008, was wrong. The countries did not have the necessary prerequisites for this, nor was it fully understood what the consequences of such a decision would have been, both with regard to Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine, as well as NATO and its rules of assistance. And the Minsk Agreement of 2014 was an attempt to give Ukraine time.

Ukraine used this time to become stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today. An illustrative example was the battle for Debaltseve. At the beginning of 2015, Putin could easily have overrun them at that time. And I very much doubt that the NATO countries could have done as much then as they do today to help Ukraine.

This translation, however, is quoted at SouthFront, which is a... staunch pro-Russian (and perhaps Russian?) site, I think would be a fair characterization. But there's also reactions reported on Yahoo News, for example: "Putin disappointed by Merkel's words about Minsk agreement"

Anyway, the quoted passage seems somewhat ambiguous to me. Is Merkel saying that the whole Minsk process was a ruse in order to buy time for Ukraine before a planned NATO+Ukraine-vs-Russia military confrontation? Or is she saying that this was the effect of the Minsk agreements in hindsight? And - if it's the former rather than the latter, does she indicate in the interview that she personally acted with this intention in mind, or is she saying that that's how Ukraine and/or the US perceived the Minsk process?

3 Answers 3

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1. The translation is an accurate representation of what Merkel said in the interview.

The original text is:

Die 2008 diskutierte Einleitung eines Nato-Beitritts der Ukraine und Georgiens hielt ich für falsch. Weder brachten die Länder die nötigen Voraussetzungen dafür mit, noch war zu Ende gedacht, welche Folgen ein solcher Beschluss gehabt hätte, sowohl mit Blick auf Russlands Handeln gegen Georgien und die Ukraine als auch auf die Nato und ihre Beistandsregeln. Und das Minsker Abkommen 2014 war der Versuch, der Ukraine Zeit zu geben.

Sie hat diese Zeit hat auch genutzt, um stärker zu werden, wie man heute sieht. Die Ukraine von 2014/15 ist nicht die Ukraine von heute. Wie man am Kampf um Debalzewe Anfang 2015 gesehen hat, hätte Putin sie damals leicht überrennen können. Und ich bezweifle sehr, dass die Nato-Staaten damals so viel hätten tun können wie heute, um der Ukraine zu helfen.

2. It is unlikely that Minks II was a deliberate ruse to buy time to prepare for a joint confrontation with Russia.

In 2015, Merkel did not believe Ukraine could win a war against Russia, even if it got NATO equipment.

I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily.

[The Guardian, February 7 2015: "Ukraine crisis will not be solved by military means, says Angela Merkel"]

We can also look towards Ukrainian opinions on the agreement and especially the "Steinmeier Formula", a proposal by then foreign minister, now Bundespräsident, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, which lead to animosity within Ukraine and also to him not being invited to Kyiv in the first months of the war.

Note also, that Germany did not agree to send weapons to Ukraine before this year's invasion, with foreign minister Baerbock stating that

I do not think it's realistic to believe such weapons exports could turn around the military imbalance. The best protection is to prevent further aggression.

[BBC, January 28 2022: "Why Germany isn't sending weapons to Ukraine"]

This is remarkably similar to the first quote and shows that the German government did not believe that Ukraine's military had improved the way it did. It also shows that Germany did not prepare for a joint war with Ukraine against Russia.

The Minsk agreement was made under the assumption that negotiating with Russia is possible and can lead to peace. It was also a way to contain Russian advancement for the moment, as a Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2015 would have likely ended the way Russian leadership thought the 2022 invasion would.

I believe this is what Merkel means when she says that "the Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today."

The massive improvements of the Ukrainian military are an added benefit that was not forseen a year ago, much less at the time the treaty was negotiated.

3. Merkel does not indicate that she intended for the Minsk agreement to help Ukraine in the 2022 war.

Previously in the interview, she says (emphasis mine):

Oder schauen wir auf meine Politik in Bezug auf Russland und die Ukraine. Ich komme zu dem Ergebnis, dass ich meine damaligen Entscheidungen in einer auch heute für mich nachvollziehbaren Weise getroffen habe. Es war der Versuch, genau einen solchen Krieg zu verhindern. Dass das nicht gelungen ist, heißt noch nicht, dass die Versuche deshalb falsch waren.

Or let's look at my policy on Russia and Ukraine. I come to the conclusion that I made my decisions at the time in a way that is comprehensible to me even today. It was an attempt to prevent precisely such a war. The fact that this did not succeed does not mean that the attempts were therefore wrong.

