And when it came to assigning responsibility, Zelenskyy didn't just single out the Russians – the murderers who hunted down pedestrians and cyclists. He also mentioned former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I invite Ms. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy to visit Bucha to see what the policy of 14 years of concessions to Russia has led to."
Zelenskyy was referring to the NATO summit that took place in Bucharest in April 2008.
That was the year that Ukraine was likely closer to becoming a member of the Western alliance than ever, before or since. United States President George W. Bush stood solidly behind Kyiv's accession. But the effort failed, as Zelenskyy made clear, due to the opposition of Merkel and Sarkozy – and an "absurd fear" of Russia. Because of this "miscalculation," the Ukrainian president continued, his country is facing "the most terrible war in Europe since World War II."
Must Germany once again bear the blame for a war, this time stemming from cowardice? Does Bucharest mark a kind of "original catastrophe" for the failures of Berlin's relations with Russia?
Zelenskyy's accusations resulted in Merkel breaking the silence that she had maintained since leaving office in December 2021. She issued a statement saying that she stands by her "decisions relating to the NATO summit in 2008." A short time later, she expanded on that statement, saying that, at the time, Ukraine had been divided on the issue of joining NATO and that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have just quietly stood aside and allowed the country to be accepted into the alliance. "I didn't want to provoke that," she said.
Was her position the right one? And were the steps taken by Germany the correct ones?
DER SPIEGEL has spoken with a half-dozen people who attended the 2008 Bucharest summit. Some of them, like Latvia's then-President Valdis Zatlers, have agreed to be quoted on the record. Other diplomats and aides asked not to be named. They describe a kind of "High Noon" situation between Merkel and Bush, tears of anger from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and pointed attacks from Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski against his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is today Germany's president and head of state. There were, say participants, wild threats coming from Putin. The German chancellor even spoke Russian on occasion with her Central Eastern European allies from the former Warsaw Pact nations in the attempt to negotiate a way out of the impasse, since it was the language they all had in common. And finally, say participants, Merkel – using the green pen that German heads of government use in day-to-day operations – personally added changes to the closing communiqué.
Photos from Bucharest show an apparently high-spirited chancellor in the Romanian capital's Palace of Parliament, one of the largest buildings in Europe, with conference halls the size of half a football field. But there are also images of Merkel looking surly, the strain clearly visible. The summit lasted from April 2-4, a Wednesday to Friday. On the first evening, Merkel dined with the other heads of state and government, and the next day, the national leaders met together with ministers, advisers and military leaders in a large conference setting. On the last day, member state leaders welcomed Russian President Putin. Many witnesses also remember how Merkel wore a green jacket on that Thursday, making her stand out among the gray suits worn by all the men.
The accounts of the summit also make it clear that Bucharest was the climax of a conflict that had begun in 2007 and first came to an end with Bush's departure from the White House in January 2009. And that Merkel wasn't alone. She had support from France in addition to Spain, Italy, the Benelux countries, Portugal and Norway. Even the British, normally so loyal to the U.S., were wavering. Merkel's opposition in Bucharest, in other words, was not the result of Germany going it alone. Perhaps Berlin was right after all?
Ever since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there have been demands that Germany's relations with Russia under Merkel, of the center-right Christian Democrats, and under Steinmeier, of the center-left Social Democrats, be closely reexamined. Yet very few steps to actually do so have been taken. Here, DER SPIEGEL is making an effort to reconstruct a key year in the Ukraine question from a number of different perspectives. It was possible for the first time to examine German Foreign Ministry documentation that had thus far been classified, including draft talking points for Merkel, dispatches from embassies in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels, memos from the German Foreign Ministry's political affairs division for Steinmeier and "guidelines" for the German delegation in Bucharest, which outlined the German positions. Other source material used for this reconstruction include interviews, declassified U.S. records, documents published by WikiLeaks, memoirs and the results of a project completed by Southern Methodist University in Texas, where scholars systematically interviewed former members of Bush's staff about his Russia policy.
Neither Merkel nor Steinmeier made themselves available for an interview when contacted by DER SPIEGEL.
Kyiv, Fall 2007
A letter to NATO expressing a demand to start the accession process. That's all it would take. For several months, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had been consulting with U.S. diplomats about sending just such a signal, signed by Ukraine's highest constitutional institutions: President Yushchenko in addition to the prime minister and the president of parliament. A signal of unity. Such a gesture would demonstrate to the West that Kyiv's interest in joining NATO had to be taken seriously – in contrast to the signals sent in previous years.
Yushchenko was in favor of the step. A former banker, the Ukrainian president was married to an American woman who used to work at the U.S. State Department, and his fear of the Russians was based on personal experience. Just a few years earlier, the reformer had only narrowly survived a dioxin poison attack. He was convinced that Putin, a former KGB agent, was responsible. From Yushchenko's perspective, only NATO membership could guarantee sovereignty for his country. Otherwise, he feared, Ukraine would remain "in a semi-colonial state," dependent on Moscow.
But the letter never came.
