French diplomats looked to restrain Putin as Ukraine war erupted

Europe has announced a large package of sanctions on Russia

France's President Emmanuel Macron has been working to avert conflict in Ukraine. AFP

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A little more than two weeks before Russia attacked Ukraine, French President Emanuel Macron was in Moscow trying to avert a war in Europe.

But diplomacy, as Mr Macron’s foreign minister told reporters on Tuesday, “has failed”.

As Russia’s forces pushed for Kiev, eyes were on the response in Europe, Washington and New York.

EU ministers were already meeting when the crisis broke. They were attending the French hosted Indo-Pacific Forum aiming to re-focus Brussel’s relationship with the huge area from the west coast of Africa to the shores of California.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian defended the French president’s efforts in Moscow and the assurance President Vladimir Putin offered the French leader that no action was planned.

Mr Putin’s actions, Mr Le Drian said, had shown the Russian president not to be a man of his word.

“What is new is that President Putin no longer honours Russia’s signature [to international agreements]… and President Putin no longer honours his own commitments either since he publicly declared that a vote in the Duma on recognising the independence of the two republics of Donetsk and Luhansk was not on the agenda. Here is the reality.”

Since Russia crossed the border of Ukraine, Europe has announced a large package of sanctions against Russia. It talked about, but ultimately has not yet booted Moscow from the Swift international payment network. The US has taken action, as have others. Countries have pledged arms for Ukraine to bolster their fight.

Ukrainian firefighters at a high-rise apartment block in Kiev which was hit by Russian shelling.  EPA

Only time will tell what the impact this international isolation will have on the Russian economy and the rationale of the leadership – probably not until long after Kiev has fallen to Russia’s 150,000 soldiers.

As one diplomat in Paris told The National this week, “sanctions alone are rarely effective” the mood in Europe is that there is no other choice.

“Honestly, I think that its indispensable to try and go to the maximum extent [with sanctions] … I don’t know if it will be enough but what is sure is that we cannot allow ourselves to go less,” the diplomat said.

The view from Paris is clear. The fighting right now is in the streets around Kiev and Mariupol, and France is standing beside Ukraine politically, but this is also a confrontation that will shape the world order.

The repercussions of the war and how the West confronts it will radiate from Europe across the Indo-Pacific and the world.

Demonstrators in Helsinki, Finland, wave Ukrainian flags during a We Stand With Ukraine demonstration. AFP

French officials repeatedly said Russia had clearly broken the international law and the UN charter, and it was the responsibility of all UN members to now uphold those articles.

This is central to the French view – the world must be ordered, and laws must be followed. When those rules are not followed, there must be repercussions.

Mr Putin is banking on international division and disunity; the French diplomatic service appears bent on ensuring that does not happen.

And they’re bullish on their progress so far.

The speed of condemnation, of what is – for Europe – a significant sanctions package and the speed of organisation within the Nato defensive alliance has given them cause for cheer.

Leaving Russia alone to use its veto to block a UN Security Council condemnation of the invasion by easing concerns in China so they would not back Moscow was a symbolic diplomatic moment.

That Beijing at the UN also expressed in the same language as the West its concern for the infringement of territorial sovereignty too is key for the West’s isolation of Russia.

One diplomat said he thought Europe had never looked stronger and more united on such a pressing issue.

Another said that in just a matter of days, Mr Putin had made Nato more relevant than it has been since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago.

This is a massive mobilisation of the part of the world that extols the idea of a rules-based order and French diplomats are at the centre. The message has a singular focus – Moscow has violated the rules and the world must respond. Now is not the time for fence-sitting.

The implied warning in this message is also clear – today it is Ukraine bearing the brunt of a Russian onslaught, but tomorrow it could be you facing an expansionist neighbour. If that happens, then it will be this rules-based system and those who stand up for it who will mobilise again.

In the face of crisis, international insinuations have often been slow and unwieldy. UN mediation has failed to stop the war in Syria for more than a decade, the EU was bent to the brink of breaking by the 2015 refugee crisis.

But, French officials insist, their political union has learned and evolved in the past decade. It is stronger, more united and more experienced, they insist.

The EU read from one page in the Brexit process and diplomats insist that when it comes to Russia, they have learned from their weak response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But division does remain. Italy, Germany and others were unconvinced about barring Russia from the Swift network earlier this week, but that position changed by the weekend.

Countries around the world that refused to send military aid to Ukraine before the war reversed that position when bombs started falling.

And cracks have already started to appear. India and China have said they will launch a mechanism to continue financial transactions with Russia despite EU and US sanctions.

South Africa, who first condemned Russia’s action, turned on the US for not meeting Moscow for talks without pre-conditions to avert the crisis.

Mr Macron’s diplomats appear to be working hard to ensure that while they have been caught diplomatically on the back foot – Russia is the president of the UN Security Council, France is facing an election next month and in Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the successor to political heavyweight Angela Merkel, has only been in in the job three months – they will put up a united front.

On Friday night, the Eiffel Tower was bathed in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. France is mobilising the world to stand with Ukraine but the battle being fought from the corridors of Paris to Brussels to New York is one for the very idea of the rules-based systems.

As one diplomat said this week, “sanctions can have a deterrence – not on what is happening now but what is happening next.”

Updated: February 26, 2022, 11:55 PM
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