Q - I am going to kick off with an “on the ground” question before we back out and talk about a wider picture. I think it is important news coming in that the French President will be speaking with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss the terms and conditions of an exceptional humanitarian operation to evacuate civilians in Mariupol. There couldn’t be anything more important. I think we all agree, I know you all have watched the news, I think Mariupol has been an absolute, devastating disaster for the people of Ukraine and I think it is important if you can fill it on exactly what that operation would look like and where we are at Sir, then we will back up and get a wider conversation going.
R - Thank you very much for welcoming me.
First of all I wanted to say that this is the 24th time that as Minister of the French Republic I have come to Qatar. This shows the strength of our relations and their diversity but also very often the convergences that we have together in the assessment and action at the international level. And before I come back to your question, I also wanted to say that I am extremely careful about the agility and the creativity of Qatar’s diplomacy in this period under the authority of HH Emir Tamim and the activity of my colleague Sheikh Mohamad. I appreciated that, particularly during the Afghan crisis where we could see for ourselves the important diplomatic efforts undertaken by the Emirate and also having had a strong collaboration to enable our own fellow citizens but also Afghan people who were threatened, allowing them to come to Europe and France in particular, so I wanted to pay tribute and say that I particularly appreciate these days the efforts made by Qatar’s diplomacy vis à vis the possibility of signing the JCPOA agreement, I know that you talked about it, which is now truly on the table and I know how determined you are to be able to try and find a major agreement for the region. And also for the efforts that you have undertaken regarding the development of the situation in Chad, here in Doha you’ll host a preparatory conference for the transition in N’djamena and all of that is going smoothly, so I welcome Qatar’s agility and diplomacy and action. And I thank you for this deep trust between us.
I won’t dwell on what is going to happen in Mariupol, first of all because it is not happening here and it needs to happen in the best condition of security and discretion. You can see that Mariupol is a new Aleppo and, and it will happen with collective guilt if we do not do anything. Mariupol is siege warfare, in which Russia has embarked for a month, maybe it didn’t consider siege warfare but now this is sieged warfare and Mariupol is the most striking example. Siege warfare is a horrible kind of war and civilian populations are slaughtered, annihilated, suffering is horrible. The duration of siege wars is quite impressive, so this exhausting fighting results in unbearable tragedies and suffering, hence the necessity of making sure that there is at least one moment when civilian populations can breathe. This is what the French President is trying to do, but players on the ground need to impose a cease-fire starting with the aggressor. Because there is an aggressor in all that story, there is an invading power which, to reach its own ends, is taking a population hostage in Mariupol. This is truly unacceptable.
Q - President Macron, speaks frequently with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. After his last call last week, he says he does not see there is an agreement in sight for a ceasefire in Ukraine. Why, Sir? What do you understand to be the reason for President Macron’s position there? President Macron, who has a relationship with President Putin which has allowed him a significant effort to try and mediate the result of this. Does President Macron trust President Putin at this point?
R - This Ukrainian tragedy goes a long way in history and France was a stakeholder, as you know, in what was called the Normandy format, which was established in 2014/2015, the aim of which was to exit the crisis in the Eastern part of Ukraine. France had been as stakeholder since the Minsk accord. I was on these negotiations myself and we tried to make sure that the central elements of the Minsk accord could be put in place. At some point, there was hope in December 2019, after President Zelensky was elected, it was considered that paths were opened to result in a peaceful and political solution to this situation in Donbass. Unfortunately this didn’t happen and it is not for lack of trying and several times President Macron asked for the Normandy format to meet even at the highest level, in order to result in concrete and acceptable solutions that would guarantee Ukraine’s integrity and sovereignty. This didn’t take place.
Then there was what you are aware of : both the enlargement of the Ukrainian conflict to issues of security and stability because of the decisions made by President Putin last December, asking the US government and NATO about rules and regulations in Europe, and the willpower, the willingness to talk about issues of sovereignty provided that you have the right forum and you come there without any hidden agenda, and then the brutality of the 24 February situation, diplomatic brutality and then military brutality.
Before I answer your question about President Macron’s action, what seems to me to be the most dramatic in political and diplomatic terms after one month of conflict, which was truly well-identified during the meetings that took place in Brussels last week, the NATO summit, the G7 meeting and the European Council meeting particularly focused on the Ukrainian issue, on three different topics President Putin had the opposite effect of what he was seeking, of what he thought he would find.