It had been the same story for quite some time. In conversations with the Americans, leading Ukrainian politicians would insist that they aspired to NATO membership – particularly Yushchenko, a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, with its promise of freedom and prosperity. His one-time political ally turned bitter rival Yulia Tymoshenko also wanted Ukraine to become part of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Even the pro-Kremlin opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych, who would ultimately flee to Russia in 2014, would occasionally give the impression that he wasn't opposing Ukrainian NATO membership for all eternity.
The problem, however, was that political reforms in Ukraine simply weren't progressing to the point where they would meet NATO standards when it came to the military, the judiciary and politics. That lack of progress could only partly be blamed on Russia, which was eager to weaken Ukraine wherever it could so as not to lose influence. On the Corruption Perception Index kept by Transparency International, Ukraine had fallen to 118th place, almost as low as Russia, and the trend remained negative. Yanukovych and Tymoshenko themselves were suspected of malfeasance.
More than anything, though, they were not having success in reversing the populace's skepticism of NATO. Indeed, the efforts undertaken by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko to that end had been less than monumental, with opposition leader Yanukovych even using the September 2007 parliamentary elections to brand himself as the leader of the anti-NATO movement in the country.
Poison attack victim Viktor Yushchenko in 2004Foto: Alvaro Isidoro / Polaris / ddp
Political tactician Yulia Tymoshenko in 2008Foto: Sergei Chuzavkov / picture alliance
Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian politician Viktor YanukovychFoto: Sergei Chazavkov / AP
A strong majority of Ukrainians indicated in surveys that they weren't particularly interested in joining the alliance. Merkel's administration in Berlin believed that around two-thirds of the population "held negative views of NATO." Cold War prejudices fueled by Russian television continued to have an influence, particularly in the eastern and southern parts of the country. Furthermore, many Ukrainians had fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and were worried about being sent back, this time to fight for the West, should Ukraine become part of NATO.
Victoria Nuland, the U.S. ambassador to NATO in Brussels, advised the Ukrainian government to launch an expansive information campaign in the country to dispel the image of NATO as a "four-letter word." To some observers, it seemed as though the Americans were more interested in Ukraine's accession to NATO than the Ukrainians themselves.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were ultimately able to set aside their differences following the parliamentary elections for long enough to establish a coalition to prevent election victor Yanukovych from become prime minister. Instead, Tymoshenko took the position, the woman with the striking braid wrapped across her head. It was the fourth change in government in just three years for Ukraine. And in January 2008, Yushchenko, Tymoshenko and the president of parliament finally sent the letter to Brussels.
In the letter, they requested from NATO a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine. Normally, such plans outline the reforms that must be undertaken ahead of accession and are part of the standardized process that takes a number of years to complete. In theory, MAP status does not guarantee ultimate accession to the alliance, but in practice, it is widely considered to be a sign of almost inevitable membership.
Yet the letter did not actually become the symbol of unity Kyiv had hoped to send. In protest against the request for MAP status, Yanukovych's people paralyzed parliament for several weeks. There were even fisticuffs on the floor. Ultimately, the government and the opposition agreed to hold a referendum prior to a NATO accession.
Reformers Tymoshenko and Yanukovych also sought to block each other. Ukraine planned to hold presidential elections in 2010 and, as the German Embassy in Washington learned, Tymoshenko was hoping to win that election and wanted to wait to start the MAP process until that time. That desire translated into hesitancy from Tymoshenko when it came to pushing for her country's NATO accession during a visit to alliance headquarters in Brussels.
German Foreign Minister Steinmeier warned his NATO counterparts in a confidential meeting of domestic political intrigue in Kyiv on the MAP issue. "Hidden agendas cannot be ruled out," he said.
The Ukrainian reformers frequently bickered like children for all to see. "It's always the other one who is to blame for the situation," one Berlin diplomat said, describing the situation. When Merkel visited Ukraine later that year, Yushchenko tried to prevent the prime minister from meeting with the German chancellor. The Germans, though, found a cagey way to set up a meeting anyway: Merkel sat down in a restaurant and Tymoshenko came in through the backdoor. The situation in Kyiv is a "nightmare," Merkel's security adviser, Christoph Heusgen, told the Americans.
But the letter sent to NATO by Kyiv did at least force alliance member states to reveal where they stood on Ukrainian accession.
Threats from Moscow
Brussels, NATO Headquarters, January 30, 2008
Things hadn't been going well for quite some time in the NATO-Russia Council, a body that provided a venue for the West and Moscow to discuss security issues. In the early 2000s, Putin had thought that Russia could ultimately become a NATO member, on a par with the Americans. At the time, he even said that he saw no problem with Ukrainian membership. But such sentiments had long since evaporated. In early 2008, Putin sent the ultranationalist populist Dmitry Rogozin to Brussels, a tall, bulky man with closely cropped hair. His nickname in Moscow was "The Hooligan." Rogozin's mission as NATO ambassador was to stifle the influence of Russia's critics, particularly coming from the new, Central and Eastern European NATO member states.
Rogozin claimed that the Baltic states, the Crimean Peninsula and extensive regions of Ukraine belong to "traditional territory of the Russian nation." At the very first council meeting in which he took part, he made reference to the anti-NATO sentiment in Ukraine and threatened that Ukrainian accession to NATO could "be a threat to the very existence of Ukraine as a sovereign state." Britain and Hungary stood up to him.
