Special envoy explains French approach to Russia

Russia – Hearing of M. Pierre Vimont, the French President’s special envoy for the architecture of security and trust with Russia, before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces Committee

Paris, 19 February 2020

M. VIMONT – Mr Chair, thank you for inviting me. It’s a great honour for me to be able to explain to you in greater detail the purpose of this mission, an initiative the French President promoted in order to build on all his thinking about the European enterprise and, in particular, European sovereignty, as he talked about in his Sorbonne speech in 2017 in particular.

Insofar as Europe wants to play a role on the international stage again, it’s becoming essential to assert our bilateral relations more effectively, particularly with China and the United States, and embark once again on a more expanded dialogue with Russia, which is obviously a player which can’t be ignored. Such an approach would be a way of encouraging our European partners to imitate us in an area where Europe has been conspicuously absent, maintaining a status quo after implementing a policy of firmness and sanctions. And this would enable us to reactivate the process in this area.

Through this dialogue of security and trust with Russia we want, first of all, to flesh out our bilateral exchanges, which have proven to be less frequent than many of our European partners’. The latter were also surprised when the French President decided to reactivate the “2+2” dialogue, which hadn’t taken place since 2012, between the French foreign and defence ministers and their Russian counterparts.

In this effort to flesh out our dialogue with Russia, we want to move forward in a whole series of areas. The most habitual ones are security and strategic stability in Europe. On the arms control you rightly mentioned, Mr Chair, we can have dialogue with Russia, but without any stipulations for others, or in the NATO framework in line with our American partners. In the French President’s view, solidarity within the Atlantic Alliance or the European Union mustn’t prevent us engaging in our own dialogue and upholding our interests in terms of security, strategic and nuclear weaponry, conventional forces or the Open Skies Treaty, whose future the Americans are pondering.

We also want to set up contacts between chiefs of staff, which sparked strong interest from our Russian partners, and create “deconfliction” or “de-escalation” channels in every area where this can be useful, notwithstanding possible disputes with our Russian interlocutors: cyber attacks, the environment, Arctic exploration, cooperation in the space and nuclear industries, human rights, contacts between civil societies by virtue of the Trianon Dialogue started in 2017, and conflicts currently under way in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, in Syria, in Libya and [elsewhere] in Africa.

The situation in the Central African Republic is pitting us against the Russians, who are also developing a more or less discreet presence in West Africa and the south of the continent. So it seems wise – in order not to find ourselves up against faits accomplis as has often been the case in the past – to establish dialogue with our counterparts in the framework of international institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and UN.

We also want to make this dialogue more ambitious, particularly in Libya’s case, by including in it not only diplomacy but also security and intelligence, thanks to platforms bringing together representatives of the various Russian and French administrations.

Finally, our goal is to make this dialogue a little more creative and innovative, thanks to discussions with the new generation of Russian officials who are moving up the ranks.

Those are the guidelines we presented to our Russian partners after Mr Putin accepted M. Macron’s proposal of dialogue. What’s the current state of play?

We’ve proposed a programme of work based on five major themes: technological and strategic challenges; bilateral cooperation on security and defence; cooperation at European level on these issues; the principles and values of the Trianon Dialogue, human rights and the role of women in conflicts and their prevention; and finally, major conflicts in various regions of the world.

Our Russian partners have replied to us, also developing five key areas of cooperation, but presented differently and focusing more on military and security issues. The Russians have picked up on many of our ideas, but we’ve had to reiterate to them our desire to discuss the Arctic, civilian nuclear energy, space and human rights.

Now that we’ve shown our Russian interlocutors our priorities, and vice versa, we should bring those two points of view together as operationally as possible, by setting up a few working groups to start making progress on these issues. In the coming weeks I’ll be meeting my Russian counterpart, Ambassador Yuri Ushakov, who is Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic adviser, to agree on those working groups.

Although I’ve been tasked with coordinating this mission, the dialogue channels are still there: the Foreign Ministry’s political director has contacts with his Russian interlocutors on the nuclear agreement with Iran and other current issues; the same goes for the President’s special envoy on Syria, the ambassador responsible for the Libya issue, and the director-general of international relations and strategy, attached to the Ministry for the Armed Forces, who recently took part in a meeting with her counterpart at the Russian Defence Ministry.