First on Ukraine, he thought there was a form of fragility, probably looking at the footage from his arrival in Crimea under enthusiastic cheersin 2014. He thought that at least in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, the welcome would be the same and that he himself was expected to assert a specific Russian identity, in this Ukrainian space. Maybe even in Ukraine, he thought that near Russian presence, because of Alliances or complicitness, even financial complicitness, this would provide a rift in the organisation of the state, and it is exactly the opposite that happened. In a way, President Putin is contributing to reinforcing Ukraine, reinforcing a nation, solidifying it, unifying it, giving it pride. Because what’s been clear since the beginning of this military crisis is also this, the strength of this resistance, I know you heard President Zelensky at the beginning of this Doha forum, the strength of the resistance, but behind it the whole people, resisting and asserting its own sovereignty.
Secondly, he could have thought that European democracies collectively were weak and that they were not going to succeed in having the appropriate response to this aggression and that solidarity with Ukraine would be variable in its reach, and so if there were sanctions that were adopted they would have been small because Europeans would not have been able to find an agreement. Exactly the opposite has happened. Never before has the European Union been so determined in its response, so swift in its response, so united in its response, so strong in its proposals as well. Reaching as far as huge issues, which are the statement during the Versailles European Council, claiming that we could have the right means to ensure Europe’s energy sovereignty. So: total failure, even on energy because even a short term objective to reduce by two thirds energy dependency by year end and reach full organized systemic energy autonomy by 2027, this is the opposite of what he was looking for.
And at the same time, the Transatlantic Alliance has now re-energized. We had questions about its future. We had questions about whether it was an instrument of the past and itself was wondering about its own missions, sometimes not complying with the substantive mission it had when it was created, security of the Transatlantic space and non-other, but also an Alliance that would be strong because of solidarity, and also defensive and not offensive. And you have these principles again. So now the outcomes are exactly the opposite of what President Putin was looking for.
Q - I’ve heard everything you’ve just said and I hear your confidence about what was achieved last week, Joe Biden the US President was in Brussels he then went on to Poland made a big speech in Warsaw and at the end of that speech he said that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power. Now White House has watered that back, they said he wasn’t talking about regime change. Now be that as it may, the US President said openly in his speech in Warsaw that V. Putin cannot remain in power. What was your response to that? What sort of impact do you think that might have, going forward?
R - I am not speaking on behalf of President Biden, but on these matters I can speak on behalf of President Macron, and in a certain way I’m going to answer with the question that you asked earlier. We need to carry on speaking with the Russians. We need to go on speaking with President Putin, because it is precisely because he is not reaching the expected outcome that I described earlier, that we need to demand dialogue and engagement, clearly without any naïveté, with a lot of firmness, but go on speaking so that at some point he will consider that the price to pay for his intervention in Ukraine is so high that it is better to negotiate.
And then, there would be a vector for opening up discussions, there would be someone to speak to, someone who could achieve that. This is what President Macron has been working on. He is doing that because he represents France, because there is history, because there has been a previous relationship with President Putin, also because France is a member of the Security Council, and in this quality has this responsibility, but also in that France has the presidency of the European Union, so it has an extra responsibility.
Now, we know the scopes of the discussion topics that are going to be on the table inevitably, which are both Ukraine’s neutrality, question mark, and what about neutrality, and guaranties for Ukraine security, the level of militarization of this country and also the matter of territories, both the issue of Crimea, but also Luhansk, and Donetsk. We know what the topics are. Now we need to talk about them and the best way to talk about them is to have a ceasefire. You never speak seriously with a gun to your head. This is why especially, with Mariupol, President Macron has asked for the conditions to be met for a ceasefire to open up negotiations. Ceasefire means stopping, that doesn’t mean the end of negotiations, it’s the beginning of the negotiation without the people suffering.
Q - Let me be a little bit more specific. Do you agree with Joe Biden when he says that President Putin cannot stay in power?
R - I said that I was not the spokesperson for President Biden, and I shall leave it at that. What I am simply saying is that what we need to do is to get ways and means for negotiation with Russia, and it is for this reason that President Macron is still talking with president Putin, to reach conditions first for a ceasefire and then for negotiation.
Q - Are you aware of how President Macron responded to that speech by Joe Biden ?
R - I have no comments to make about this.
Q - A closing thought?
R - I think that we are at a tipping point, where beyond the Ukrainian crisis, the parameters of stability and security in Europe are challenged, and beyond that, of course, the risks of a global destabilization of all the pillars that the international community has tried to live on since the end Second World War. This is a crisis that affects us all in our security and it is very good that this Doha Forum was able to table this matter in a very clear and peaceful way.