Attempts at intimidation were a frequently used tool in Moscow's political repertoire. Putin left no doubt about his desire to return Russia to its role as a global power. But from the perspective of several NATO countries, it wasn't clear what method Putin would choose to achieve this goal: old-style aggressive power politics; or economic strength coupled with technological prowess, as demonstrated by the West. "You could sense that the Russians themselves weren't totally sure," says one Merkel adviser. Secretary of State Rice spoke of two versions of Russia. The one accepts commonly held values, the other does not, a sentiment documented in Cable 359 from Germany's NATO representation.
The Baltic states and Poland would regularly meet to harmonize their positions ahead of NATO meetings, says Zatlers, the former president of Latvia. Zatlers, a medical doctor and a former reserve officer in the Soviet army, exudes fearlessness in public. Immediately after the reactor meltdown in Chernobyl in 1986, the Soviet army sent him there for a two-month stint. "The Ukrainians like me because I'm the only head of state who has been to Chernobyl," says Zatlers, a brawny man with a friendly smile.
Latvian President Valdis Zatlers in 2009Foto: Vincent Kessler / REUTERS
Zatlers, who served in office from 2007 to 2011, doesn't harbor any anti-Russian sentiments and strove for friendly relations with his country's massive neighbor to the east. But Zatlers also spoke frequently with Polish President Lech Kaczyński about their countries' past experiences. In contrast to Zatlers, the archconservative Polish law professor had clear conceptions about who his enemies were: "Dangers? That would be our neighbors – Russia and Germany."
One-time Solidarność activist Kaczyński was arrested when the communist regime in Warsaw imposed martial law with the support of Moscow. His parents had fought against Nazi Germany in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Stalin's advancing Red Army paused combat operations before entering the Polish capital, giving the Nazis the time they needed to complete their destruction of the uprising and the city.
Zatlers says that even back in 2008, Kaczyński was concerned that Moscow might attack neighboring countries Ukraine and Georgia, which was also seeking to join NATO at the time. A powerful show of unity by the alliance at the Bucharest summit, it was hoped, would deter Putin and improve the strategic position of Central and Eastern European countries.
But the alliance was divided. Nuland, the U.S. NATO ambassador, counted 14 countries of 26 in the North Atlantic Council that backed Kyiv's ambitions to begin the MAP process, but aside from the U.S. and Canada, almost all of them were Central and Eastern European countries.
Alliance skeptics grouped around Germany's NATO ambassador, Ulrich Brandenburg, a typical proponent of Foreign Minister Steinmeier's restrained approach to diplomacy. A deliberate man who had once been a conscientious objector, Brandenburg sat between France and Greece in NATO's alphabetized seating arrangement and sought to hold together a kind of blocking minority of around 10 countries. NATO may adhere to the principle of consensus, but Germany on its own would not have been able to stand up to pressure from the Americans.
Former German Ambassador to Russia Ulrich Brandenburg in 2012: Holding together a blocking minorityFoto: ZUMA Wire / IMAGO
The U.S., meanwhile, kept a close eye on what Steinmeier's representative was up to in Brussels – as he sought to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from even making it onto the agenda for the Bucharest summit. When Nuland and her team would manage to defeat Germany on a specific question, they would joyfully write to Washington that Brandenburg was "stone-faced" or was "visibly unhappy."
The kid gloves had long since been taken off. "We aren't alone, but we are exposed. The result will have an effect on our status in NATO," Brandenburg noted. The Germans and their allies had to face accusations that they were primarily concerned about their economic interests in Russia, says Zatlers. Minor episodes he had experienced reinforced that impression. During his first visit to Berlin, he says, Merkel opened their discussion by asking whether he was opposed or in favor of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. That was apparently the most important issue from the chancellor's perspective. And it was clear what she wanted to hear: The pipeline is a super idea.
"Some harbor the suspicion that we and others have conceded zones of influence to Russia," Brandenburg wrote to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. Still today, all German participants continue to deny that such suspicions were at all justified. According to a U.S. cable from Warsaw, Polish diplomats at the time even went so far as to advance a claim that bordered on character assassination – namely that Foreign Minister Steinmeier was profiting financially from Nord Stream, just like his friend Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor who Steinmeier had served as head of the Chancellery. Still, Warsaw wasn't interested in a blanket boycott of Russian natural gas, they just wanted the pipelines to run through Poland.
Ambassador Brandenburg, for his part, introduced the horrific scenario of a political partitioning of Ukraine. The German diplomat told his American counterpart face-to-face that it was "impossible to have security in Europe without Russia, and foolish to try to have it against Russia." The sentiment was a classic mantra from Merkel's and Steinmeier's relations with Moscow – one that is today considered to be one of the greatest failures of the Merkel era.
Washington, D.C., White House, February 2008
With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominating the headlines, President Bush had long paid little attention to the issue of Ukraine. But the letter from Kyiv changed that. Fundamentally, the Texan received European countries interested in joining NATO with open arms. Bush was a believer in the American mission of bringing democracy to the world and had bipartisan support on the issue in Congress, with Democratic Senator Joe Biden, the current U.S. president, leading the way. Yushchenko was seen as a hero by many in the U.S., with influential Democrats and Republicans even nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize following the Orange Revolution.
