Interviewed by Alla Lazareva, Paris
The Russian election went as predicted. However, the Skripal affair and, to a lesser extent incidents involving the Wagner Private Military Company and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, have pushed western governments to demonstratively distance themselves from Moscow. How long is this likely to last or will routine diplomacy take the upper hand again soon?
Personally, I worry that economic interests will turn out to be more important than our obvious strategic priorities in the short-term prospect, without even talking about the moral aspects. In many European countries, pressure is coming from interest groups and individuals who are operating in the interest of the Kremlin to return to the negotiating table and to do business as usual as if nothing had happened, as if none of these horrible crimes have taken place, and as though our strategic interests aren’t under serious threat. Some of these groups and individuals have access to the highest ministerial offices, so it means that the top leadership, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, need to make it clear as soon as possible that there’s no question of backing down.
We have the right to be amazed that this strong position appeared only after the poisoning of the Skripals. It was, without any doubt, an extremely serious crime, because it took place in a western country using prohibited weapons. But the war crimes in Syria and the invasion of Ukraine should have been reason enough for a much stronger and concrete position towards Russia than what we have seen so far. And so we need to watch so that this tone remains as hard as possible, which I hope for, and goes as far as possible. It should focus primarily on the economy.
In general, we have to reject any strategic fallacies along the lines of “We need Russia to fight against terrorism.” It’s high time the countries of the European Union stopped their economic projects with the Russian Federation. When I see how Hungary, Italy, Greece and Cyprus continue to lobby for a return to more active cooperation with Russia and for sanctions to be dropped, I worry that the EU might split along these lines, which is exactly what the Kremlin would like to see. Fortunately, Moscow has not succeeded in achieving this so far. But we have to be vigilant. There’s a very real risk that this seeming pragmatism could win out.
In terms of Franco-Russian relations, we can see that, on one hand, President Macron refused to visit the Russian stand at the recent Paris Book Fair after the Skripal affair. On the other hand, Zakhar Priliepin, a Russian officer fighting in Donbas against the Ukrainian Army in one of the “DNR” battalions, participated in this Fair. This seems quite inconsistent.
— I doubt that the Elysée Palace or the Minister of Culture was informed about this invitation. Such details are often taken care of by lower-level bureaucrats who are quite uninformed about the bigger picture… There was a precedent of this kind in France not long ago, when some circles wanted to commemorate the extreme right-wing writer Charles Mourras. The biographical note about him never even mentioned anything about his anti-Semitic rants. The presence of someone like Priliepin is certainly not a good sign for a cultural event of this level and Kremlin propaganda sources in France made good use of him. I do hope there is an internal query into this case.
At the same time, this precedent touches on a much broader range of questions that are beyond Franco-Russian relations. Some French intellectuals believe that art should be separated from political views. You, of course, noticed the debate around the re-issuing of Celine’s anti-Semitic writings: the project failed because of numerous protestst. Remember Charles de Gaulle’s position in 1945 when he refused to pardon the French writer Robert Brasillach, who was sentenced for collaboration and who even wore a Nazi uniform. At the level of principle, de Gaulle’s decision was just. We cannot close our eyes to criminal political actions only because they were by a person who has literary talent. On the contrary, intellectuals ought to be held even more accountable for their deeds because they should understand the consequences much better.
President Macron refused to visit the Russian stand, but he plans to go to the economic forum in St. Petersburg. What are your thoughts on that?
— As far as I know, a final decision has not been made. But it would be a bad idea. Neither the president nor the French ministers need to go to St. Petersburg in May. To take part in this forum, let alone as an honored guest—which is precisely the crude trap Putin had in mind—would legitimize and strengthen his regime. Without even touching the moral aspect, let’s consider it strategically: by agreeing to participate in the forum, we weaken our own position, whitewash the Kremlin and its aggression, and help deepen the rifts taking place in the European Union. If France participates in this event, what legitimacy can we claim in opposing the Italians, Greeks or Germans offering the policy of appeasement towards Russia?
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Germany finally has a new Government and Angela Merkel can return to international politics. What do you think of the Normandy format, which involves Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany? How soon might these talks be revived and how likely are they to produce results?
— First of all, things are not so straightforward in Germany. Mrs. Merkel cannot do everything that she might like, whether in domestic or in foreign politics. According to the country’s Constitution, its government is not equivalent to that of the presidents of France or the United State, or even the Prime Ministers of Great Britain or Canada. Moreover, she is politically much weaker now. A coalition with the SPD is very tricky because of that party’s much more lenient, if not actually complacent, stance towards Russia. They have been promoting the Nord Stream 2 project although it would be a geopolitical catastrophe in terms of energy security for the EU and an unbelievable propaganda coup for the Kremlin if it were completed.
As to the Minsk accords, my position is split: On one hand, I’m more of a pessimist and I don’t believe that under the current circumstances and with the Russia that we have, these accords can be fulfilled. On the other, withdrawing them altogether would be very problematic and risky, because the sanctions against Russia due to its invasion of a part of Donbas are legally linked to Minsk. In that sense, it’s better to keep them in place, at least for now, even if they are impossible to fulfill. I also doubt very much that there is a way to replace the Minsk accords right now with some other document that would have the unanimous support of EU members. At the same time, I see that cooperation with the US, on one side, and France and Germany on the other is now intensifying. Let’s hope that, with some more military pressure on Russia, the situation will improve. Without a credible threat, Moscow will not shift its position.
From time to time, we hear talk about the idea of a purely-European security system. The subject was even raised by Emmanuel Macron during his election campaign, albeit fairly offhandedly. What are the chances of such a project coming to fruition, given that the US seems less and less interested in European affairs?
— Pushing the issue of European security is a good thing and the EU has taken some steps forward in this area since November. You might say that the Europeans have finally become aware that they can no longer depend on US guarantees. Hearing Donald Trump’s very damaging first comments about NATO, which he called “obsolete,” certainly contributed to that. The Americans have since recovered. Still, it’s true that the isolationist mood and calls to not intervene in the affairs of other countries have grown in the US, and this is not the first time. President Obama also showed this side, even his manner of expressing it was more sophisticated. NATO has been going through a rough time and has been looking for a new doctrine for some years now. However, we’re not going to see any real European security in the immediate future. During its first phase, it won’t have the objective of guaranteeing collective security, the way NATO does. We can’t imagine that in the short- or medium-term a fully-functioning purely European army will appear, capable of protecting us in the face of a serious threat to one of the member countries or to attack externally on an enemy that is threatening us or our allies. The majority of European countries, including Germany, will not agree for some time yet to send off their armed forces to participate in a lethal operation abroad. And so, NATO is very important and is looking for a medium-term operational or even institutional rapprochement with the EU in terms of security.
Nicolas Tenzer is founder of the Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’action politique (CERAP). A specialist in geostrategic and political risk analysis, Tenzer has authored three official reports for the Government of France on international policy strategy, and many other publications such as When France Disappears (Quand la France disparaît du monde, Paris, Grasset, 2008), The World from the Perspective of 2030: Order and Chaos (Le monde à l’horizon 2030. La règle et le désordre, Perrin, 2011) and France Needs Others (La France a besoin des autres, Plon, 2012).
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj