France urges revamp of Europe’s security order in the face of Russia threat

France has called for a revamp of Europe’s security framework, warning that it has become “nearly obsolete” and risks allowing Russia to become a permanent threat on the continent even if Vladimir Putin does not invade Ukraine.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said in an interview that there were “no more rules” governing European security and stability because arms control pacts covering everything from intermediate-range nuclear missiles to transparency on military force movements had become “nearly obsolete”. or irrelevant ”.

He said that Russia had to recognize that the EU had its own security concerns, given that Putin wanted to exercise an unacceptable form of “partial sovereignty” over its neighbors, and that the agreement needed to restore long-term stability.

Putin “can choose to make Russia a destabilizing power. . . which could mean a permanent strategy of tension over the long term, or he can choose to become the actor, the partner, in a new security and stability order in Europe, ”he told the Financial Times. “It’s his choice. It is indeed him who has to decide. ”

Russia has amassed more than 135,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, sparking the biggest threat of conflict in Europe in decades, although Moscow insists that it has no plans to invade.

In diplomatic exchanges to try to defuse tension, Putin has demanded that NATO pull its forces out of eastern Europe and pledge never to admit Ukraine. The west has said these demands are unacceptable, arguing that Kyiv has the right to make its own decisions, but is trying to find common ground with Moscow on issues such as arms control.

“While there is a demand from Russia for stability, for guarantees, there is also a demand for stability and for guarantees from our side,” Le Drian said. “Europe needs security and stability. We’re ready to talk about it, about everything. ”

Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7 © Thibault Camus / Pool / Reuters

Le Drian, foreign minister since the start of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency in 2017 and previously defense minister under President François Hollande, insisted that there was no divergence with the US on the assessment of the Russian threat.

He outlined a three-phase approach to defuse the crisis: the verified withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine’s borders; a resumption of talks on the Minsk accords to resolve war between Moscow-backed separatists and Kyiv in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region; and a new European security framework.

Le Drian said he cautiously welcomed “encouraging words” of troop withdrawals and diplomatic overtures from the Kremlin. But he said he remained “vigilant” about the Russian military build-up and whether more troops would return to base after drills.

“If those signs are verified, it’s a small beginning. But we’ll need to see how the maneuvers in Belarus end, for example, how the maneuvers in the Black Sea and near the Ukrainian borders end. All of that is part of de-escalation, ”he said.

“I am like Saint Thomas, I would like to believe, but we need to see real action. . . We need to be sure that these are not troop rotations but withdrawals. ”

Le Drian said no one disputed the importance of the Minsk accords and the so-called Normandy negotiation format – involving France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine – to try to end the Donbas war.

After years of stalling by Moscow and Kyiv, Le Drian said there was “political will on both sides to resolve this situation”. He said: “There was a meeting [in Berlin] with diplomatic advisers that didn’t progress a lot, but they decided to meet again. So this process is still there, and we need to restore its full strength. ”

If Putin were to approve the independence of the two Donbas statelets, following a Russian parliamentary resolution to effect this week, it would be akin to “a weaponless aggression” on Ukraine and would “breach the Minsk accords,” Le Drian said, adding that Putin gave Macron assurances that he did not intend to act on the resolution. Le Drian refused to be drawn on whether such a move by Russia would trigger western economic sanctions.

Macron has played an important part in recent western diplomatic efforts to persuade Putin to step back from the brink of war. The two met in Moscow for talks so long that Putin said the French president had “tortured” him for nearly six hours.

Emmanuel Macron, second right, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, left, meet Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Mali’s former president, inside a military vehicle in 2017 © Christophe Petit Tesson / Pool / AFP / Getty

Since his election in 2017, Macron has courted Putin, declaring that Russia is a great European power with “legitimate” security concerns, and has been accused by some European partners of being too accommodating towards the Russian leader.

Le Drian insisted that Macron’s approach had been vindicated because he had sought to establish a combination of firmness and dialogue with Putin while maintaining the unity of European and US allies. He conceded that there had “perhaps been doubt” in Europe, including the Baltic states, over the merits of Macron’s initially uncoordinated launch of a strategic dialogue with Putin in 2019.

“But it was very shortlived,” Le Drian insisted. “Now everyone is talking to Putin.”

Macron showed “we needed to talk to Russia, even if it’s difficult, very demanding, exhausting. . . because it’s a neighbor, a big one, and it doesn’t intend to move out ”.

Nato, which embarked on a strategic review after Macron accused it of being “brain-dead” in 2019, has emerged stronger from the crisis as it united in the face of the Russian threat. “It’s a bit of a paradox, because [Putin] has tried to divide us. . . That failed and didn’t happen. ”

France is dealing with other Russia-related problems in the West African state of Mali, where the ruling military junta has hired the Russian mercenary group Wagner and has been pushing out French troops deployed since 2013 to fight Islamist insurgents in the Sahel. Le Drian dismissed Putin’s assertions that the Kremlin had no knowledge of the Wagner operations.

“I cannot understand how President Putin can be unaware of this situation since they are former Russian soldiers, transported by Russian planes and using Russian weapons,” he said. “Given the amount of intelligence available to President Putin and his closeness to the Wagner chief. . . one must conclude he knows. He says he doesn’t but I don’t believe him. “

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