French Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1997 to 2002, under President Jacques Chirac, Hubert Védrine keeps a close and sharp eye on world affairs. Here, for Marine & Océans, he delivers a “non-Manichean” analysis of the origin and consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict(1). Interview by Bertrand de Lesquen.
What are, in your opinion, the true and deep causes of the conflict in Ukraine?
They are both old and recent, not easy to untangle and require a strong background in history, without being Manichean if possible! Even though Boris Yeltsin’s Russia recognised Ukraine’s independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, under American pressure – especially as the Ukrainians had renounced the atomic weapons stored on their territory — the fact is that many Russians — and not only Vladimir Putin or the most nationalistic – lived this independence as a real tear.
After all, Solzhenitsyn’s views on the history of the origin of the Slavic world, of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, were rather similar (though he abhorred the idea of a fratricidal war). And, clearly, Vladimir Putin has never fully accepted the disintegration of the USSR, which, in his words, left 25 million Russians outside Russia’s borders. But he also said, during his first term in office, that anyone (a Russian) who would seek to reconstitute the USSR would be foolish. We are in 2022, and it is a different Putin…
Cold War veterans such as Kissinger were indeed very critical in the first fifteen years following the collapse of the USSR of the overly casual and triumphalist US policy towards Russia (among others). Zbigniew Brezinski was even, at the end of his life, opposed to the integration of Ukraine into NATO and advocated a situation of neutrality with double guarantees. But in 2008 in Bucharest, NATO, then divided, took the worst decision possible: Ukraine was to join NATO, but not immediately. A provocation for Russia and no guarantee of security for Ukraine! I am among those who believe — even if I cannot prove it — that the spiral that led to this war could have been avoided by a more clever Western policy with Russia, much more inclusive in the first fifteen years after the end of the USSR, and much more dissuasive and firm over the last fifteen years.
What are Russia’s goals in this war?
Russia’s foolish rhetoric about “denazification” cannot be taken seriously. I believe that Putin has been combining a deep historical nationalist impulse to bring Ukraine, or at least the Russian-speaking part of it, back into the Russian fold, and, perhaps, the urgency to stop the dangerous democratic contagion of this new emerging Ukraine. Plus, the desire to take advantage of Ukraine’s weakness and lack of combativeness, its supposed divisions, the cowardice of the Europeans and the disinterest of the United States.
On all these points, the self-intoxicated Putin was badly mistaken, not to mention the pathetic human condition of his army. After having assumed, according to numerous testimonies, that he would be able to solve the Ukraine affair in 48 hours, Putin seems to have refocused on controlling the Russian-speaking east of the country — which does not mean Russophile! Everything indicates that this conflict is going to last, encysted, without any real stabilisation, solution, or negotiation. And by the way, based on which argument? Putin needs a victory, something that Zelenski cannot admit. It will be a significant frozen conflict, much more disruptive than other frozen conflicts in Europe since the end of the USSR.
Do you think that the eventual capture of all Ukrainian ports would be militarily, and especially politically sustainable for Russia?
This is not certain at all. But the Russian army and navy will obviously try to control all Ukrainian ports. This is what is at stake in Odessa. Faced with a lasting guerrilla war, could Russia then stand afterwards? I really don’t know. It depends on many factors. For the moment(1), the question of blocking the ports is the priority because the export of Ukrainian wheat is vital for about twenty countries, particularly in Africa. The UN Secretary General, Turkey (and other countries) are working on the creation of a secure route out of the Black Sea, but this would require demining the approaches to Odessa, which would make the city vulnerable to a Russian maritime attack. A real headache. The Black Sea issue is as important as the war in the Donbass. By mid-June, this is where we are!(1).
In an interview with the French channel LCI at the end of May, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said: “(…) Russia is preventing the development of a unipolar world proclaimed by Washington, with the consent of Europe”. What do you think?
“With the consent of Europe”, well, this can be discussed. For the rest, he’s right. The Russians obviously intend to capitalise on the fact that at the United Nations, some forty countries, representing 60% of the world’s population, have refused to condemn Russia. Without approving it, but without supporting the West either. This return of “non-alignment” is the major political fact of the time. The Russians will obviously try to stir up pressure from the African countries threatened by this outdated food extortion by pushing them to put pressure on the West, which is providing weapons to the Ukrainians. And the latter will try, by all means, to escape this extortion and get the wheat out in another way. This issue is on President Biden’s agenda on the occasion of his visit to Europe at the end of June(1).
