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Geopolitics

Angela Merkel: Germany's Global Cover Story For 16 Years

Approaching Angela Merkel's final days in office, we take a look back at the major chapters in her reign as German Chancellor and an unlikely political icon on magazine covers around the world.

Angela Merkel waves to the crowd

After 16 years as German chancellor, Angela Merkel is leaving the world stage

As Angela Merkel makes her final preparations to leave the world stage, it's hard to imagine what politician could fill the shoes of the woman Germans came to call "Mutti": the mother of the nation. Having spent most of the first 35 years of her life in the former East Germany, trained as a quantum chemist, this unassuming daughter of a Lutheran pastor had an unlikely rise to lead Europe's largest country for a generation.

Fast forward to today, and Germany's first female leader is heralded both at home and abroad as a supreme tactician, skillful problem-solver and guarantor of European stability.

Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld summed up Merkel's achievements in an interview with Swedish broadcaster SVT: "She is well-read, she is calm, she thinks ahead in a world where everyone is nervous, moody and short-sighted."


That world the leaders were facing, of course has been riddled through Merkel's time in office with one crisis on top of another: from the 2008 financial crash and the conflicts in Libya and Syria, to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the migration wave to Europe in 2015 to the global pandemic.

In the final days of a near 16-year chancellorship — becoming the country's first premier to leave power of her own volition — we take a look back on four key chapters of Merkel's time in office, and how it all looked on the covers of the German and global press:

Bild, 10/11/2005

Bild (Germany), 10/11/2005

2005: A trained chemist finds winning formula in politics

Seemingly headed for a career in science, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that prompted Merkel to hang up the lab coat and embrace a lifelong commitment to politics. Steadily ascending the ranks of a newly unified German government, she was elected leader of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2001. And yet few believed that the quiet, unemotional woman from the East would ever be a serious contender for the top job.

But the day came — in a razor-close election in 2005. The vote happened two months after an inconclusive election forced Germany's biggest parties to settle for a grand coalition between Merkel's conservatives and the center-left Social Democratic Party.


Still, doubts over Merkel's abilities persisted: few expected drastic change, with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dismissing the notion that she would be able to form a governing coalition, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported at the time. Even less so, no one predicted that the new leader would in time be crowned the most powerful woman in the world.

The Economist, 10/15-21/2005

The Economist (U.S.A), 10/15-21/2005

Courrier International, 01/13-17/2007

Courrier International (France), 01/13-17/2007

2007-2011: Rescuing economy, saving the euro

Having taken the reins at a time of relative stability, Germany's economy slowly gained steam under Merkel's rule after years of stagnation. The first fire test came with the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse and the ensuing Euro crisis, marking the beginning of the Chancellor's role as a reassuring yet often controversial crisis manager.

At home, her guarantees of federal protection of Germans' savings helped prevent a run on the banks, while her government's payment of the largest bailout of Greece in 2010 cemented her place as a staunch defender of European unity.

When the debt crisis came in 2012, the confidence in Merkel had reached new heights. "Europe will fail if the euro fails. Europe wins if the euro wins," Merkel told the German Bundestag in 2012. Merkel took charge, creating a massive fund to salvage not just Greece's economy but those of other debt-ridden Eurozone nations as well.

While the bailouts are largely considered a success, the tough austerity measures partly negotiated by Germany courted some opprobrium at home while leading to loud protest in Greece. However, many still hold that Merkel's action likely saved the single currency.

Der Spiegel, 12/01/2008

Der Spiegel (Germany), 12/01/2008

Bloomberg Businessweek, 12/5-12/2011

Bloomberg Businessweek (U.S.A.), 12/5-12/2011

New Statesman, 06/25/2012

New Statesman (U.S.A.), 06/25/2012

The Economist, 09/14-20/2013

The Economist (U.S.A.), 09/14-20/2013

Der Spiegel, 9/19/2015

Der Spiegel (Germany), 9/19/2015

Time, 12/21/2015

Time (U.S.A.), 12/21/2015 - Person of the Year

2015: Migrant Crisis tests European values

In 2015, the question of European unity would take center stage again as more than a million refugees, the majority fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, arrived on the southern shores of Europe. Under the rallying cry "wir schaffen das," (We can do it) Merkel took the decision to take in nearly one million migrants while also striking a controversial deal with Turkey to prevent further waves of people arriving.