So things are moving forward, and no one’s waiting for me to give the green light before taking action. However, meetings are being organized with a desire to be more ambitious, more dynamic and more innovative, as the President wanted.

The second aspect of the state of play concerns our European partners.

Twice in Brussels I’ve met the ambassadors of the European Union member countries at the Political and Security Committee and at NATO’s [North Atlantic] Council. Moreover, I’ve started visiting Poland and Finland, and I’ll soon be going to the Baltic countries and Romania. Finally, I’ve met a lot of ambassadors from our partner countries in Paris.

I’ll be continuing this mission, which is essentially a job of explaining and informing in the face of some very varied stances. As you’ve emphasized, Mr Chair, the general feeling at the outset was quite critical of an initiative that was regarded as an individual bilateral approach whose goal, according to some, was to undermine solidarity among Europeans.

We’ve had to reassure people and dispel misunderstandings by explaining that we’re in no way challenging the positions adopted, the sanctions decided on, or the five major principles established in 2016 regarding relations between the European Union and Russia.

While of course we remain supportive of all the decisions that have been adopted unanimously, they don’t in themselves constitute a policy, a strategy. Consequently, under status quo that has existed since the Ukraine crisis of 2014, we’ve been waiting while Russia has been advancing in Syria, Libya and [elsewhere in] Africa. Hence the President’s feeling, which we may have passed on to our European partners, that we must get moving and take some initiatives.

Some of our European partners remain cautious, while others are much more constructive about the fact that France is trying its luck. We understand these reservations, but we retain the hope that our partners will agree to follow us in this new momentum of bilateral re-engagement. The situation is gradually changing, because European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell and the new European Council President, Charles Michel, have expressed a wish to restart talks with Russia. Mr Borrell wants to include this point on the agenda of the informal meeting of foreign ministers – the Gymnich – in March; Mr Michel is opting instead for a European Council in the second half of the year, because Germany, which will hold the European Union presidency, would like to discuss one of the five principles of 2016: selective engagement on issues of common interest. This parallel progression is quite interesting to observe.

To conclude, I’ll mention the next steps.

First of all, the President’s approach covers the long term, and we must be patient. This mission only began at the end of November, when I took office in Paris. To imagine we’re going to secure a turnaround by the Russian side in three months, by a stroke of magic, would be unrealistic! We actually have to find the right levers to get our Russian interlocutors to change, and those exist among our proposals, such as cooperation on the basis of technologies the Europeans have in the environmental and climate fields.

Moreover, European investments may be useful to the Russian economy – with due respect for the sanctions imposed, of course. On the Syria issue, our Russian interlocutors are making discreet invitations to involve the European partners in rebuilding the country; the capital necessary will be huge, and expertise – which Europe has – will be necessary. I could continue the list. In any case, it’s a long-term job requiring patience.

Finally, let’s not fool ourselves, either: we face tough interlocutors who are imposing a power relationship. We must be demanding and apply the right doses of firmness and dialogue. That’s the direction we intend to move forward in over the coming months, and in this regard the first test case is undoubtedly the Ukraine issue. France and Germany will have to ensure commitments are honoured, on the Russian and Ukrainian sides.

(Statements by parliamentarians)

I’ll begin by pointing out that many of these issues can be summed up in the following way: does Russia regard France as an attractive partner? Two different answers spring to mind.

First of all, slightly cynically, Russia is interested in France because this relationship could divide the Europeans. The idea of one country detaching itself from the others to forge an ambitious bilateral dialogue with Russia could be regarded as a way of undermining European unity. However, that’s not our goal, as I’ve told our European friends. I’ve also informed my Russian interlocutors that I’m keeping our NATO partners and European counterparts regularly informed. The one doesn’t exclude the other.

