Nicolas Tenzer: “It makes no sense to negotiate with Putin”
“It makes no sense to negotiate with Putin”
French political scientist on the prospects of ending the war in Ukraine, global and European security
French political scientist and professor of geopolitics speaks to The Ukrainian Week about the prospects of ending the war in Ukraine, as well as global and European security.
The world has been helplessly watching the tragedy in Aleppo, seizure of the Georgian territories and annexation of Crimea, just as it had watched bomb attacks in Grozny long time before… Would it be fair to say that this is shared responsibility of Western and other politicians for crimes, wars and armed aggressions committed by Russia, among others? o
Primarily, the responsibility for the developments in Aleppo lies with Assad’s regime, with Russia that has been supporting it from day one, and with Iran. On another level, President Obama bears significant responsibility in this. His refusal to intervene in Syria in August 2013 led to the chain reaction that destabilized global order. France insisted on intervention after the chemical attacks in Ghouta, but could not act on its own. Failure to take direct action has led to serious consequences. Had the United States and some European and Arab nations intervened at the time to prevent mass slaughter, had they stopped the regime’s aircrafts and helicopters from taking off, hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved.
When the U.S. showed later that it did not stick to its own red lines, it gave Russia a free hand to seize the Donbas and annex Crimea. Had the United States intervened, the Russians would have probably refrained from starting the war against Ukraine. Then the U.S. discredited itself further: every time it was expected to stop crimes - first in Syria, then in Ukraine - it merely, protested, condemned, or even expressed very deep concern. In other words, it used the language of diplomacy without any specific actions in order to mask its own inaction.
In Syria, the U.S. also focused on negotiations just for the show. This finally led to the strengthening of Kremlin’s positions. All this planted a seed of doubt and undermined the trust of America’s allies, including countries in Asia. Eventually, the U.S. allowed international organisations as the foundation of collective security to lose ground. Today, the United Nations Security Council is paralysed with six Russian and five Chinese vetoes and can no longer work effectively. Then, on December 19, Russia accepted the French resolution on the humanitarian truce and evacuation –in fact, forced displacement– of the Aleppo’s inhabitants, but then we never heard any more about the UN observers, who were supposed to monitor this evacuation and the truce, and the slaughters continue in other places in Syria. On December 31, the UN Security Council accepted the Russian resolution on the truce in Syria, which was mostly a way to give in. Because of their inaction, the Western powers were stalemated. To undermine the international organizations is the constant goal of Vladimir Putin. So, we can’t blame it all on the UN alone: it would not have intervened without a relevant decision from the Security Council. Russia is responsible for this first and foremost.
What instruments does international law offer to respond adequately to Russia's aggressive actions and the impunity it finds?
I will make two remarks here. First of all, international law offers a provision which the Western politics unfortunately failed to use. They must have applied it from the moment Russia started acting independently in Syria, i.e. from the fall of 2015. Article 27.3 of the UN Charter says as soon as any power finds itself directly involved in a conflict, it cannot apply its veto in theory. For various reasons, member-states refrained from enacting that provision. This is why the UN is now paralysed.
My second remark is about actions that violate international law literally. As soon as the United Nations is unable to function, the only possible reaction is to define “responsibility to protect” based on the humanitarian law standards. This has to be implemented beyond the UN. A coalition should have been set up to prevent aggressive actions of a UN Security Council permanent member, meaning Russia. This is the only way. Sadly as it is, Western countries have no other option but to act that way in order to stop mass murders. Refusal to intervene further discredited international law, including humanitarian law.
Several years ago, there was much talk about an exclusively European security system. Where is that idea today?
There are two insights on the issue. Firstly, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides for collective defence guarantees and remains at the core of collective security, including in Europe. Yet, this article on the automatic use of military assistance in the case of aggression applies only to NATO member states. Thus, it is impossible to refer to it in case of aggression against Ukraine which is not part of the Alliance, let alone Syria, where "the legitimately elected government" is killing its own people. One of the biggest challenges today is to launch a purely European mechanism of collective defence. Many countries, including France and Germany, are willing to follow this road. However, this implies a lot of complications, including domestic ones (budget, participation, procedure of decision-making, mechanism of integration, etc.), and external ones (relations with NATO). If isolationism of the U.S. is to persist under President Donald Trump, Europe will be obliged to recover its real fighting capacity for the time when America avoids action. Europe’s strategic dependence on Washington gets increasingly problematic in case of non-intervention, as proved by the developments in Syria and Ukraine. It will get even more obvious if Russia dares to attack an EU member state, say a Baltic country, and America refuses to enact Article 5. Let us be realistic, there is no shortterm solution anyway. Still, we should be on this track as quickly as possible.
Barack Obama began to step back from the conflicts waged far from the United States. Donald Trump voices similar intentions, even more loudly. What should be done in order to not let dictators get away with killing people? Russia openly abuses its seat at the UN Security Council. But there must be some solution. It cannot be true that there is none...