[Zeit, 7. Dezember 2022: "Hatten Sie gedacht, ich komme mit Pferdeschwanz?"]

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    "In 2015, Merkel did not believe etc." - that's what she said in 2015. If it was a ruse, that's what she would say. That would have been the whole point of such a ruse, downplaying the possibility that NATO will try to conduct such a proxy war. However - the last point of your answer, answers at least the last part of my question. So, +1.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 13, 2022 at 16:44
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    @einpoklum No, that's not what she said. She said Putin wouldn't believe Russia could lose a war (against Ukraine). And in hindsight, that assessment was probably correct. Apparently, everyone (including the Russian government) overestimated the capabilities of the Russian military.
    – Roland
    Dec 14, 2022 at 7:21
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    @einpoklum If it was a ruse, she also fooled Germany into not preparing Ukraine for a proxy war.
    – xyldke
    Dec 14, 2022 at 8:55
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    But Germany, via NATO, did prepare Ukraine for a proxy war. Merkel talks about this. See also the quotes in @meriton's answer. OTOH, the preparations were not in "full-bore", so to speak, as Obama was reluctant to start direct weapons shipments to Ukraine, and it was only Trump who started doing that.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 14, 2022 at 8:59
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    @einpoklum Germany did not prepare Ukraine, or itself for that matter, for a proxy war with Russia. Maybe other countries did, but that was outside of Merkel's purview. For example, Merkel's government instead stuck to building Nordstream II and expanding Russian gas imports. Her government also did not substantially increase Bundeswehr stockpiles, which hampered and continues to hamper German support for the Ukrainian war effort. These are not the actions of a chancellor preparing for war.
    – xyldke
    Dec 14, 2022 at 10:09
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The quote is taken ouf of context, and the wording has been subtly changed.

According to xyldike's answer, the original wording was:

Die 2008 diskutierte Einleitung eines Nato-Beitritts der Ukraine und Georgiens hielt ich für falsch. Weder brachten die Länder die nötigen Voraussetzungen dafür mit, noch war zu Ende gedacht, welche Folgen ein solcher Beschluss gehabt hätte, sowohl mit Blick auf Russlands Handeln gegen Georgien und die Ukraine als auch auf die Nato und ihre Beistandsregeln. Und das Minsker Abkommen 2014 war der Versuch, der Ukraine Zeit zu geben.

Sie hat diese Zeit hat auch genutzt, um stärker zu werden, wie man heute sieht. Die Ukraine von 2014/15 ist nicht die Ukraine von heute. Wie man am Kampf um Debalzewe Anfang 2015 gesehen hat, hätte Putin sie damals leicht überrennen können. Und ich bezweifle sehr, dass die Nato-Staaten damals so viel hätten tun können wie heute, um der Ukraine zu helfen.

English translation, deviation from your quote marked bold:

I thought that the introduction of NATO accession of Ukraine and Georgia, discussed in 2008, was wrong. The countries did not have the necessary prerequisites for this, nor was it fully understood what the consequences of such a decision would have been, both with regard to Russia’s actions against Georgia and Ukraine, as well as NATO and its rules of assistance. And the Minsk Agreement of 2014 was an attempt to give Ukraine time.

Ukraine also used this time to grow stronger, as you can see today. [...]

That is, while Merkel says that the Minsk Agreements bought the Ukraine time, she doesn't say, explicitly, for what. By eliding the word "also" that indicates a shift in topic, your translation creates the appearance that Merkel meant "time to grow stronger". But Merkel didn't say that.

To understand what she meant, let's consult the lengthy interview she gave in June (translation by me, starting at 54:45)

Interviewer: Andri Melnik, the Ukrainian Ambassador sent me an SMS congratulating me to the rare opportunity to ask you questions. And I wrote back, thanked him, and asked him to send me a question he would like to answer to. He sent 4, they all have a similar theme: That you, by following a policy of appeasement towards Russia, have enabled the invasion of 2022.

Merkel: Well, I disagree with that. Thinking back to 2014, and the beginning of 2015, when Minsk II was negotiated: If we had done nothing, Putin could have caused tremendous damage to Ukraine, and those 7 years were crucial for the evolution of Ukraine. In spite of that, this terrible situation still came to occur. But back in 2008, when the NATO membership action plan discussed, my opinion (which you don't have to share, but it is my opinion) is that it would have happened even more rapidly. Back then, Ukraine was even further from being able to offer the degree of resistance it can offer today.

