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Zelenskyy, the Normandy Format, Crimea, and Putin – What the French Ambassador to Ukraine Thinks
5 February, 2020
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What does France think about the Normandy format meetings in Paris? How do the French see the presidency of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his ideas for resolving the Donbas conflict and returning Crimea to Ukraine? Are Russian-French relations really improving? And what does that mean for Ukraine? 

Hromadske spoke to French ambassador Etienne de Poncins to find out. 

De Poncins took the ambassadorship in Kyiv in August 2019, though he’s a long-time diplomatic veteran. He previously held the ambassadorship in Bulgaria and was deputy chief of mission in Poland. He’s been an advisor, speaker, and press-secretary in the French delegation to the European Union, and a deputy minister for European affairs. Directly prior to his posting in Kyiv, he served as an international affairs inspector for the French Ministry of Europe and International Affairs. 

Mister Ambassador, you’ve served at the Ukrainian post for five months. What has surprised you the most about Ukraine? What do you like the most, or conversely, dislike?

There are a lot of things that I really like about Ukraine. Most of all is this feeling here that it is a part of Europe. I’ve worked in several Eastern European countries, and here in Ukraine, I feel at home, in a European home. Prior to my arrival in Ukraine, I worked for some time in Africa, and I’m very happy to be back on the European continent.

Secondly, I very much like the dynamism of this country, in particular, in the sphere of innovative technologies. I feel that this is a country that is just boiling over with ideas. There’s a very active youth here, which is Europe-oriented, and this is very positive.

Thirdly, and here I’ll speak about less pleasant things, but I feel a very strong hope for peace here. I feel a very strong movement to stop the conflict in the east of the country, in the Donbas. And importantly – a movement to stop the constant deaths linked with the conflict.

You mentioned Europe and Ukraine’s Europeanization. During the course of your career, you’ve worked closely on the European direction, particularly with former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. What are the biggest challenges facing Europe today – Europe as an idea, and Europe as the continent?

Yes, I have in fact spent a large portion of my professional life on European affairs. And, as I’ve said to President Zelenskyy during my presentation of my letters of credence, I’m a western diplomat, because France is set to the West of Ukraine, and above all – I’m grateful for my European education and culture.

Unfortunately, Europe today faces many challenges. The first and most complicated one is how to return trust to the residents of the European Union. The most important reason for this is to give them the protection that they are waiting for, in the first place – in the security sphere, particularly in regards to China and the United States, which often act rather aggressively, which is why E.U. protection in this sphere is very desirable.

At the same time, the European Union is left as the singular large project on the European continent, and its accomplishments are meaningful. A few decades ago, no one could imagine that they would have the chance to unify the torn-apart continent. That's why the E.U.'s success is obvious, despite the challenges.

French Ambassador to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins during a press-conference in Kyiv, December 19, 2019. Photo: Inna Sokolovskaya / UNIAN

You mentioned Zelenskyy. For Ukraine, this president is a surprise. Even a year ago, few could imagine that such a young, dynamic political outsider would become president. Are there some similarities between Zelenskyy and French president Emmanuel Macron, despite Macron being, when he was elected, clearly closer to politics? What are your thoughts and your analysis of the changes in the political field in Ukraine?

There are a lot of similarities between France and Ukraine, even geographically. Both are large, agricultural countries, located on the European continent.

At the same time, for the last few years we’ve also seen a political alignment between the two countries: both president, Emmanuel Macron and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, are from the same generation, both are young, both entered the political stage very quickly, and both have managed to earn their majorities in parliament. These similarities explain, particularly, the massive mutual understanding between them.

Both are working to move their countries forward, both are very dynamic. I’ve met with President Zelenskyy multiple times, and his passion for reform amazes me, particularly in quick reforms. And even when we talk about the “turboregime” (a term popularly used to describe the new parliament’s quick pace of reforms – ed.), it seems to have its own weaknesses, but simultaneously has a political will. And this will is very pragmatic. This is a focus on results, even if they’re humble. This is a politics of small steps, not big ideological positions, which might not bring what Ukrainians expect regarding, for example, peace in the Donbas or the return of political prisoners.

President Zelenskyy and his government have demonstrated political pragmatism in order to receive results. I think this is a sign of strength.