In a recent column published in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, Henri Guaino wrote: “We are walking towards war (editor’s note: meaning “world” war) like sleepwalkers”. Is this the case?
I don’t believe that the world is moving towards a third world war, nor do I think that today’s world leaders are sleepwalkers. But it is true that there has been a spiral of inconsistent and dangerous decisions, and that, furthermore, President Putin has taken a decision that is obviously tragic in human terms and for the Ukrainians, but also catastrophic for Russia in the long term.
In the short term, in the coming months, what will be the consequences of this war for France and Europe?
There are no specific consequences for France for the moment, apart from the consequences that also impact Europe such as energy costs, etc. As far as Europe is concerned, after three “naive” generations, there has been a radical awakening of a sense of defence (Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland). Through their institutions, the Europeans have rapidly adopted significant measures to support Ukraine (financial aid, supply of certain weapons, reception of refugees) and to sanction Russia. Given that the perspectives of joining the European Union remain distant and unclear, President Macron proposed that, without waiting for the outcome of possible accession negotiations, about ten countries, including Ukraine, should be invited to participate without delay in a “political community” with European Union countries. But for the time being, it is basically the Atlantic Alliance and therefore NATO that is being spectacularly strengthened by the Russian aggression.
In the longer term, what will be the consequences of this war for France, Europe and the world?
The most remarkable and most revealing indicator of the real state of the world is the fact that, at the United Nations General Assembly, about forty countries have refused to take sides, and therefore to condemn Russia. This is the return of a kind of “non-alignment”, of countries that do not necessarily agree with Moscow, but that do not want to have to automatically support the West. And yet, these countries represent 60% of the world’s population! As shown, for example, by India’s position, or by Turkey’s policy and the role it is trying to play between the Africans and Russia in order to obtain a safe way out for Ukrainian wheat.
This is a new reality with heavy consequences that experts had long predicted. The West no longer has a “monopoly” on power. But now it is truly remarkable. The entire spectrum of world issues, from the vital need to make all modes of life and production greener, to the geopolitical confrontation between the United States and China, to technological competition, must be analysed from this new angle.
Is this war putting an end to the idea of a new European security architecture “from Brest to the Urals”, with or without NATO?
No European country would support today, even less than in the past, the idea of a European security architecture without NATO, i.e. outside the Atlantic Alliance. Especially if it were to include Russia, as François Mitterrand proposed on 31 December 1989 in his attempt to help Gorbachev. Does this mean that the idea of a European security architecture that would include Russia is dead? Not necessarily. Henry Kissinger deplored the fact that it was not implemented during the fifteen years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
These words were used by President Biden when he met with President Putin in June 2021, and are occasionally heard from President Macron. For obvious reasons, it won’t be on the agenda for long, but the question of how we can live together in Europe with our Russian neighbour will come up again sooner or later. Even if this terrible Ukrainian conflict is not going to be resolved any time soon. But Europeans who see this in terms of a fight for “freedom” cannot imagine any compromise. Moreover, it is not impossible that the Europeans, having increased their defence effort, will eventually have more influence within NATO. A situation that will be considered as useful, to a certain extent, by Washington.
What is your analysis of the Chinese position?
China has entered into a global power race since Xi Jinping took office a decade ago and claimed to be the world’s leading power by 2049 at the latest. This is something the US cannot and will not accept. Apart from the even more serious ecological issues, this confrontation is going to dominate the international scene for a long time.
The war in Ukraine is resulting in closer energy and economic ties between China and Russia. China certainly did not want a war in Ukraine, perhaps believing Putin’s rhetoric that it would be resolved within 48 hours. Since then, it has been cautiously opportunistic, no doubt hoping to take the lion’s share while preserving its companies from being overly exposed to US sanctions.
Is Taiwan the next war? How do you see the situation evolving on this issue?
Even before the war in Ukraine, and the firm Western reaction that Putin had not anticipated in any way, I’ve always thought that the Chinese would not engage in a military operation in Taiwan now, even if they are toying with the idea. Indeed, Chinese strategists knew perfectly well that the United States would never abandon Taiwan (because then the US guarantee would be worthless anywhere) and that it would never allow the semiconductor factories in Taiwan, which are essential to the life of the world, to fall into Chinese hands. This is even more true given the Western reactions to what is happening in Ukraine. They are obviously acquiring the military means for an operation, but I still believe that their approach will consist in acting like in a game of Go, with patience, convinced that time is on their side. But you can never be 100% sure.
- This interview was completed in mid-June 2022