Indeed, the solution is to develop defence capabilities and carry out external interventions, first and foremost by NATO. The world needs it more than ever before. If America’s isolationism that started under Obama will grow under Trump, it will mean that Europe has to take things into its own hands. Meanwhile, the European Union is weakened by divisions on ideological, strategic and economic levels, which perfectly suites Moscow’s goals. In April, May and June France will be holding elections. Germany will have its own in autumn. Will new leaders of the two countries, let alone all the others, be able to be on the same page in their re-
IF ISOLATIONISM OF THE U.S. IS TO PERSIST UNDER PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, EUROPE WILL BE OBLIGED TO RECOVER ITS REAL FIGHTING CAPACITY FOR THE TIME WHEN AMERICA AVOIDS ACTION
sponse to the Russian threat? We should give credit to François Hollande and Angela Merkel for acting decently, including on sanctions. This allowed them to keep the opponents, such as Hungary, Slovakia and Italy in a way, at the arm’s length. In the future, we will need double unity, first of all in terms of the common doctrine. The question is whether all the EU member-states acknowledge Russia as the key threat and agree to counteract. Unity is also needed with regard to actions. The question is whether all these states agree to increase their defence spending? It is unclear. This depends on who will win the elections in, say, France and Germany. Different political combinations are possible.
In your article published in The Conversation, you wrote that it makes no sense to hold discussions with Putin and take concessions. So, what is the way to stop the war in Ukraine? The Normandy talks have no effect. The Minsk agreements prevent Ukraine from recovering its own territories. It is thus true that talks with Putin are the road to nowhere. But how do we exit this war that has lasted almost three years already?
Indeed, I said that it makes no sense to negotiate with Putin. But it does not mean we should stop talking to him completely. Nobody suggests breaking off diplomatic relations. I do not see how it is possible to make concessions to the nation that despises international law, annexes Crimea, seizes territories of other countries and commits war crimes in Syria. What is there to negotiate? Where is the room for manoeuvre? Should we forget Crimea? I’d say downright no. We are not in a classic negotiation scheme. In this sense, every concession to Moscow will lead to a new attack of Russians. The Kremlin will take it as a weakness. I am highly pessimistic as to the efficiency of the Minsk agreements. Of course, they had an immediate positive effect of somewhat decreasing the intensity of the conflict (still, people in Ukraine die on a daily basis). They were instrumental in saving several hundreds or thousands of lives, which is surely a good thing. Still, these agreements only allowed to gain some time. They don’t offer lasting solutions. We failed to demonstrate to Putin our readiness to act and use force in Syria or Ukraine. Thus, he knows that nothing will happen. We know that he cannot be trusted on no account, as far as compliance with obligations is concerned. So, the only way out is to demonstrate our willingness to act, possibly provide the Ukrainian army with weapons and offer military consultations to your nation. Under no event, will we accept the annexation of Crimea and seizure of the Donbas. We should stick to clear and harsh positions and keep sanctions in force.
Suppose the world closes its eyes to events in Ukraine, will Putin go farther?
Absolutely. We have already witnessed his attack against Ukraine and the war of extermination in Syria. We should remember that part of Georgia’s territories is still under Russian occupation. Who is next? The Baltic States? It does not seem like the Kremlin is going to stop. I consider it a threat for our collective security and the future of Europe.
How can you explain Putinophilia of the French political class? While intellectuals and experts mostly understand the situation, political leaders, from far right to far left ones, leave an impression of fanatics. Why is that?
I DO NOT SEE HOW IT IS POSSIBLE TO MAKE CONCESSIONS TO THE NATION THAT DESPISES INTERNATIONAL LAW, ANNEXES CRIMEA, SEIZES TERRITORIES OF OTHER COUNTRIES AND COMMITS WAR CRIMES IN SYRIA
Many politicians are inclined to anti-Americanism. This trend prevails not only amongst the radicals, but also amongst a large part of the conservative Republicans, and some Socialists too. They have turned their backs on the U.S. and are looking towards the power that can counterweigh America’s influence. That power is Russia. I don’t mean that we have to stop criticising the US. I have done so myself at the beginning of our conversation. I did not support the war in Iraq which was initiated based on false information about weapons of mass destruction. I am critical about certain commercial practices of the US, let alone the war in Vietnam and some military interventions in Latin America. But when it comes to protection of the free world, it is worth being on the team with the United States, rather than with Russia. Let me also remind you of another issue, namely the cult of strong personality. Some of those people are charmed by dictators, because they like anything that looks powerful and influential… It is alarming that some political parties increasingly distance themselves from protection of human rights which constitutes the glorious diplomatic heritage of France. I don’t exclude that some people are interested in transmitting Moscow’s propaganda directly, or are influenced by lobbyists and some private groups trading with Russia.
Does this mean that the French are inappropriately represented by their politicians? According to the polls, 80% of French citizens dislike Putin, while the same poll among public figures has given the opposite results...
Indeed, there is a contradiction. Politicians do not share the justified attitude of most French people towards Putin and his threats. The thing is that, international debates are not crucial for the French when they vote. By the way, this trend is not specifically French. Just like in most nations, voters primarily notice their economic situation, purchasing power, unemployment rates and national security… International issues are much less important in elections. That is why voters do not impose enough sanctions on politicians for their Putinophilia.