Bush was aware of Ukraine's corruption problems, but he hoped that the prospect of NATO membership would accelerate reforms in Kyiv and also prompt Moscow to pursue a less aggressive course against Ukraine and Georgia. The Americans told the Germans over and over again that under no circumstances could the impression be created that Kyiv and Tbilisi were being denied MAP status out of consideration for Moscow's sensitivities.
There were, however, also warnings from intelligence agents, diplomats and ministers. U.S. Ambassador to Moscow William Burns, who is now director of the CIA, wrote that NATO membership for Ukraine was the "brightest of all red lines" for the Russian elite (not just Putin). The Russian president, he noted, had no flexibility on the issue. Burns recommended that MAP status for Ukraine be delayed, arguing that the West needed Russian cooperation on a number of other issues, such as Iran.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed with Burns. "One Cold War was quite enough," he said. He considered NATO membership for Ukraine to be a "monumental provocation" of Moscow and a dangerous weakening of the alliance. He doubted that Americans and Europeans were prepared to put their lives on the line for Ukraine, and that being so, an empty guarantee of security for Ukraine would damage NATO's credibility. Privately, Gates was hoping that the Germans and French would stand in the way of his president's expansion plans.
Even Secretary of State Rice has said she had doubts about the advisability of pushing for Ukrainian accession. Doing so, she feared, could weigh on the alliance and even lead to a defeat for Bush in Bucharest. Was it worth the risk?
At a National Security Council meeting in the White House a few weeks before the NATO summit, Rice only outlined the arguments in favor of and against Ukrainian membership, without making any recommendation.
Still, Bush stayed true to his line, and administration staff believe that's because of the neo-conservative advisers lined up behind Vice President Dick Cheney. Still today, Cheney is seen as the black hat in the Bush administration who pushed the U.S. into the illegal invasion of Iraq and the torture program that damaged America's reputation for years.
Even before German reunification in 1990, Cheney – who was U.S. secretary of defense at the time – was eyeing NATO's eastward expansion because he didn't trust the Russians. He also wanted to prevent a second superpower from ever again posing a threat to U.S. hegemony, and thus sought to pursue the enlargement of NATO, which had lost some of its importance with the end of the Cold War. It proved advantageous that Central and Eastern European countries sided reliably with the U.S. when it came to conflicts within the alliance. NATO Ambassador Nuland in Brussels had once been a member of Cheney's staff.
Officially, the Americans insisted that Ukraine was making its own sovereign decisions on the NATO issue, but many German diplomats and politicians harbored suspicions that Washington was seeking to enlarge its own sphere of influence. When it came to the issue of MAP status, scoffed a Foreign Ministry staffer in Berlin, Ukraine was receiving "a lot of support, except from its own people."
This impression was strengthened by a number of minor episodes. When the U.S. government learned that Prime Minister Tymoshenko was hesitant on the MAP issue, Secretary of State Rice took it upon herself to speak with her – the Germans learned from a source in the U.S. capital. Rice apparently wanted to get the Ukrainians back in line. A Merkel administration staffer says that on the Ukraine issue, the Americans were motivated by "ideology and great power aspirations." In the German guidelines for Bucharest, the first item in the list of German interests is the sentence: "Maintain a sense of proportion in expanding NATO's regional and functional role."
It isn't clear from the historical record whether the rather artless Bush shared Cheney's viewpoint. According to contemporaries, he took a principled stance: If democratically elected governments sought MAP status, then he couldn't stand in the way. He wanted his staff to pile the pressure on America's allies. "I like it when diplomacy is tough," Fiona Hill, then a national intelligence officer, recently recalled Bush as saying in an interview with the New York Times Magazine.
Bush and his team, however, faced a fundamental handicap in their efforts: The entire world knew that his tenure in the White House would soon be coming to an end.
U.S. Pressure on Merkel and Steinmeier
Berlin, Chancellery, March 2008
With the Americans firmly sticking to Bush's course on Ukraine, Washington took advantage of every tool in the diplomatic toolbox. They pressured the Germans, sought to maneuver and wooed them. When Bush's people learned that Heusgen's family was in Washington on vacation, his wife and children were invited to the White House for a tour. Seemingly by chance, the president turned up. They did everything they could to buy us, says a Merkel adviser.
Secretary of State Rice tried her luck with her German counterpart Steinmeier. Rice speaks Russian and turned her expertise on the country into a career. She felt that Moscow needed to "know that the Cold War is over and Russia lost." But Steinmeier wasn't a fan of that kind of triumphalism. In the tradition of German Social Democratic Ostpolitik, he wanted to build bridges to Moscow and was hoping for "change through interconnectedness." That was a mistake, as he believes today. Back then, though, the German Foreign Ministry still thought that even Russian NATO membership was still a possibility in the long term.