Interviewer: One always gets the impression that everyone wants to hear an apology for everything. [...] Nevertheless, if you had to apologize, would you?

Merkel: Not for this. [...] First, these last weeks have sharpened my awareness of how incredibly lucky we were in Germany, and the whole of Europe, that 1989 happened as it did. I mean, Gorbachev was a communist, member of the communist party, and he has probably, definitely, also brought guilt upon himself in the Baltic nations, but we, in Germany, seized an incredibly opportune moment of history -- and there were a lot of very difficult moments in history during the cold war. For instance when a state of war was declared in Poland, or when Russia, the Soviet Union, sent troops after Dubček in 1968. We were in cold war, and the countries could not be helped, one had to suffer through that, and being allowed to experience 1989 after that was a great luck/happiness. But then, the world situation darkened again, and things were no longer as easy. I sat with baited breath when Helmut Kohl achieved that Germany could join NATO. I didn't take this for granted, at all. I sat with baited breath as these 600 000 Russian soldiers returned home, and I tried to work towards avoiding disaster - and if diplomacy doesn't succeed it doesn't imply that it was wrong. I don't see anything I would consider wrong in retrospect, and therefore won't apologize -- and I don't see what would have been gained if Putin had continued the invasion in 2014, and nobody had interceded. I remember the responsibility I felt for the 6000 people in Debalzewe! [...] What's so tragic about Ukraine is that it was made infinitely harder for Ukraine than for us to follow the path it has decided for itself, and that Ukraine now experiences what Poland experienced, and Hungary in 1956, Germany in 1953, Praque in 1968. And that means it is our responsibility to let this happen as little as possible.

This makes it quite clear that Merkel, who grew up in East Germany under Soviet rule, empathizes deeply with the other former subject nations of the Soviet Union, and seeks to give them a path to freedom the Germans were freely given by Gorbachev. She is not motivated by a desire to harm Russia, but by a desire to protect the people Russia harms.

So when Putin says:

They [the participants – ed.] lied to us, and the only reason for these processes was to pump Ukraine up with weapons and get it ready for military action. Well, we can see that. Maybe we were too late to realise what was happening. Maybe this [the war – ed.] should have been started earlier."

he is wrong. And I'd wager he knows this. But it is politically expedient for him to portray Russia as a victim of nefarious plans so he can justify the war he started.

But back to Merkel. What did she mean when she said that Minsk gave Ukraine time? She talks about this in the same interview, starting from 35:44:

Interviewer: Let us briefly talk about Bukarest. The Americans wished to offer Ukraine kind of a preliminary stage to NATO membership ...

Merkel: It's called the Membership Action Plan.

Interviewer: ... which you were firmly opposed to.

Merkel: Yes.

Interviewer: Why?

Merkel: First, Ukraine wasn't the Ukraine we know now. Politically, Ukraine was deeply divided between Yanukovych and Yushchenko, and even the reformers Tymoshenko and Yushchenko didn't like each other, meaning it was not an inwardly democratically consolidated nation, and if you want to accept a country in NATO, which the membership action plan is clearly intended to achieve, you have to be willing to defend that country if it is attacked. Secondly, I was certain that Putin would not allow this to happen. From his perspective, this would have been a declaration of war. And sure, you can say I don't agree with this. I don't agree at all that he views the entire west as his enemy, that he thinks he is incessantly humiliated. All that I don't agree with at all. But I knew what he was thinking, and that he saw it that way. And promptly it only took months for war to start in Georgia, which was also a candidate. And it was totally clear that he would not let that happen in Ukraine, because we already knew that in Moldavia and Transnistria he had already created a situation where he always had a foothold in the country, thereby making it impossible for this country to orient itself towards the west, and I didn't want to provoke that. And second, Ukraine had not firmly made a decision, but we needed a decision we could rely on, and third, president Zelensky fights incredibly courageously against corruption, but back then, Ukraine was a land under the control of oligarchs, and it would have been inconceivable to accept it into NATO.