Secondly, in the Russians’ eyes, what’s currently happening in Europe deserves to be closely observed: the establishment of a new European leadership, the many discussions on European defence and security, accompanied by payments into a European Defence Fund and enhanced structural cooperation, France’s actions in the Sahel with growing support from its European partners, and the increased maritime presence off Libya to monitor the arms embargo. France is spearheading the effort on these issues, and the Russians are interested in the role our country is playing in strengthening the European Union. The issue regularly crops up: France is putting its ideas forward, and for the Russians it’s important to understand properly and hold dialogue. The same goes when it comes to Africa, for example, where France is an important player and where Russia wants to have a greater presence. In Syria, Lebanon, Libya, on the Iran issue etc., we’re also an important player. Finally, that’s also the case with regard to space technology. So we’re an important partner for the Russians, even though it’s not at the same level as the United States, with which they’d like to have strategic dialogue. We must gauge our role and play it accordingly.

The Russians would like to understand better what the European Union is trying to do, because we’re neighbours. The blunders made on the Eastern Partnership have been mentioned, and I regret them; other risks of the same order may emerge with regard to Ukraine, in Georgia or in the Western Balkans. So we have an interest in finding a path to coexistence with them and in identifying a way of explaining to them what we’re currently doing.

Lastly, in terms of finance and trade, we mustn’t believe we’ve been sidelined. Admittedly, Russia may have thought the European Union is in decline, with the migration crisis, the euro crisis and the Greek debt crisis. Today, however, we’re in a new phase, and the Russians have developed a genuine interest in what the European Union is doing. We must take advantage of this.

As regards a Helsinki 2 conference, M. del Picchia, we’re thinking about it more clearly than people sometimes think. The Helsinki principles were included in the Charter of Paris, which will be 30 years old this year. The event could provide us with an opportunity to modernize those principles, which we also saw violated at the time of the Ukraine crisis. It’s an important element, in liaison with our colleagues in the OSCE, an organization which itself was created out of the Helsinki Accords. How do you put this into practice and start a discussion, in order to add a stone to the edifice of this new European order we want to build?

In the 1970s and 1980s, we were able to find a kind of dialogue with the Soviet Union, which nevertheless spoke of “limited sovereignty” with regard to the Eastern and Central European states. Despite this, thanks to the Ostpolitik implemented by Willy Brandt and then the Helsinki Accords with the “three baskets”, we managed to find ways to hold dialogue. Today, paradoxically, we can no longer achieve this. Despite our real disagreements with Russia, despite the criticisms we make of it, despite the cyber attacks we suffer, we must find ways to hold dialogue again. So on this issue, one idea would be to enter into the spirit of the Helsinki Accords and the Charter of Paris.

You ask me whether Crimea should stay Russian. Let’s be clear: despite what we hear from the Russians, including from the mouths of fervent opponents of the regime, we must remain firm for reasons of principle and in accordance with international law. What happened in Crimea, like what’s happening in eastern Ukraine, is unacceptable; that’s why we imposed those sanctions in 2014, and we’ve been renewing them since.

Regarding the sanctions, you liken them to America’s extraterritorial sanctions. However, we must distinguish the two: our sanctions are not extraterritorial. Let’s remember that, on the Iran nuclear agreement, for example, we adopted a position of principle opposed to that of the United States, which took the decision to impose extraterritorial sanctions: we intend to enforce the agreement signed in 2015 and protect it. However, it’s difficult to enforce our position in the face of extraterritorial sanctions, because Europe hasn’t managed to equip itself with the necessary resources. This requires patience and very lengthy work to give the euro more strength and power on the financial markets in order to get away from obligatory use of the dollar. It’s a commercial and financial problem: we must make the European capital markets attractive so that a lot of businesses would rather work in euros than in dollars. Slow progress is being made, but we’re working on it. The previous Commission led by Mr Juncker made proposals we could draw inspiration from: why, for example, is the trade in Airbus planes today conducted in dollars?

Is Germany cautious about dialogue with Russia? I’m not sure about that. Admittedly, it didn’t appreciate the way France launched this initiative, and it would have liked us to work on it jointly, but in talking to the Germans I’ve noticed that basically they’re on the same wavelength as us: they’d like to find ways to hold substantive dialogue with the Russian side. Germany has also included the issue on the agenda of its [EU] presidency in the second half of the year, a sign that Berlin would like to make progress on the issue and find ways to work with us, like the European institutions, which tell me they’ll learn lessons from the French experience. So we can all work closely together.