And then there was the Medvedev factor. According to the Russian constitution, the end of Putin's presidency was approaching, and the young lawyer Dmitri Medvedev, who presented himself as a liberal reformer (read DER SPIEGEL's 2009 interview with Medvedev here ), had been elected to succeed him. Steinmeier knew Medvedev from his time as the head of Schröder's Chancellery, back when the Russian was head of the presidential administration at the Kremlin.And whereas Rice argued that when it came to pushing ahead on Ukraine, there was no better time than the Putin/Medvedev interregnum, the Germans felt that the timing was "particularly inauspicious."
Looking back today, Medvedev's 2008 succession of Putin is seen as a having been a bait-and-switch operation from the beginning – Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012. These days, Medvedev primarily attracts attention for his incendiary rants. Was it then naïve to place hopes in Medvedev back then? Heusgen says that Medvedev "really tried to free himself from Putin's grasp." He just didn't succeed.
In the German Foreign Ministry guidelines for the Bucharest summit, beneath the heading "our interests," is the sentence: "Minimize strains in the relationship to RUS," the abbreviation for Russia. In his public comments, Steinmeier would say that the West was already in conflict with Moscow on a number of issues, such as Kosovo. He therefore saw "no compelling reason" to open up an additional disagreement.
Soon, it became clear to the Americans that Steinmeier could not be moved. Bush would have to negotiate with Merkel personally, at the top. He called her at least three times in the run-up to Bucharest, and he asked allies to also call Berlin.
Merkel responded to the efforts with humor. According to someone familiar with the conversation, she told him: "George, I've noticed that you have asked other Europeans to call me as well. And when they do, I ask them: Are you calling on George's behalf? And then I know that they are. It makes no difference if you call yourself or if others do. I've thought things through carefully. It is not a tactical position, I am convinced of that. You shouldn't think that I am one of those people who say something different before the summit than they do at the summit." That's how someone present at the time recalls the conversation.
Bush took her recalcitrance in stride. He had always told Merkel that he had no problem with being openly contradicted. His falling out with Gerhard Schröder over the war in Iraq, Bush said, only came about because Schröder had lied to him – which Schröder denies. And Merkel did contradict him openly.
The chancellor had her doubts about Ukraine's democratic maturity. She was also concerned about Russia's Black Sea fleet, the contractually agreed headquarters of which was on the Crimean Peninsula, which would become NATO territory if Ukraine were to accede. She pointed to the North Atlantic Treaty, which founded the NATO alliance and limits membership to countries that can "contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area." Nobody, Merkel felt, could seriously claim that the clause applied to Ukraine and Georgia. Furthermore, countries involved in regional conflicts should not be allowed to join, she emphasized – and Georgia was involved in a spat with Moscow over two provinces that wanted to escape the clutches of Tbilisi.
When Bush called, the Germans got the impression that the chancellor's arguments were having an effect on the American president.
It was also true that Merkel, head of the center-right Christian Democratic Union, would be facing a re-election campaign one year down the road and had very little room for maneuver. Following a visit to Berlin, a senior U.S. diplomat reported that among leading members of German parliament, he was unable to find anybody who shared Washington's position on Ukraine. George W. Bush's America was seen by many in Berlin as violence prone and unpredictable – and many members of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) hadn't forgotten that when it came to efforts aimed at preventing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Putin had stood by Germany's side. In 2007, SPD parliamentary group leader Peter Struck said that Germany should maintain the "same proximity" to Washington and Moscow. Or the same distance, depending on your interpretation.
Bucharest, Palace of Parliament, April 2, 2008
"This Is Getting Ugly"
On the German delegation's outbound flight to the NATO summit in Bucharest, many conversations centered on the French. Steinmeier was apparently concerned. Would Sarkozy cave to pressure from the Americans? If he did, it would be difficult for the Germans to prevent NATO's eastward expansion.
The summit began with a number of dinners. NATO heads of state and government convened at Cotroceni Palace, the official residence of the Romanian president, while the defense ministers and the foreign ministers, including Steinmeier, attended separate dinners at the Palace of Parliament. The foreign ministers had been charged with discussing eastward enlargement – and, of course, with working on the Germans, who were seeking to block it. Steinmeier would later say that it was the worst evening of his tenure at the Foreign Ministry.
There are no minutes available from the meetings, and events can only be reconstructed through the memories of attendees. According to those recollections, Rice asked her German colleague to speak first, then the Central and Eastern Europeans. She wanted to have the last word.
The heads of state from Central and Eastern Europe had already taken a close look at how West Germany joined NATO in 1955. When Steinmeier said that Georgia could not become a NATO member as long as the "frozen conflict" with its two provinces remained unresolved, things started "getting ugly," according to Rice. The foreign ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic along with Rice attacked Steinmeier sharply. Divided Germany had itself been a "frozen conflict," they said, and the Germans should be happy that no one back then had the mindset that Berlin has now.
The strongest attack on Steinmeier came from Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski, a former journalist who had lived in the U.S. for years, where he had worked for the neoconservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. Sikorski's office says he spoke spontaneously and kept no notes of his remarks. Several witnesses recall him, at least indirectly, comparing Merkel's and Steinmeier's Russia policies with the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939. He said the Poles owed it to the Germans that they had to live under the Soviet yoke for several decades after 1945. If Paris and Berlin disregarded Poland's strategic interests, there would be consequences, he grumbled according to accounts of the meeting, adding that Poland has a long memory.
