Etienne de Poncins: “There is a war in Europe, it is in Donbas at the moment. We will make all efforts at every level to put this conflict to an end”

16 December 2021, 16:23

Recently the President Emmanuel Macron said that France is ready to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity in case of Russian aggression. Are there any steps planned by Paris in this sphere? France is a worldwide well-known weapons manufacturer. Is Paris ready to sell Kyiv military technic or weapons like US, Turkey or Canada do?


Regarding what our French high authorities said, they assured their support to the territorial integrity of Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders. We constantly reiterate this, and my president is clear about that. He clearly monitors the situation in Donbas and in Ukraine. President Macron devotes a lot of time to Ukraine and to the region. He is very much involved in the process. During the recent meeting in Brussels between the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Ukrainian counterpart Minister Dmytro Kuleba, alongside the German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, we have also reassured our support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Both France and Germany have called upon Russia to adapt posture, restrain and to be transparent about its military activities. 

Regarding weapons and selling of armament, we have our own internal rules. But at this stage we prefer to reinforce or enhance the security at large in Ukraine. That is why we have been very much involved in providing Airbus helicopters to the national police of Ukraine, the National Guard of Ukraine, the State Emergency service of Ukraine (SESU) and to the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine. In addition, we have worked on providing patrol boats to the border guards. Such contracts are also part of the security reinforcement, but in general terms. We do not want to be specific. 


You have mentioned some internal rules on which arms supply to Ukraine depends. Can you elaborate a little bit on that? Is the question of arms supply connected to the internal politics? 


No, I meant that we have our own procedures whether to approve or not certain sellings. These are the normal rules for all countries around the world. We allow our own investigation and due diligence before concluding the arms trade agreements. Our rules can change, they are sometimes softer, sometimes harder. We adjust them permanently with regards to the situation. Even if we are prudent, because we are part of the Normandy format as a mediator. We have to strike the right balance and stay cautious.

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Recently Russian Foreign Ministry leaked the diplomatic communication between itself and the foreign ministries of France and Germany. How is such situation perceived in France? Also, does France see any sense of continuation of meetings in Normandy format, taking into consideration that the last meetings did not bring any result?


Such leakage is not a usual practice in diplomatic life. That was not appreciated in Paris and Berlin. We have made it clear to the Russian side that has leaked those documents, that this is not helpful. Regarding the Normandy process, firstly we have to talk on what this Normandy format has given to Ukraine. Paris summit in 2019 was a landmark event. It gave a great impulse to the discussion. Even if now the discussions inside the process are in a difficulty. 


I perfectly share your view. But whatever the difficulty, we will continue, because there is no other choice. The Normandy format is the only place for discussion. It brings together Russians, Ukrainians, French and Germans and there is no other such format. That is why we insist so much on continuing within it, despite all the difficulties. It is also because it is a question of life or death for the Ukrainian soldiers and servicemen. We cannot just say that we are fed up with Normandy and that it is in a deadlock, and that we should initiate for another format. No, we cannot do that. When we are tempted to do that, we immediately reflect about the consequences and continue to think about those brave Ukrainian servicemen who die in Donbas. This is not a frozen conflict; it is a real one. There is a war in Europe, it is in Donbas at the moment. We will make all efforts at every level to put this conflict to an end. Which means, yes, the situation is difficult. Yes, we are blocked at the moment, but anyway we will continue. There is no alternative.


On October, 26 Ukrainian Armed Forces destroyed the howitzer which was shooting in their direction. Several countries including France expressed concerns about the escalation. Those concerns were mostly towards the Ukrainian side. What is the official position of France on the situation keeping in mind that howitzer was banned due to Minsk agreements and shelling of heavy artillery is banned due to these agreements as well? Does Ukraine have a right for self-defense?


Now it is a bit an old story. We said what we wanted to say directly to the Ukrainian side. We stated that we were concerned about the increase of intensity and hostilities in the Eastern Ukraine. Officially, there is a ceasefire since July 2020. We see that this ceasefire is not respected any longer. We have said many times that using heavy weaponry, whatever the side, prohibited by the Minsk agreements, and is irrelevant. The escalation of the hostilities in Donbas does not help, so we regretted the utilization of this armed drone Bayraktar. 


But there was a shelling from the side of Russian backed separatists, and they wounded two Ukrainian servicemen and killed one. And only after several negotiations through the diplomatic channels (this is confirmed by the OSCE), Ukraine launched the attack against the prohibited artillery and while doing that destroyed only the artillery and nobody else…


We have noted that. However, the fact that Ukrainian army is using the new weaponry (meaning these drones) is an escalation in such a way, because it was the first time that such material was used. In this regard, it is an escalation breakthrough. We had this discussion with the Ukrainian side. We have told them what we think about that, and they told us what you said. Among friends, we have dialogue; this was a part of our dialogue.