So the things that Ukraine was given time for, were:

  1. to achieve, through a democratic process, internal political consensus on whether to leave the Russian sphere of influence (with all the difficulties that entails)
  2. to develop the military capability to survive the period before membership is granted
  3. to become a truly democratic (as opposed to oligarchic) nation, because NATO is an alliance of democratic nations

Update

No, the point is that Merkel seems to be saying, or at least implying, that the breaking of Minsk II is the positive outcome she wanted

A positive outcome? Merkel, who felt the weight of 6000 lives in Debalzewe weighing on her conscience? Who waited with baited breath what the 600 000 Soviet Soldiers would do? Who felt helpless at the put down of the Prague Spring? Who doesn't wish to apologize for the "failure" of the Minsk agreements, because even though the agreement failed, it was worth making the attempt to avoid "disaster"?

How can anyone read that interview and continue to think that Merkel wanted this bloody war?

But ok, you seem to need more quotes. Here's the beginning of the interview (11:45):

Interviewer: How are you?

Merkel: Personally, I am very well, and I'm happy to be here, but overall ... I didn't anticipate the period after my retirement to be like this. The 24th of february was a turning point, that continues to preoccupy me, but if you ask how about how I am personally, I have retired voluntarily (which is a good feeling) and I planned to do various things (which is also a good feeling), but I remain a political human, and therefore these days find me, like many others, sometimes depressed.

And if you watch her body language during that part, the sincerity of her emotions is obvious.

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    While the first part of your answer is important in clarifying the translation, the rest of your answer seems like it actually supports the view that it was a ruse. Merkel is saying that she too wants to prepare Ukraine for entering NATO and the US-EU sphere of control/influence.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 14, 2022 at 7:33
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    I don't think that's a fair summary. Her aim was to give Ukraine the opportunity to decide its own future. She didn't take it for granted, at all, that Ukraine would decide to join the west, and hence left Germany rather ill prepared for the 2022 war (state of the army, economic dependency on Russian gas imports, ...).
    – meriton
    Dec 14, 2022 at 11:15
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    "decide its own future" is a vague term with a lot of interpretations. Merkel says that these years were "crucial for the development of Ukraine", but - these years did not see the Minsk II agreements followed at all; and Merkel (and the OSCE) did not act to ensure its implementation by Ukraine. So, again, it's as though she was saying that what was essential was getting Russia of Ukraine's back and for Ukraine to conduct itself the way that it has, i.e. in contradiction of Minsk II.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 14, 2022 at 11:47
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    So your argument is that Ukraine broke the Minsk agreement, and therefore Germany must have negotiated in bad faith? Leaving aside the question of who broke the Minsk agreements (for which Russia is also a hot contender), how is Gemany responsible for the actions of Ukraine? Ukraine is not part of Germany. With the same logic, you could argue that Germany must have cladestinely supported Russia, because it did not stop the 2022 invasion.
    – meriton
    Dec 14, 2022 at 12:30
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    No, the point is that Merkel seems to be saying, or at least implying, that the breaking of Minsk II is the positive outcome she wanted. And if that is the case, then she (as part of the OSCE) did not co-sign Minsk II in good faith. But again, I'm struggling to decide how interpret what she's saying, hence I haven't downvoted or accepted any answer.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 14, 2022 at 12:36
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Is Merkel saying that the whole Minsk process was a ruse in order to buy time for Ukraine before a planned NATO+Ukraine-vs-Russia military confrontation?

Yes, she is, because it is true - Ukraine did use the Minsk process to strengthen Ukraine with the backing of some western allies in NATO, and had no intention of honouring the agreement.

Former French President François Hollande, who was also involved in the Minsk negotiation also backed Merkle, in an interview to Kyiv Independent:

The Kyiv Independent: In an interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, Angela Merkel said about the Minsk protocols that 'It was obvious that the conflict was going to be frozen, that the problem was not solved, but it just gave Ukraine precious time.' Do you also believe that the negotiations in Minsk were intended to delay Russian advances in Ukraine?

Yes, Angela Merkel is right on this point. The Minsk agreements stopped the Russian offensive for a while. What was very important was to know how the West would use this respite to prevent any further Russian attempts ... Since 2014, Ukraine has strengthened its military posture. Indeed, the Ukrainian army was completely different from that of 2014. It was better trained and equipped. It is the merit of the Minsk agreements to have given the Ukrainian army this opportunity.

In addition, Europe did not divide and immediately supported Ukraine, and the United States provided considerable aid. Thus, the time that Putin thought was an asset for him turned out to be, in fact, an opportunity for the Ukrainians.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko too has openly bragged about this in interviews:

Interviewer: Mr. Poroshenko, while you were President, you actually did sign a peace agreement with Vladmir Putin - the Minsk II agreement in 2015. Was that a mistake? ...