To some, her decision to open the borders was the ultimate expression of European solidarity while, for others, it was putting democracy at risk as right-wing political parties used the opportunity to strengthen their profile — including Alternative für Deutschland that won 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 Bundestag elections, becoming the largest opposition party.

Newsweek, 10/09/2015

Newsweek (U.K.), 10/09/2015

Maclean's, 03/02/2015

Maclean's (Canada), 03/02/2015

Stern, 06/30/2016

Stern (Germany), 06/30/2016

Panorama, 07/06/2016

Panorama (Italy), 07/06/2016

2016: Trump, Putin, COVID

While almost universally recognized as a competent stateswoman and brilliant tactician, Merkel has throughout her reign been criticized for lacking a grander political vision. However, the turbulent rule of Donald Trump was a four-year reminder of the virtues of humble and stable leadership. Emphasizing the importance of dialogue, Merkel — whose chancellorship has spanned four US presidencies — impressed the world with her handling of a US leader representing her opposite pole in the western camp.

It's better to "talk to each other rather than about one another," Merkel noted in a reference to Trump's frequent trolling of her leadership during his campaign.

Neither did another demagogue in the form of Vladimir Putin manage to shake her self-possession, even when bringing his black labrador to a 2007 meeting at his Black Sea residence — knowing Merkel was fearful of dogs. Calmly sitting through the meeting, Merkel later told journalists that Putin "had to prove he's a man." Seven years later, Merkel would lead the EU response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, building consensus both in Germany and the EU for sanctions.

In the final years of her reign, however, some criticized Merkel for negotiating with Putin for crucial gas supplies at the expense of a firm line on Russia's aggressions, foreign and domestic.

In what would be her final crisis to manage, Merkel was one of the first leaders to recognize the scale of the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, calling it the greatest challenge to Germany since World War II. On the economic front, as Le Monde recalled last week, Merkel "again took all by surprise" by reversing the longtime German stance to back a plan for common European debt to face the risk of the shutdown of trade and commerce caused by the pandemic.

But perhaps even more notable was her reaction to the human aspect of the crisis. In a parliamentary speech in December 2020, marking the end of a year she described as the toughest of her career, Merkel pleaded to Germans to accept continued national restriction: "I really am sorry, from the bottom of my heart." Speaking directly to shopkeepers that would be affected by the lockdown, it was a rare show of emotion from a leader whose 16 years at the helm of a nation were handled much like the scientist she might have been.

Stern, 11/23/2017

Stern (Germany), 11/23/2017

L'Espresso, 10/01/2017

L'Espresso (Italy), 10/01/2017

hvg, 09/21/2017

hvg (Hungary), 09/21/2017

Der Spiegel, 07/14/2018

Der Spiegel (Germany), 07/14/2018

Die Tageszeitung, 01/22/2018

Die Tageszeitung (Germany), 01/22/2018

L'Obs, 06/25-07/1/2020

L'Obs (France), 06/25-07/1/2020

La Vie, 09/23-29/2021

La Vie (France), 09/23-29/2021

Libération, 09/21/2021

Libération (France), 09/21/2021

Hamburgen Morgenpost, 09/22/2021

Hamburgen Morgenpost (Germany), 09/22/2021

Internazionale, 09/17-23/2021

Internazionale (Italy), 09/17-23/2021

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Geopolitics

Inside Putin's Deal For Iranian Drones

Outgunned by Ukraine's Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, Russia has reportedly started importing armed drones from Iran, which may have explained Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Tehran, which is looking to flex its muscles internationally. But it could prove to be a dangerous turning point in the war.

At an underground drone base, in an unknown location in Iran

Christine Kensche

The satellite images show a hangar. The rough outlines of two geometric shapes are visible — a triangle and an elongated object with wide wings. According to intelligence information from the United States, this is the Kashan airfield south of Tehran, where Iran is training its regional militias.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

The geometric objects are drones: the Shahed-191 and the Shahed-129, both considered capable of carrying weapons. Their name translates to martyr. According to U.S. information, the picture also shows a transport vehicle for visitors from Russia. If what the White House recently said is true, the "martyr" drones could soon be circling Ukraine, controlled remotely by Russian soldiers.