Regarding conflict prevention, you mention the example of Russia and Turkey’s roles in Syria. In my view, Syria, like Libya, is an example not of conflict prevention but of its failure. In future, we must take action in order not to let conflicts escalate through interventions by neighbouring countries that bring power relationships into the mix. We must resume diplomatic and security work in order to overcome deadlock, in liaison with United Nations representatives. Preventing conflicts is about ones in danger of emerging, in Africa and elsewhere. To that end, we must talk to Russia about at-risk territories that haven’t yet flared up. We must use all the cards available, including clear-sighted and demanding dialogue with Russia.

On multilateralism, for the past few years we’ve sensed an incipient mistrust on Russia’s part. In particular, the Russians aren’t much interested in the WTO’s current difficulties: they’re quite happy letting us untangle ourselves from them… Rather than upholding the multilateral system, Russia favours transactional approaches – a bit like the current American administration –, as we’re seeing in Syria and Libya, where the processes it’s begun seem to ignore the United Nations’ efforts. I’m thinking, for example, of the very difficult discussions we had with the Russians at the UN about crossing points in Syria. Through dialogue that is both demanding and calm, we want to bring Russia back to stronger support for the multilateral system.

Several senators have highlighted the Baltic and Central European states’ lack of appetite for our strategic dialogue with Russia. I don’t deny that those countries are cautious at least and even hostile; their attitude is clearly linked to their history and geography, facts which won’t be erased. However, they appreciate us explaining our approach and listening to them. When I meet my contacts in those countries, I ask them: given Russia’s increased presence in conflict zones, should we do nothing? They recognize there’s a problem, but think our approach won’t be of any use. I say to them: let us try… In any case, we agree about protecting European countries’ unity.

Don’t the sanctions we imposed on Russia make fools of us? Certainly the European countries are suffering from them in terms of trade, while Russia’s trade with the United States moves ahead. Moreover, Russia has taken advantage of the situation to develop its agriculture – even to the point of becoming an exporter in the area – and forge closer ties with China, which has become its privileged partner when it comes to new technologies. So there’s a dark side to our sanctions policy.

In the Ukraine crisis, however, it was one of our few weapons. And since then, despite sometimes very tough opposition, the European countries have always ended up agreeing on the renewal of sanctions, because they express Europe’s unity. It’s for the Russian side to make sufficient overtures to get us to change our position.

CHRISTIAN CAMBON, CHAIR OF THE COMMITTEE – What kind of overtures would you regard as sufficiently decisive to justify a change on the Europeans’ part?

M. VIMONT – In Paris, in mid-December, Russia made specific security and political commitments as regards, for example, the organizing of local elections in eastern Ukraine, which implies a withdrawal of Russian forces from the region. We expect the Russians to gradually implement these commitments. Of course we’d like more to be achieved on the ground and a reduced level of violence; for the moment, unfortunately, the situation isn’t moving in that direction…

As regards the alleged contradictions with our NATO membership which M. Laurent talked about, our initiative has certainly given rise to a good many recriminations within the Alliance. I’ve tried to explain our initiative, without always convincing people. We’ll carry on with our own approach, whilst preserving the bond of trust with our NATO partners.

Being a member of the Alliance and maintaining a bilateral dialogue with Russia seems even less contradictory to me because we’re witnessing the development of a direct dialogue overhead between Russians and Americans on issues concerning the security of European states – that bothers me somewhat. The Europeans must defend their own interests. So by emphasizing the need to take short-range weapons into account, the French President has stated a different position from that of the Americans, to the satisfaction of the Baltic states and Poland. We won’t hesitate to express different points of view from the Americans when the Europeans’ interest is at stake.

The Americans are interested in our initiative and would like us to keep them informed, which we’re doing. I’m not sure they’re worried about it, provided we don’t interfere in their own discussion channels regarding the reduction of strategic weapons./.

Published on 27/02/2020

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