Merkel and Steinmeier were staying at the Hilton Hotel in Bucharest. That night, they sought to ensure that support from other delegations had not wavered. And by the next morning, it was clear: Merkel would not be on her own. Members of the German delegation say that Sarkozy's position was that if the chancellor was sticking to her guns, then he would too.
Tears of Anger
Bucharest, Palace of Parliament, April 3, 2008
The working session of the North Atlantic Council began at 8:55 a.m. in a vast hall with a dove-blue carpet, marble columns and crystal chandeliers. Merkel vs. Bush, it was like "High Noon," recounts Volker Stanzel, who was director of the Political Affairs Division at the German Foreign Ministry at the time.
Heads of state and government were sitting at the circular table, with Steinmeier next to Merkel. Behind them were the delegations, comprised of more than 100 politicians, military officers, diplomats and advisers. As the leaders gave their speeches up front, handwritten proposals were being passed around in the background, airing ideas on the search for a way out of the impasse.
It is frequently the case at such conferences that there are as many versions of what happened as there are participants, and none of them can claim to be perfectly accurate. But it is clear from accounts that organizers had used a curtain to delineate the conference zone in the expansive hall, and behind the curtain, it was almost dark, with furniture scattered about. Secretary of State Rice, Merkel's security adviser Heusgen and others stood at a bar table. Russia by itself is just one country, the American argued, according to participants, whereas Russia plus Ukraine and Belarus is an empire. She stressed that such an empire, once established, would once again seek to dominate Europe, and that the Kremlin would again pursue an aggressive foreign policy.
It sounded like the Cheney line: Keep Russia down. Heusgen is said to have countered with the legal situation in NATO. Rice reportedly then countered: It's not for you Germans, of all people, to deprive the Ukrainians and Georgians of a development that you yourselves have gone through and from which you have benefited.
According to Heusgen's account, Rice even broke down in tears because the Germans were being so tough. Another witness says they were tears of anger. Speaking to the press later, the U.S. secretary of state praised the Central and Eastern European allies as welcome "new blood" in NATO. She described them as "people who understand what it was to live under tyranny" – clearly a barb against the West Germans.
It was an unusual situation. Normally, staffers prepare summit agreements, leaving it to their bosses to resolve the final points of disagreement. In Bucharest, though, Merkel and the others had to do the groundwork themselves. But they made no progress. It was Bush with the Canadians and the Central and Eastern Europeans on one side, and Merkel with most Western and Southern Europeans on the other. There was talk of a serious historical mistake by the Germans, of ingratitude, of emboldening Russia. Bush let the Germans know that he had already promised everything to the Ukrainians and the Georgians and couldn't back out now. That, at least, was the version propagated by the Germans.
Draft talking points for Merkel, in turn, proposed that her main argument should be that "every step this alliance takes should mean more security and stability," which is "very much in the common interest." Countries involved in regional or internal conflicts, the draft read, could not become members of the alliance.
Around noon, everyone had to leave the hall except for the heads of state and government, the foreign ministers and the closest staff members. The sound in the side rooms, where some diplomats sat, was turned off.
It was the last round in Bucharest.
Merkel and Bush agreed that the Russians could be given no veto power over NATO matters. When Merkel said that Ukraine and Georgia could certainly become NATO members, just not now, Bush saw it as a possible compromise formulation. But Poland's Kaczyński intervened: "We want MAP now."
The meeting was adjourned, at first for only 30 minutes, but then for an hour. Confusion spread through the room. Many noticed Bush slouching at the conference table – and his reticence. As the Central and Eastern Europeans gathered in the corner of the hall, the U.S. president remained seated, leaving the initiative to Merkel. The situation left one member of the German delegation later wondering: When the leader of the Western world really wants something, after all, he usually gets it.
The chancellor finally joined the Central and Eastern European leaders. By all accounts, she showed understanding. She was a skilled mediator and she knew the region from her travels as a student during East German times. Her paternal grandfather was also originally from Poland. Then-Latvian President Zatlers recalls appreciatively that the chancellor was the only one who wanted to know why MAP was so important to them.
Merkel, for her part, now claims to have recognized the danger posed by Putin. "I was very sure that Putin would not let this (Ed's: NATO membership) just happen." She also apparently didn't believe that Putin could be deterred.
A crowd quickly formed, one that grew larger and larger. Rice also joined in. Proposed formulations were passed from the outside to the inside, and Merkel was at the center with a draft text. Zatlers was there, as was Poland's Kaczyński and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus. He had fought in a volunteer unit against the advancing Red Army at the end of the war before later emigrating to the U.S. and pursuing a career in the civil service. He then returned to Lithuania as a retiree. Some also remember the Romanian host Traian Băsescu being part of the group, a former communist and informant to the feared Securitate secret service prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.
Kaczyński, Adamkus and Băsescu shared a dark past with Bush. The U.S. had used prisons for torture interrogations of terrorism suspects in their countries. Now, they were arguing that the future of Georgia and Ukraine was a "vital security interest" to their countries.
