Ukraine: Our collective security is at stake - Europe Minister

European affairs – Ukraine/Russia – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to LCI

Paris, 30 January 2022

(…)

Q. – “The situation is very serious,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said this morning in the Journal du Dimanche. Is an invasion of Ukraine by Russia still a possibility today?

THE MINISTER – Everything’s possible, and we must prepare for everything. We do indeed have an extremely worrying situation on Europe’s borders, and it’s our collective security which is at stake. It sometimes seems a bit far-off, a bit distant, a bit complicated, but our security as Europeans is at stake, and our credibility and firmness are also being tested. What’s happened over the last few days, to try to summarize a complex situation, is that we’ve restarted the game, resumed diplomatic initiatives, and that France, especially the French President, has been in the vanguard, having a long and frank discussion with Vladimir Putin on Friday, coordinating with the German Chancellor at the beginning of the week, and ensuring that Europe – since its presence and activism have been challenged – is back in the game. And we can see that what’s happening, the small positive signals we’ve received this week with the so-called Normandy format – Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany – are a few signals in the right direction thanks to these European diplomatic efforts. (…)

Q. – There isn’t only diplomacy, there’s also the military. Florence Parly, Minister for the Armed Forces, has announced the dispatch of soldiers to Romania, not far from the border with Ukraine. Does this mean we’re ready to provoke Vladimir Putin?

THE MINISTER – No, you have to be very specific. We’re certainly not talking about an ill-considered move or a sign of escalation. What we’ve said – and it was the French President who announced this on 19 January – is that in the NATO framework – because that’s also a channel we must use – we’re ready to strengthen the efforts currently being made on the eastern flank of our alliance, in Eastern Europe, including in Romania with other European partners. And we’re in the process of assessing with Romania the opportunities, ways to do so. Florence Parly was in Bucharest.

Q. – We too are amassing soldiers, as the Russians are doing.

THE MINISTER – No. I’m going to be very specific: in the Atlantic Alliance framework, we’re intervening not in Ukraine or on Russia’s doorstep, we’re intervening in a country that is a NATO member if it so wishes – we’re currently holding discussions – and in the framework of operations that already exist. For example, there are 300 French soldiers currently in Estonia, a little further north but on the same eastern flank, to provide security and give a sign, yes, of firmness. But we’re doing both things: firmness and dialogue. We’re working at both levels, but there’s no provocation or escalation on our part. We’re not the ones who started the [troop] movements.

Q. – …by Vladimir Putin?

THE MINISTER – We’ve seen, and it’s no secret, that there have been large-scale movements of troops and lorries. It was Russia that created tension; we’re responding to it with European firmness and unity but also through a diplomatic channel France has reopened this week. Let’s also be proud of the President’s and Europe’s diplomatic activity.

Q. – On that point, to be sure people understand, you began by saying: “we must prepare for everything”. Are we closer today to a confrontation or a consultation scenario?

THE MINISTER – Look, we have to tell the truth with great seriousness and great caution: we don’t know. What we do know is that very significant movements have been organized by Russia on Ukraine’s doorstep for several weeks.

Q. – So we haven’t yet managed to rule out a war scenario?

THE MINISTER – You know, if we could say everything is good, everything is positive and we’re back in a calm world of Care Bears, I’d be delighted, but that’s not the case; and so this crisis isn’t over. What we do know – because things are moving episode by episode, as it were – is that this week, because we’ve built European unity and unity with our American partners, I believe Russia has given a few signs, in the face of this firmness and unity, of reopening dialogue in a diplomatic space that France has helped rebuild. We’re going to throw ourselves into that diplomatic space, and in two weeks’ time, as you know, there will be another meeting of advisors to the heads of State and government in the Normandy format. And Jean-Yves Le Drian will be in Kiev in a few days’ time.

Q. – Does President Macron intend to meet Vladimir Putin? Does he intend to visit Moscow or ask him to meet…?

THE MINISTER – It’s not scheduled, so I’m not speculating, but there have been regular contacts with Vladimir Putin. We’ve always said that along with firmness we nevertheless need dialogue with Russia. That’s what the President has done, on behalf of the Europeans too, following coordination.

Q. – We can remember Nicolas Sarkozy going to Georgia in 2008.

THE MINISTER – You’re right.

Q. – Imagine President Macron doing the same.

THE MINISTER – Firstly, let me stress that there are two differences. There was an open war in Georgia. An operation was under way, and Nicolas Sarkozy went there, but the approach is the same: France is in the vanguard in this crisis. We were told: “Europe isn’t there”; today Europe has – I’m being cautious – got some initial results thanks to the French President’s action. Let me also point out a small difference, and this is a bit technical but it’s important: the institutional framework has changed. When Nicolas Sarkozy was president, there was no President of the European Council, so he also had a role France can’t have during a six-month presidency, any more than any other country today.

Q. – One of Vladimir Putin’s major concerns is to see Ukraine become part of NATO one day. Do you believe Ukraine should become part of NATO? Couldn’t we tell Vladimir Putin not to worry, that Ukraine will never be part of NATO?

THE MINISTER – No, saying that means taking sides. That’s why it seems easy to say it like that. Ukraine isn’t in any process today to join NATO, let’s be very clear. A discussion took place back in 2008 at a NATO – the so-called Bucharest – summit.

Q. – But you think the possibility should be left open.

THE MINISTER – The possibility must, above all, be decided by NATO itself, by the organization itself and by Ukraine, if Ukraine wishes. What would be extremely damaging to our credibility and our unity as Europeans would be to say that, by exerting pressure, by massing troops and deciding from outside [NATO] what NATO is, what it does and who is in it, Vladimir Putin should dictate to the Europeans and the West what our alliances are and how our security is organized. That isn’t possible, because if you do that, tomorrow you may as well say that it’s Russia which should decide how Europe’s security policy operates and what our threats and priorities are. (…)

Q. – Do you think it’s acceptable for Ukraine to become part of NATO one day?

THE MINISTER – Listen, that isn’t on the agenda, and saying it is [acceptable] would probably add to the tensions. What I don’t want to say – because it can’t be how it works – is that Russia decides whether or not Ukraine joins NATO. We – Ukraine and the organization itself – will decide. There’s no process or plan so far.(…)

Q. – On social media you can see that Vladimir Putin is a very controversial figure. What’s your own view of him? Do you think he’s a democrat or – the opposite – an autocrat?

THE MINISTER – There’s a very clear drift away from democracy in Russia. There are elections, but you can clearly see that opposition figures aren’t free, the press isn’t free – and in this crisis, that’s no small thing.

Q. – You don’t think he’s a democrat?

THE MINISTER – He isn’t an icon of democracy, clearly, but it’s not for me to get into descriptions at a time when we’ve nevertheless got to seek dialogue. I can see in French political debate that there are some people who are fascinated by the Russian model, they point out to us that it’s about freedom and democracy. I for one don’t believe it. And actually I prefer us to be firm but have a dialogue, and moreover it’s this firmness which has enabled dialogue rather than us having a strategy of bowing and scraping like the French far right has towards Vladimir Putin. That isn’t my model. (…)./.

Published on 01/02/2022

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