Tehran's drone army

According to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Iran wants to deliver "several hundred" drones to Russia and train Russian soldiers on the devices. Training may have already begun, Sullivan said. In June, Russian delegations traveled to the Iranian airfield twice. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran in person on Tuesday.

It's a turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer.

"This is a significant turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer," says Israeli drone expert Seth Frantzman, who has published a book on the subject (Drone Wars). So far, outside the circle of its allies in the region, Tehran has only sold its technology to Venezuela and built a drone factory in Tajikistan. "The deal with the world power Russia finally makes Iran an international player in the drone business, with its influence reaching as far as Europe."

In terms of technology and trade, the world's drone powers are the U.S., Israel, China and, by some margin, Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish-designed Bayraktar drones are deployed by Ukraine against Russia, which initially gave Kyiv important strategic successes.

There are two key reasons why Russia is now apparently buying from Iran: its own drones cannot keep up. And Iran's drones are technically less sophisticated than those of Western competitors. But they do the job – and are quicker and cheaper to make. Even Iran's nemesis Israel recognizes the powerful potential of Tehran's drone army.

"Iran has massively upgraded its drone program in recent years," says Frantzman. The Shiite regime introduces new types of drones almost every week. According to information from the Israeli army, Iran has a complete production chain, from missiles to navigation systems. The parts are often copied — for example, from U.S. drones that Iran shot down in the past. It now has a variety of different series and types — from unarmed reconnaissance devices to combat drones and those called kamikaze drones (small unmanned aerial vehicles with explosive charges that ram their target). The damage Iranian technology can do has been demonstrated by the regime's devastating attacks in recent years.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presence of his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi (right) in Tehran

Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA

Attacks by Iranian drones

Iran's arsenal of remotely piloted aircraft stretches from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to the Gulf and Yemen. The technology is used by Iranian allies — by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, by Yemen's Huthis against Saudi Arabia, by Shiite militias against the U.S. Army. Or, indeed, by Iran itself.

The "Pearl Harbor" of the drone war happened three years ago: Iran used drones and rockets to attack the Abqaiq refinery of the world's largest oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi air defenses were powerless. The attack shut down Saudi Arabia's oil exports for several months. Global oil production collapsed by six percent.

Iranian drones were used in the last Gaza war.

Since then, Iran has systematically relied on weapons. Drones are said to be responsible for at least five attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq in May and June last year. Iranian drone technology also played a role in the last Gaza war. Hamas not only fired 4,000 rockets at Israel last May. It also deployed a new explosive-laden drone.

Last year, Iranian drone attacks claimed human lives for the first time: Kamikaze drones attacked the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategically important choke points between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Two crew members died, including the captain. Then, in the spring, drones attacked tankers and Abu Dhabi airport. Three people lost their lives. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supplied with weapons and technology by Iran, said they were responsible for the attack on the U.A.E.

A military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) launched from an Iranian navy vessel in the Indian ocean

Iranian Army Office/ZUMA

No war is won by drones alone

There is no precise information on exactly which drones Russia could acquire. The types shown by the U.S. on the satellite images are among Iran's most important reconnaissance and combat drones. The Shahed-129 is the country's oldest combat drone. It can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and can be armed with eight guided missiles. Also known as the Saegheh (Thunderbolt), the Shahed-191 is a combat drone whose specialty is great mobility. It can be mounted on the back of a truck and launched while the vehicle is in motion.

Kamikaze drones are easier and cheaper to produce.

This combat drone, which can be equipped with two remote-controlled anti-tank missiles, is therefore extremely flexible. However, it is doubtful that Iran can actually deliver hundreds of these types in a hurry. A deal with Russia is therefore likely to include kamikaze drones, which are easier and cheaper to produce.

If Russia were to use Iranian drones in the near future, it would not be a turning point in the Ukraine war, says expert Frantzman: "You don't win a war with drones." However, Russia could use them to damage Ukraine's strategic infrastructure comparatively cheaply, without having to put expensive war equipment at risk.

And another target could become the focus of Iranian drones — Western war equipment, such as the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which the U.S. supplied to Ukraine and which play a central role in defense against Russia.

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