At times, the discussion switched to Russian; Merkel and the others had, after all, all lived under Soviet rule. That, at least, is how some witnesses who were present tell it, but others contradict that version of events.
With the situation growing heated, the German side would say afterwards, the impulsive Polish leader Kaczyński even sought to intimidate the German chancellor, despite her larger stature.
But Merkel was already prepared to make compromises. A German draft explicitly stated that Ukraine and Georgia would "one day become members of NATO." Germany was not fundamentally opposed, but wanted the MAP process to be slowed down. Rice walked over to Bush. The president said he could live with that.
But the Central and Eastern Europeans countered that "one day" actually meant never, and Merkel ultimately deleted the two words, though she also refrained from making any concrete promises. The Germans, after all, had plenty of experience with non-binding membership promises, having held Turkey's European Union bid at arm's length for decades. And thus, the upshot from Bucharest was that NATO would, at some point, welcome two new members. The foreign ministers were to deliberate again in December 2008. For the time being, the subject was closed.
At 2:04 p.m., Merkel and Sarkozy appeared together before the press.
Bush, together with the Central and Eastern Europeans, was able to claim that they had achieved more than expected. Normally, a commitment to allow a country to join NATO came at the end of the accession process – and not at the beginning. Rice and others later gave the impression that Merkel, as a German, had probably not properly understood what she had written in English, namely: a clear commitment. The Germans, in turn, could claim that they had prevented the immediate accession of Ukraine and Georgia.
From the internal policy perspective of the West, Bucharest was a reasonable compromise, for which Merkel received praise from German media, from the mass-circulation Bild newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, the Süddeutsche Zeitung and also DER SPIEGEL.
Bucharest, Palace of Parliament
April 4, 2008
The Russian president is notoriously late, and in Bucharest, he kept the assembled heads of state and government waiting for 40 minutes. NATO leaders should not have accepted the delay, Zatlers says today. And they certainly should not have accepted the speech Putin delivered, he adds. Bucharest, the Latvian says, "was a low point in the history of NATO."
Putin described Ukraine as a "very complicated state," stitched together from Polish, Czechoslovak, Romanian and, particularly, Russian territory. A state with a Russian minority, the size of which he greatly exaggerated. Above all, though, he took aim at Crimea. He said it had wound up in the hands of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic through an arbitrary act by the Soviet Politburo which, although true, sounded disturbing in the context. Although Russia has no right to veto NATO membership, Putin noted, the Russian leader threatened that if Ukraine joined the alliance, it could jeopardize the existence of the state.
The Poles were alarmed. The speech was "absolutely outrageous," Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski fulminated. While still in the hall he had, seemingly innocently, sent someone to ask the Russian delegation for a copy of the remarks and, to his astonishment, actually received one. He later gave it to the Ukrainian defense minister in the hope that he could use the text to push through a higher defense budget in Kyiv. It wasn't until weeks later that news emerged publicly of Putin's speech.
Zatlers was also concerned. He viewed the speech through the lens of information he had received prior to the summit. The Russian national railway had announced an investment plan for its rail network. The history of two world wars had taught Zatlers to consider troop movements when examining Russian railroad construction.
Bush, though, remained silent, which Zatlers still believes was a mistake. The leader of the free world, he says, failed to stand up to Putin. Bush continued onward to Sochi following the Bucharest summit for his last state visit to Russia, clearly eager to avoid controversy. In Sochi, Putin went even further in his talks with the American than he had at the NATO summit. "You don't understand, George, that Ukraine isn't even a state," he told Bush.
Speaking to the press, the U.S. President said: "The Cold War is over." Some of the Texan's staffers had the feeling that his efforts before and in Bucharest had only served to allow the president to say afterwards that he had tried everything to get Ukraine into NATO.
And how did the Germans react? "Putin's speech was largely brushed off," says one participant, adding that many seemed to think it was just talk. "Plus, everyone was looking at their watches because they wanted to get home." It was Friday, after all.
Merkel told journalists that she had been unable to detect "any kind of aggression" in Putin's words and that the focus should be on the "constructive elements." It was a position that Berlin adhered to for far too long.
Today, when the failure of Germany's relations with Russia over the past several decades is discussed, comments to the German public downplaying the Russian threat are already very much a part of it.
The chancellor chose appeasement over deterrence. As ex-security adviser Heusgen writes in his bestselling book "Leadership and Responsibility," Merkel sought to reassure Putin after the summit by saying that Bucharest had prevented Ukraine's accession and that it was inconceivable that such a fundamental decision would be overturned. Another version holds that she referred to NATO's principle of unanimity and assured Putin that Germany would always vote against Ukraine's accession.
One can interpret Merkel's statement as merely an expression of a German attitude of which everyone was already fully aware. But it can also be read as Merkel's betrayal of Germany's allies in Central and Eastern Europe, who had been promised that Georgia and Ukraine would join NATO sooner or later.
Either way, it was most certainly a case of hubris – because Putin would not be appeased. Merkel, he is said to have argued, would not remain chancellor forever.
Steinmeier's Visit to Poland
Bydgoszcz, April 6, 2008
Steinmeier had long been scheduled to pay a private visit to his Polish counterpart Sikorski at his country estate in Bydgoszcz in northern Poland. The German foreign minister was keen to maintain good relations with his eastern neighbor and his staff said he was looking forward to the trip. Sikorski, on the other hand, seemed to have been hoping to score points domestically, according to media speculation.
The German foreign minister traveled to Poland with his wife Elke Büdenbender. They enjoyed dinner together that evening, with Sikorski's American wife Anne Applebaum, a journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner and ardent Iraq war supporter, cooking a mushroom soup in front of the cameras. The German guests stayed the night.
But the niceties proved deceptive: The relationship had soured following Sikorski's harsh criticism in Bucharest. To the outside world, the host tried to give the impression that everything was just fine. "In Bucharest, there was an honest discussion behind closed doors," he told waiting journalists. That's the nature of negotiations, he said. Afterwards, they "return to good relations." Steinmeier also made an effort and signaled that he intended to pay more attention to the concerns of Eastern European EU members in the future. The next day, they both traveled to Warsaw for a joint appearance at a university.
But as U.S. documents show, around two weeks later, Sikorski described the Germans to the Bush administration as a "Trojan horse" inside NATO.
Brussels, NATO Headquarters, August 14, 2008
The crisis in Georgia had escalated. Tbilisi had responded to Putin's provocations and attacked the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The Russians were quick to take advantage of the situation by occupying one-third of Georgia's territory. In the North Atlantic Council back in Brussels, alliance diplomats were left to bicker about who was responsible. The Americans and Central Europeans argued that if Georgia had been granted MAP status, the situation never would have escalated. They insisted on immediately correcting what they saw as past mistakes. The German side countered that it was actually the promise of NATO membership delivered to Georgia in Bucharest that had led to the Russian invasion. Only Putin knows which side was correct.
Quite a few NATO member states began looking at Crimea with a certain amount of trepidation. When NATO foreign ministers gathered for a crisis summit to discuss the situation on August 19, the representative from Prague, Karel Schwarzenberg, warned of a "potentially looming Crimean conflict on the horizon." Because the Siberian wolf "will not be satisfied with vegetarian nourishment forever."
The war in Georgia, though, demonstrated that the West could do very little in the immediate vicinity of Russia to stop a determined Putin. Unless NATO was ready to go to the extreme. During a meeting with Bush in the White House, a staff member asked advisers and cabinet members present if there was anyone in favor of sending U.S. troops to Georgia to stand up to the Russians. Not even Vice President Cheney was in favor of the idea. Burns, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, had apparently been right all along and could feel vindicated. Long before, he had warned his government not to overestimate the influence the West had when it came to Ukraine and Georgia.
And the Ukrainians? After Bucharest, President Yushchenko tried to change public opinion in his country in order to address the concerns held by Berlin. The cabinet in Kyiv allotted additional funding to public relations work and established an inter-ministerial working group. And Yushchenko's party launched a campaign promoting NATO membership. The plan had been for the share of Ukrainians supporting NATO accession to rise – to 43 percent in 2009, then 50 percent in 2010, and finally 55 percent in 2011. U.S. Ambassador Nuland was ecstatic, and many member states said they would offer their support to the government in Kyiv, with Germany apparently among them.
But the efforts fizzled out. In 2010, reformer Yushchenko failed badly in his re-election bid and Yanukovych, the Russian ally, beat out Tymoshenko in a run-off election – bringing the NATO accession project to an end. Latvian ex-president Zatlers nonetheless sees Bucharest as a "missed chance." He believes that Ukrainian attitudes toward NATO would have slowly shifted had the alliance sent a positive signal to Kyiv during the summit.
The path laid in Bucharest in 2008 didn't necessarily lead to today's war in Ukraine. And yet the summit in Bucharest resulted in the worst of two worlds, Ambassador Burns believes. The Ukrainians and Georgians had been indulged in hopes of NATO membership, which the West was unlikely to deliver. And the summit also reinforced Putin's sense that the West was pursuing a course he saw as an existential threat.
As such, Merkel, Steinmeier and their allies must live under a cloud of suspicion that despite their good intentions, they ultimately sacrificed both Georgia and Ukraine. Putin, at least, hasn't yet dared to attack a NATO member.
When Yanukovych was officially inaugurated as the president of Ukraine in 2010, there was a delay and Zatlers had to wait with the other guests. By chance, he found himself standing next to members of the Russian delegation, who apparently either didn't recognize him or didn't realize that he spoke Russian. The delegates from Moscow openly congratulated each other on Yanukovych's success in Kyiv. "Everything is going according to plan," one said. For Zatlers, it is proof that Putin's so-called "special operation" against Ukraine had already begun. It just hadn't yet reached the battlefield.
Collage: [M]: Ryan Olbrysh / DER SPIEGEL; Fotos: Thomas Imo / photothek / IMAGO, Gavriil Grigorov / Kremlin Pool / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO, Russian Defence Ministry / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO, Fabian Bimmer / AP / picture alliance, Russian Defence Ministry / TASS / dpa / picture alliance, Yevhen Zinchenko / Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images, Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images, Jeff Overs / BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images, Win McNamee / Getty Images, Sergei Supinsky / AFP