The biggest problem facing Ukraine today, and the biggest challenge for President Zelenskyy is the war in the Donbas. It’s entering its sixth year, and Zelenskyy has promised his voters that he’ll solve this problem. Four leaders, [German chancellor Angela] Merkel, Macron, Zelenskyy, and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin managed to meet on December 9, 2019, in Paris. How would you rate the results of that meeting, and what do you expect from the upcoming meeting in the spring of 2020?

Frankly speaking, we’re very happy that this meeting was held, because it was not simple to organize. There is a lot of mistrust, particularly between Russia and Ukraine. And so, the very fact that this meeting was held, that it went well, that they managed to agree on a joint communique with concrete future steps – this is very good.

Also, in diplomacy, personal connections have always played a large role. The summit allowed Zelenskyy to meet Putin, personally, for the first time. They managed to speak to each other since both know Russian. In diplomacy, if we want to move forward, you can always act through negotiators and ambassadors, but matters are always settled by contacts between two leaders. That’s why this achievement at the Paris summit is so meaningful in comparison to the previous situation.

At the same time, we are still very far from a resolution to this story. We are very disappointed that the ceasefire, which should have come into force from January 1, 2020, has not started. This is a real disappointment. There are negotiations in the Minsk format, though they aren’t moving very quickly. The real negotiations will occur during the next summit in April, which, most likely, will be held in Germany. We’ve created the conditions for measured optimism for further talks. 

French president Emmanuel Macron (right) meets Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelesnkyy at the Elysee Palace. Paris, France, December 9, 2019. Photo: Oleksandr Kohan / hromadske

The fundamental thing for the “Normandy Format” is the Minsk Agreements. In these documents, there are things that aren’t in the interest of Ukraine. During the Paris summit, Angela Merkel, together with President Zelenskyy, spoke about the fact that the Minsk Agreements were not immutable. At the same time, we haven’t heard anything similar from President Macron. What’s the French position, particularly on the hardening and immutability of Minsk?

The French position is very simple: there is currently no better basis, today, than the Minsk agreements. We do not have a better text, today, which would give the possibility of moving forward in regulating the conflict. We also have not chosen a better diplomatic Normandy format – the format where France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia participate in.

At the same time it is obvious that in the text of the Minsk Agreements, there are points where are not fixed, which can be clarified, explained and detailed. This especially applies to the order of events. It is necessary for experts to sit around the table and provide more details for these points.

This does not mean that it’s necessary to move away from Minsk. There are no other possibilities, except the Minsk agreements, seeing as they were signed by Ukraine, and they are the basis. These agreements should be taken as the basis, and later on, there could be interpretations.

Many representatives of civil society speak about ‘red lines’, as it’s obvious that Ukraine wants peace, but the question is in the price. One of these lines is the sovereignty of Ukraine, and another important question is control of the border. Are there some ‘red lines’ for France? Are there things that France is not ready to accept as a condition for regulating the conflict?

In these negotiations, France and Germany are just middle-men. They are goodwill forces here and are looking to reconcile the parties. That’s why France does not have this situation of ‘red lines’, seeing as France is not a party to the conflict. Instead of this, we listen to Ukraine’s ‘red lines’. This was very clearly stated during one of the telephone calls between presidents Zelenskyy and Macron, that France respects Ukraine’s ‘red lines’. And in Paris, these lines were supported and protected by France.

For example, on the question of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the French position has always been clear and understandable in that we support it, and Ukraine is a sovereign state within the borders of its internationally recognized borders. We have not changed this position, and we will not change it.

French ambassador Etienne de Poncins during a press conference in Kyiv, December 19, 2019. Photo: Inna Sokolovskaya / UNIAN

President Zelenskyy has spoken about the fact that elections on the temporarily-occupied territories can only be held after the de-occupation of the Donbas. At the same time, we see that everyone has a different understanding of the term ‘de-occupation’. There are different interpretations in Russia and Ukraine. What are your criteria – the criteria of France as a middleman – on the topic of actual de-occupation? Are there any conversations about withdrawing Russian soldiers? On border control, which would be done by the Ukrainian army? Is there any talk of access to these territories for media, human rights defenders, Ukrainian police and so on?

Instead of de-occupation, I would probably use the more constructive term of ‘reintegration’. But let’s look at what’s going on at the sites, what sort of questions – among them, there are those that you’ve just mentioned. How will the return of Ukrainian police to these territories work? How will Ukrainian police be protected? Which way, gradually, will the Ukrainian border patrol regain the border? These are very concrete questions, and if there is the goodwill of both sides in order for Ukraine to regain its territorial integrity and control on its territory, then we’ll sit down at the table and point by point we’ll find a solution. 

The mechanisms of returning government control to their territories are clear: there is, for example, the experience of the Balkan countries. This will be difficult, these are long negotiations, but if there’s a will, if there’s trust, then these are questions that can be answered.

You mention the Balkan example, but we have examples of conflicts in which Russia is involved – I mean Transnistria and the situation in Georgia. There we see frozen conflicts, sometimes for decades. And there’s a big risk that in Ukraine we’ll get this same scenario.

That’s not the scenario which we prefer, clearly. Our scenario is an end to the conflict and the return of Donbas to Ukraine. But, of course, the scenario of a frozen conflict is not excluded. But this scenario would be a failure of negotiations. 

There’s another difficult question which has seen few considerations: the fate of Crimea. Is there a format today, in which France could take part, Germany, or maybe, different countries? In which it would be possible to consider the return of Crimea to Ukraine?

In this question, we try to be pragmatic. Today we do not see a format in which it would be possible to productively consider this question. Adding Crimea to the Normandy Format would not bring any results – instead, this question would sink the whole ship.

At the current moment, we give preference to the possibility of resolving the first situations – with the conflict in the Donbas, where people have died over many years. Let’s focus on this, on the humanitarian questions, on opening new border crossing checkpoints, on de-escalation and so on. When it comes time for Crimea, we’ll see how we can resolve it.

So we should forget about Crimea for the next ten years? Or how long, do you think?

I can’t forecast for the next ten years or more. Once again: let’s finish negotiations on the Donbas, and on the Crimea matter – we’ll see.

Ambassadors from France, Germany, and the U.K. talk to residents in Zolote, Luhansk oblast. November 7, 2019. French ambassador Etienne de Poncins (center) Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY KOZLOV

In late August, President Macron gathered all the French ambassadors. We were very surprised at the reason because the conversation was about some changes in relations between France and Russia. It’s easy to imagine that this caused some distress in Ukraine because the war with Russia has continued already for many years. Can we really talk about any warming in relations between Russia and France? What’s Macron’s strategy, when he moves towards partnership with Russia?

The reference point for President Macron was something that previous relations with Russia couldn’t offer. The situation, in which we didn’t talk to the Russians, in which we moved to isolate them or hold our distance from them – this was not a good tactic or strategy.

Importantly, this is because it didn’t give a good result. We didn’t have the Normandy summit for years, there was no progress. And so, the primary desire of President Macron was the need to try and reintroduce trust, to start talking to them, particularly, with Vladimir Putin, to reform contacts, and in the middle of this all, clearly track the conditions of this dialogue. 

Our position absolute doesn’t change, not in relation to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, not in relation to sanctions against Russia, which are regularly extended, additional and recently on the level of the European Union. That is, dialogue – yes, but dialogue with conditions, and results-focused, because we see a return to the Normandy format. This is directly connected to the fact that we worked on reintroducing trust between Putin and Zelenskyy. 

Russia is a big partner, it has military power, as well as economic strength. We have economic interests in Russia, just as in Ukraine. That’s why putting Russia in a corner, like a bad student in a classroom, doesn’t make sense. We need to have a dialogue with them.

You’ve been the French ambassador to Ukraine for five months now. What basic tendencies are there in bilateral relations between France and Ukraine in economic, social, and cultural spheres?

I am a happy ambassador because the tendencies in relations between France and Ukraine are very positive. Trade is developing quickly and well, with a turnover of 1.5 billion euros per year. We also see an increase in imports from France to Ukraine, seeing as French goods are interesting for Ukrainians.

There is also a large number of French companies that are interested in investing in Ukraine, particularly in the banking sector, as well as the agrarian one. Every time, when I meet business leaders in Paris, they’re interested in Ukraine.

We also have a few big contracts, for example, the contract for French Airbus helicopters, which will increase the capabilities for the Ukrainian National Guard and in general the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We also have a recent contract on twenty patrol boats: they’ll improve Ukraine’s security.

We also are very actively working in the cultural sphere: soon, we’ll start preparing for the French Spring, which is an important annual event and occurs not only in Kyiv but also in many of the country’s biggest cities. We’re trying to show France as a country of culture, but also one of innovation because we are emphasizing the modern and technological image of France.