In case of escalation from the other side during the war in the Donbas, how could Ukraine then defend itself?


If it is a full-fledged escalation with an offensive or something like that, of course the situation would be very different. But in case of that incident, we were still in the Minsk process and those equipments are prohibited by the Minsk agreements, as well as heavy weapons. So, yes, this is a question of sensitivity.


After the Minsk agreements were signed, we still had a lot of casualties. How France sees a possibility to update these agreements? Is there any chance to create the Minsk-3?


You are talking about the political outcome of the process. We are open to any discussion, but to dance a tango, you need to be two. In this case, in the Normandy process, we have to be four. At the moment, we are obliged to notice that the Russian side is not willing to reopen the Minsk agreements and on the contrary, they are sticking to the latter of the Minsk agreements. If there is no consensus on reopening or rewriting Minsk, it would be difficult to do so, not because of Ukraine, but because of the Russian side. To have the agreements, you need to have the support of all parties. Presently, from Russia, there is no availability to reopen Minsk.


The key argument on the Minsk agreements is about the sequence of the two processes – control of the border and elections. Ukrainian position is at first to get the full control of its borders, withdrawal of any foreign armed forces and only after that free and democratic elections. Russia insists that we need to hold the elections as a first step and only after that Ukraine would be granted the control of the border. What is the position of France in this issue?


In this regard, we are mediators, with the Germans, so we try to accommodate and to find the way out, despite all the difficulties. We are listening to all parties on this issue. It is clear that the essential point here is the sequence of the events. If there is a political will, I think it could be possible to sort out the problem. But, for that purpose, you need parties that are ready to discuss and to try to find a middle way. It is clear that in the Minsk agreements, there is no mention of sequence. That is why both in the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk and in the Normandy format there was a discussion on the necessity to be more specific about the process. However, this is something the diplomats are working on, to resolve this issue. Anyway, in order to do so, you need at first to have a political will. For now, we can observe that Moscow does not have such a will. On this, France does not want to have a firm position. We are here to help, and we try to be in the middle. Together with Germans, we try to elaborate a good solution. Nevertheless, at that very moment we are at the deadlock.


At the beginning of our interview, you have said that President Emmanuel Macron is very much into Ukrainian politics. There were news concerning the possibility of President Macron’s visit to Ukraine in the nearest future. Do we have a confirmation of the visit? Will it happen?


I would love to say “yes”, but unfortunately, I cannot at this very moment. The international agenda is very tight. As you know, we are going to hold the EU presidency from January 1st, 2022, so there are a lot of preparatory work because of that. What I can say and what is public is that President Macron has said several times to President Zelensky that he would like to visit Ukraine and that he is committed to come. The question of when he will come remains open. For this, firstly we need to find the right time slot and then to work on the content of the visit. This is what I am doing. My colleague in Paris, Ambassador Vadym Omelchenko, is working on the issue as well. We are altogether working on the substance of the visit. When President Macron comes, he will have a lot of to do, many agreements to sign, a lot of matters to discuss. I am pretty confident that the visit will be very useful and very successful. In addition to that, I can tell you that there are constant exchanges between president Zelensky and president Macron. They met in Paris in last April for example. You probably know that they are of the same age and there is sympathy between them. They are good friends, even if the word “friend” is not very familiar in the international life. The first ladies also have good connections. Therefore, at the “top”, the relations are very good. Now the peak of that relationship will be of course the visit of President Macron. So, yes, I expect him to come!


Could you please share a little bit about the agenda of President Macron’s visit to Ukraine?


Of course, we work on a program that would include political talks on Donbas and the international situation in the region; this is where we expect a breakthrough. It would be better, if there could be substance on this difficult issue. Regarding the bilateral cooperation, we have number of projects that are mature now. One of them is selling of electrical locomotives manufactured by Alstom. Those locomotives are highly needed by Ukraine, because your country has to export cereals, grain, and other commodities. You have a very good yield this year, but Ukraine does not have enough trains to export it to Europe. We are happy to sell them, as Ukrainian exports are growing, and this is why they are needed here. This contract is going to be signed soon. We are also ready with the contract for manufacturing of 370 firetruck ladders from Desautel. All this was done with the signing of intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) and it was ratified by the Verkhovna Rada. We finance them, which is a great advantage. This explains why those contacts are discussed at such a high political level. Also, France provides concessional loans to Mariupol for a clean water project. The rate for that is very low. We have this ongoing project in Mariupol. We also want to replicate the same project in Popasna for the Lugansk area. So, as you can see, we have quite a lot “in the fridge”, ready to be cooked for the visit!