Poroshenko: ... what is the result of the Minsk agreement? We win 8 years to create the army. We win 8 years to restore the economy. We win 8 years to continue the reforms and move to the European Union ...

Source: For peace we need weapons, Ukraine's ex-President Poroshenko tells DW | DW News

In 2014 and 2015 Poroshenko signed German- and French-brokered agreements with Putin in Minsk that froze the conflict, though they did not stop the fighting ... The Minsk agreements bought Ukraine time, including to build its army, by freezing the conflict with Russia. ... Does he, I ask, now regret signing them? No, he says, paraphrasing the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu: “The main achievement is to avoid war, not to win war.” ... “Just to remind you that when I was elected as president, Crimea was already occupied in full, and Donbas was [partially] occupied,” he says. “And Ukraine as a country and me as a president didn’t have an armed forces at all.” ... “Everything that we have now was created in the five years during my presidency, and I am very proud of it,” he says.

... With co-operation from Nato countries — which has intensified since the invasion — Ukraine has indeed developed a military that has so far proved more flexible in its structure and effective on the battlefield than Putin’s Soviet-issue top-down army.

Source: Ukraine’s ex-president Petro Poroshenko: ‘The army is like my child, and I am very proud’

(Ofcourse, it would have been easy to dismiss this as an idle boast of a now disgraced Ukranian politician. But Merkel's and Hollande's statement is essentially confirming what he is saying, and that makes it a lot harder to doubt it.)

Up till now, for the short-term this appears to be a brilliant move, as the Ukranian military are indeed putting up a good fight against the Russian Army.

But the really interesting question is:

  1. Was Merkel aware of it from the beginning or is she speaking from hindsight based on what is happening?

  2. Why is she publicly speaking about it?

We can only speculate on that.

Without exploring all the scenarios, I'll add that I agree with the gist of @xyldke's and @meriton's answer that the most likely scenario is that she was making a neutral observation, based on hindsight of how things have unfolded in Ukraine now. But I am at a loss to understand why she is speaking about this publicly, as it isn't really flattering to Germany or France's international standing.

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    @sfxedit What did Germany and France do that violated Minsk II? Even accepting that they used the time to prepare Ukraine for another invasion, how does that violate the cease-fire or the provisions on internal political changes in Ukraine? The demilitarization or neutrality of Ukraine was not a part of the treaty.
    – xyldke
    Dec 14, 2022 at 14:40
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    @sfxedit Who betrayed Russia and how did they do it? If anything, France and Germany look weak because they could not stop Russia from breaking the cease-fire in February of 2022.
    – xyldke
    Dec 14, 2022 at 15:07
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    @xylde You can't have it both ways - if you believe Ukraine never had any intention to honour the ceasefire in the first place (which is what Poroshenko and Merkel are indeed saying), then obviously there was a plan to deceive Russia. Right? Which means Russia was betrayed and so you have to accept that Ukraine shares some blame for the current ongoing conflict. It doesn't make Russia's illegal aggression legal, but it certainly weakens Ukraine's moral stand. After all, it is natural for any country you have signed a treaty with to become hostile when they find you don't intend to honour it.
    – sfxedit
    Dec 14, 2022 at 18:06
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    @sfxedit Where do you get that Poroshenko and Merkel say that Ukraine never had any intention to honour the cease-fire? It is not in the quotes you mention in your answer. Building up a military is not the same as preparing to unilaterally break the cease-fire. Otherwise, the buildup of DNR and LNR forces would be the same, this time supported by Russia (which apparently means Russia planned to deceive Ukraine).
    – xyldke
    Dec 15, 2022 at 8:38
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    @xyldke The problem with your argument (that Ukraine knew Russia would try and deceive them) is that nobody has any doubts that Russia could have easily conquered the whole of Ukraine 7 - 8 years back. Both Merkel and Poroshenko have also acknowledged this. So Russia signing the ceasefire meant they were ready to compromise (talk with Ukranian politicians in good faith). Remember, Russia was negotiating from a position of strength, and so the signing Minsk II itself was a compromise by Russia, because they could have refused and defeated Ukraine completely and then come for "talks".
    – sfxedit
    Dec 15, 2022 at 16:44

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