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Winning in Ukraine: a French perspective

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As Russia’s war in Ukraine is about to enter its fourth month, a question has been at the center of a passionate debate: Are France and Germany trying to pressure Ukraine into negotiations with Russia? Declarations from the German chancellor asking President Vladimir Putin to accept a ceasefire “as quickly as possible” or from the French president warning against “humiliating” Russia have raised fears across Europe that Paris and Berlin are making overtures to Moscow.

While legitimate given the gravity of the situation, these concerns are nonetheless based on a twisted understanding of the French and German positions. Current criticisms often underestimate how far France and Germany have shifted in their approach to Russia. Since the beginning of the war, their strategy has been very clear: the West has to keep pressuring Moscow and supporting Kyiv “until Ukraine’s victory.

Both countries have played a driving role in the adoption of robust sanctions at the EU level and are now supporting an oil embargo on Russia. As explained by French officials, the goal is to “suffocate” the Russian economy and to “punish” the Russian oligarchs. Far from trying to accommodate Russia, Paris and Berlin are leading the international effort to investigate and prosecute possible war crimes committed by the Russian military. France has notably increased its financial support to the International Criminal Court and sent a team of forensic experts in Bucha.

After a slow start, France and Germany have also ramped up their military support to Ukrainian armed forces, with Berlin sending anti-aircraft tanks and Paris providing long-range artillery systems. Ukrainian troops have already been trained on French and German soil to operate these systems. In a recent call with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President Emmanuel Macron announced that French arms delivery will “intensify”. Both countries are also among the largest contributors to the European Peace Facility which now covers €2 billion worth of military assistance to Ukraine.

But France and Germany are also mindful of leaving the door open to a negotiated settlement of the conflict. This is why Macron, and to a lesser extent German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, are maintaining their contacts with President Putin. Often criticized for being vain, this phone diplomacy is actually demanded by the Ukrainian leader himself as Putin refuses any direct communication. Every call from the French or German leaders has always been closely coordinated with Zelenskyy.

Neither France nor Germany are seeking to pressuring Ukrainian authorities to accept concessions or cede territory, as it has been reported. Macron has been very clear in his recent speech to the European parliament: “As Europeans, we are working for the preservation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is up to Ukraine to define the conditions for negotiations with Russia”. Admittedly, peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are stalled, but France and Germany stand ready to assist Ukraine when the conditions will be met. France is notably open to provide “security guarantees” to Ukraine in the “framework of an international agreement.”

Another source of misunderstanding has been French and German position on Ukraine’s membership to the European Union. Both countries are often portrayed as being opposed to any enlargement for having underlined a basic truth: the road to EU membership will be long. Having said that, Paris and Berlin fully understand the need to send a clear political signal to Kyiv and to move fast to grant a candidate status. They are also in favor of accelerating the European integration of Ukraine in parallel of the accession process. This is the ambition of Macron’s “political community” which would help foster the cooperation between EU and non-EU countries on security, energy, transport or investment.

Admittedly, these multiple controversies are indicative of a larger problem: France and Germany are not trusted by Central and Eastern European countries to deal with this conflict. The Franco-German tandem is often perceived as an exclusive duopoly with foreign policies stuck in the past. Paris and Berlin should not overlook this structural problem and keep engaging with their European partners to convince them otherwise.

France and Germany have not been unresponsive to these criticisms. They have intensified their political coordination with Central and Eastern European countries, as witnessed with the rejuvenation of the “Weimar Triangle” which gathers France, Germany and Poland. Most importantly, French and German armed forces have substantially increased their commitment to their security with additional deployments as NATO is bolstering its deterrence and defense posture.

Allies must be demanding with one another, especially in such hard times, but critics should move beyond their preconceived ideas on France and Germany. Far from fueling a “spirit of appeasement and surrender,” Paris and Berlin are working in lockstep with their U.S. and European partners to help Ukraine achieve victory.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program, and a French diplomat in residence, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Views expressed in this article are strictly personal. You can find him on Twitter at @morcos_pierre.



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