Jacques Chirac was the last French president who visited Ukraine. Why are the relations on the highest level, especially in the aspect of bilateral visits, so underdeveloped?


As I have said, they are clearly not underdeveloped. On the contrary, I am struck by the importance of the attention of my President and of my Minister of Foreign Affairs towards Ukraine. There were many meetings in Paris about Ukraine. However, you are right in saying that we are lacking the last step, which is the visit of the President. When you are part of the EU, which consists of 27 members, you have so many colleagues that you have to visit, with whom you have to stay in contact and so on, and it is very complicated to find the time to visit other countries, even if there is a will. Besides, there was a big obstacle due to Covid-19. Nevertheless, the relations between the presidents are still very good! In addition, you know that France is entering an election period. 


Both president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba appeal to the EU to grant Ukraine the EU membership perspective. What is the position of France in the question?


I worked for many years in European affairs in Brussels and Paris. I am very well aware of this perspective. In European affairs the rule is that you need to go step by step. Sometimes you think that the step is a small one, but later you discover that it was in fact an important one. Our position is that, for the moment, we work to implement fully the Association agreements between the European Union (EU) and Ukraine and put in place all the elements of the agreements. During the last EU-Ukraine summit, on October 12, here in Kyiv, the Open skies agreement was signed. This is something very tangible for Ukrainians. In addition, as you know, there is already a visa-free access to Schengen area for Ukrainians, which is a great advantage for the population. Moreover, if there are more air slots, it will develop connections; reduce the cost of travelling and so on. This is quite a tangible element of how Ukraine is getting closer to the EU. We must continue to go in that direction, avoiding “metaphysical questions” on what the EU is and so on. When time comes, you will get an answer on this. The next step is an Eastern partnership. I think we can do more in the relations between the EU and the countries of this initiative. Ukraine is a major role player in this Eastern Partnership. The Eastern Partnership summit will be held in Brussels on December 15, and it could be an important moment for Kyiv.


If we talk about Georgia, Moldova Ukraine, they have EU aspirations. Armenia and Azerbaijan are almost in the state of war without current plans. We also have Belarus that quit. Could we say that Eastern partnership is in a deadlock at the moment?


The issues you pointed out are major difficulties. I agree with this. Countries of Eastern partnership are very diverse. Anyway, it is a good tool, and for those who are more advanced, it could be very useful. The more advanced you are within the partnership, the more you get. 


Currently we have the migrant crisis on the borders of Belarus. What is the solution for the migration issue on the level of the EU?


I do not want to comment on Belarus. I am not responsible for that country. However, I can say that this crisis is a big issue for all European countries. This is a question for which everyone sees the answer to that challenge is European. If EU countries do not cooperate between themselves, you will not solve the problem. Poland is not guarding just its border; it is in charge of the external border of the EU meaning that it has the responsibility for all the EU. Minsk has instrumentalized migration, so the answer should be firm and collective which is exactly what we are doing. Thus, we closely monitor the situation to answer the challenge. France has provided material and human support to Lithuania since September and, before the middle of November, almost 200 staff of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, were deployed to Lithuania or Latvia. France has also expressed its solidarity with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all of them targeted by this provocative use of irregular migration as a hybrid tactic. We need to response collectively to what is seen, from our side, as an aggression from Belarus. 

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We have already talked a little about this issue, but still how could we boost economic relations between France and Ukraine?


The overall trend is very positive at the moment. Trade is growing up. For the first time it has reached 1,5 billion in total in 2019. Of course, for 2020 there was a slight decline, because of the pandemic situation, but it was not huge. For now, the trend is very positive. France is leading foreign employer in Ukraine due to the retail sector as Auchan, Decathlon, Leroy Merlin and others. One of the main investors, particularly in the bank sector is UKRSIBBANK BNP Paribas Group and Crédit Agricole. We have quite big companies in the agriculture sector such as Maïsadour, which is a first-class French company. We are keen to support major infrastructure projects in Ukraine. We also want to respond positively on the request of President Volodymyr Zelensly to invest in the East, in Donbas. That is why we have started to implement those two major projects in the water sector. 


Are there any branches of economic relations that are underdeveloped?


Yes, many. We would like to be more present in the concession sector, to renew the nuclear infrastructure, and in the road sector. We are waiting for the legislation to be passed and fully implemented for constructing motorways. I think we lag behind a bit in that issue. I regret that for small and medium size enterprises, Ukrainian market [may] still be seen as an unsafe, due to the lack of a proper judicial system, corruption and difficulty to access the market. Big companies have the capacity to face this kind of difficulties. Nevertheless, the small enterprises are reluctant to be active in the market, due to the risk to be raided or in case of trouble, the lack of proper answer from the judiciary. I think that this prevents the full-fledged development of the French investment in Ukraine.


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