SPIEGEL: It's interesting that an older generation of politicians -- (former US Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger, (former German Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt and former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, for example -- are urging level-headedness in the Ukraine crisis. You yourself have addressed presidents Putin and Obama.
Gorbachev: Yes, and that was already one year ago, on January 23. I called on both to negotiate with each other because the Ukraine conflict is a threat to the entire world and not just to Ukraine and its neighbors. My letters were a cry from the depths of my soul.
SPIEGEL: Did you get an answer?
Gorbachev: I fell on deaf ears.
SPIEGEL: You had a similar experience in Berlin in November. The warnings you gave on the occasion of the Berlin Wall anniversary were dismissed as those of an aging politician. The Germans criticize you because of your pro-Putin stance. Does that bother you?
Gorbachev: The Germans love Angela Merkel. That's why people criticize me and not Merkel. But a smart country like Germany should not resort to the kind of level of conversation you might expect to find in a pub.
SPIEGEL: You met with Angela Merkel in the Chancellery. How did the talk go?
Gorbachev: Friendly. We spoke with each other for about an hour. But the balance of power was unequal. A female advisor to the chancellor was there, so I had two women against me. I could very clearly sense that the chancellor is under pressure -- both domestically and in terms of foreign policy. I explained to her that people needed to sit down for as long as it takes to find a solution. You won't achieve anything by tripping all over each other with rash statements. Angela Merkel agreed with me, even if she acts differently.
SPIEGEL: Did you criticize the West's sanctions against Russia in your talk with the chancellor?
Gorbachev: Ask Angela Merkel. I might pull your leg.
SPIEGEL: But we would like to get an answer from you.
Gorbachev: I have forgotten again everything that was said about that (laughs). You'll have to ask the chancellor. Incidentally, I didn't tell Putin anything about the conversation either. I'm even less inclined to tell SPIEGEL. If you want, you can ask me a third time now, but there's no point in trying to lead my down the slippery slope.
SPIEGEL: Why do you consider sanctions to be wrong?
Gorbachev: They damage the economies of both countries. It was wrong to exclude Russia from the G-8. That's vendetta-like and there is nothing to be gained from it. Sanctions are not an instrument that should be used if we want to maintain our exemplary relations.
SPIEGEL: It looks as though such relations are a thing of the past.
Gorbachev: A great deal of progress was made in the relationship between Germany and Russia after the fall of the Wall. We built up singularly good relations. We can't allow that to be destroyed now. At the moment, the West is largely shutting Russia out of efforts to solve global problems on issues ranging from the battle against terrorism and the Islamic State to climate change. What's the good in that? We need to "de-ice" our relations again and we urgently need a new thaw. We Russians will do everything to try to make that happen. I think Russia is orienting its policies in that direction. In Germany, though, it looks as though there is a competition to see who can be the most unyielding when it comes to Russia.
SPIEGEL: But there are also many who see things differently. Former SPD leader Matthias Platzeck has proposed that a new referendum be held over Crimea under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in order to provide legitimacy to the annexation under international law. What do you think of that idea?
Gorbachev: The new Germany wants to interfere everywhere. What legitimacy is needed for Crimea? Even if the referendum had deficiencies, there can be no doubt that the people there clearly and unambiguously said they wanted to be a part of Russia.
SPIEGEL: Your position on the referendum is astoundingly mild. Even Putin's own human rights commission detected voter fraud. Are you disappointed in the Germans?
Gorbachev: Many in Germany seem to want to participate in the new division of Europe. It's probably better if I stop here. Don't provoke me any longer. I am a Russian and I shouldn't say too much about Germany's domestic affairs.
SPIEGEL: Germany's internal affairs affect all of Europe.
Gorbachev: The way things stand between Germany and Russia has repercussions for the global political climate. We can never forget that, also in the Ukraine crisis.
SPIEGEL: What do you think a solution to the crisis might look like?
Gorbachev: An immediate cease-fire, followed by an international effort to rebuild the destroyed areas. If necessary, we need to invite Otto von Bismarck again. He said that Germany should never wage war with Russia. Germany already tried once during World War II to expand its sphere of influence into the east. What lessons does it still need? It hasn't been forgotten in my country: the massive destruction, the women who waited for husbands who never returned home. It is good that our people have reconciled with each other.
SPIEGEL: And Merkel nevertheless says today that Putin lives in another world. Do you understand where she is coming from?
Gorbachev: No, not entirely. And I'm not the only one who doesn't understand. Please recall President Putin's speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. Putin clearly stated at the time where Russia's red lines are and that Russia does not agree to NATO's advance on its borders. For us Russians, by the way, Putin wasn't saying anything new. So why was it that our partners were so astounded? I get the impression that the German people understood Putin very well at the time -- in any case better than the political elite in Germany. It is a mistake to try to get rid of Putin.
SPIEGEL: Why would it be a mistake?
Gorbachev: It's hopelessly stupid and highly dangerous. Putin should leave office at the end of his term. Unfortunately, the German idea is very different. It envisions the further tightening of sanctions until the Russians take to the streets and topple Putin.
SPIEGEL: You don't appear to think much of Angela Merkel.
Gorbachev: On the contrary -- I like her as a person and a politician. But that doesn't mean I don't have the right to criticize her, just as she has the right to criticize me. The same applies in my relations to Putin. He is an experienced president who has done and continues to do much for Russia. At the same time, some things have to be said openly to him.
SPIEGEL: Are you a happy person today?
Gorbachev: I wrote a few years back that there aren't really any happy reformers. I wasn't in the best of spirits at the time and I allowed myself to get carried away with this sentence. Yes, when I look back, I am a happy person. Tackling major projects and leading an important state was, of course, great.
SPIEGEL: What does a typical day look like for you now? How do you spend your free time?
Gorbachev: My wife Raisa and I had a shared passion. We went on long walks every day, five to six kilometers. That helped me deal with stress. My legs, unfortunately, no longer play along, but I'm not the only one with that problem. I recently visited Helmut Schmidt. He was standing up when he greeted me, but he told me that he often has to use a wheelchair. Helmut Kohl and George Bush Sr. also have also begun relying on technical aids. I fear the time is coming when I will also have to motorize myself.
SPIEGEL: Is it difficult for you to accept that your strength is waning?
Gorbachev: In terms of my health, I felt very good until I turned 75. I continued to jet around the world. The death of my wife Raisa in 1999 was a difficult blow. The last year and a half hasn't been very good; I had to undergo three serious operations. Incidentally, all three took place in Germany. The whole world is fighting against aging, but there's nothing you can do about it. In some ways I feel old, but in others I still feel young. That's how I am.
SPIEGEL: What matters most to you in the years that you still have left?
Gorbachev: To live life and not just survive or vegetate and wait for death. I want to travel to America again in February to give lectures. Next to my books, they're my only source of revenue. I still have goals and that keeps me going.
SPIEGEL: What goals are they?
Gorbachev: I want to continue to be part of the discussion about Russia's future, about global peace and environmental protection. I want to write books, give lectures, attend conferences and give interviews.
SPIEGEL: To try once more to change the world and make it a better place?
Gorbachev: That's no longer necessary. Glasnost and Perestroika live on and they can no longer be stopped.
SPIEGEL: Do you have a fear of death?
Gorbachev: Not at all. I don't know why, but I have none.
SPIEGEL: Mikhail Sergeyevich, we thank you for this interview.