Without Moscow, Obama's foreign policy will fail - French Academy scholar

As a fragile peace holds Ukraine together, there’s still no guarantee it means an end to the civil war. The EU, despite achieved agreements, still pushes on with the sanctions against Russia - as the warmongering chant from Washington drones on. Who holds sway over the crisis? What needs to be done to end the war on Europe’s doorstep? We ask prominent historian, author and permanent secretary of the Academie Francaise, Helene Carrere D’Encausse, on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Madame Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, thank you so much for being with us tonight.As it stands, the European Union has imposed new sanctions on Russia, just a few days after the signing of the Minsk agreements. I understand that these sanctions had been agreed upon in Brussels before the Minsk talks. But was there any possibility of stopping them coming into effect? And what message is Europe sending here?

Helene Carrere D’Encausse: Who do you mean by Europe? France? Germany?

SS: France and Germany and the other member states.

HCE: That’s what makes it all so complex. The EU’s Ukraine policy that has brought us to where we are now is not a French or German policy. What I mean is both France and Germany are EU member states, but it was the European Commission who oversaw Europe’s relationship with Ukraine. And the Commission – I wouldn’t call it “anti-Russian,” that would be a bit far-fetched, but it is alien to Russia, and it doesn’t understand Russia. France and Germany have much more interests in Russia, they are more sympathetic toward Russia than the European Commission. They have a better understanding of what Russia is like, by virtue of their history of dealing with Russia, whereas some of the people in the European Commission come from countries whose relations with Russia have been less benign. I won’t name any names here. So France and Germany brokered an agreement in Minsk, but that was a decision made by France and Germany, and not by the European Union. The EU wouldn’t stand by it. So if it had been solely up to France and Germany to decide on sanctions, the attitude might have been somewhat different after Minsk. But that is my personal opinion.

SS: I’m aware that anything you say today is your personal opinion.

HCE: And I personally believe that the Ukraine issue could be managed successfully by countries like France and Germany, who have a lot of experience in dealing with Russia and resolving differences between states, a record of reconciliation following a number of devastating wars… But I doubt that all EU member states share the same mindset.

SS: Alright, let’s talk about the Minsk agreements, which stir up quite contradictory responses and emotions. Some say these agreements are totally useless because the war will continue anyway. And some say that there is a genuine desire to reach a compromise, and that these talks will bear fruit eventually. What’s your opinion?

HCE: I think this is caused by confusion. Today people are used to living in a fast-paced world, so when talks happen amid a crisis like this one – there is a war going on in Ukraine – people, including heads of states, think that everything can be resolved overnight. They imagine that leaders meet, sign some papers, end of story. In reality it doesn’t work this way. In a real crisis, things happen step by step. After the talks, you have to watch the signees of a deal, see if they observe, or fail to observe, the agreements, and then talk again.

In this situation, both Madame Merkel and the French President are obviously aware of this system. They managed to reach some kind of agreement. They did all they could, and now the agreements have to be observed; and they will monitor the process, and see what should be done next.

Agreement obviously cannot be reached overnight. I believe this deal is very important, because sides agreed to cease this war, or rather prevent these hostilities from turning into a full-blown war. This will prevent Ukraine from turning into another Yugoslavia, save it from falling apart completely. This was obviously the first thing they had in mind. The second thing that comes out of this agreement in Minsk deals with the political processes that have to take place in Eastern Ukraine. This means elections, and some reforms of Ukraine’s territorial organization that would give this area some autonomy, or federalization, or something of the kind – and something should come out of those elections.

It’s a process that doesn’t take two days. Obviously the sides will keep fighting for their areas of land. It’s also possible that someone might seize more of that land. But it’s not a tragedy, and it doesn’t mean these talks weren’t successful. Their main success was that they showed that the events in Eastern Ukraine are not a normal thing, and that people should choose a political solution rather than a military one. So these agreements in Minsk – they were quite unexpected, and very successful, and this work should continue.

SS: Do you believe all sides are ready to observe this agreement?

HCE: I think the answer to that question lies in Kiev. Apart from the Ukrainian president, I suspect there are other parties at play, with a more Nationalist or unitarian agenda. I am sure President Poroshenko is very much aware of the state of affairs in his country, and if he had enough authority, the deal he has signed would have been implemented right away. But just as the agreement was signed in Minsk, my first thought was, “Poor guy, what’s going to happen once he is back in Kiev?” There will be people accusing him of having conceded too much on this or that issue. Likewise, Mr. Putin signed the agreement on behalf of East Ukrainian leaders - Zakharchenko and the others. Everyone expects Mr. Putin to ensure their compliance. But in fact, he can’t really force them to act on the agreement. He is no boss in Eastern Ukraine. He had been invited to contribute as an influential leader, but in reality he cannot ensure the agreement is upheld.

SS: So you think people overestimate the Kremlin’s influence in Eastern Ukraine?

HCE: There are clearly some Russian volunteers fighting there – probably there are volunteers from Chechnya, other places – lots and lots of volunteers. But everybody agrees that this is a new type of warfare we are facing in today’s world.

Q: Why?

HCE: Because it is no longer the army who does the fighting. And when it comes to Ukraine, nobody even admits that it’s a war. It’s not the regular army that does the fighting; it is some volunteers from God knows where. When Americans were in Iraq, they hired mercenaries from some private military companies, and I think the same thing is happening in Ukraine right now. It’s a popular trend. People no longer want to do the fighting themselves these days. They prefer to hire somebody to fight for them. And there are companies that can do that for you — like Blackwater, now it’s called Academy or something like that. It’s very obvious that people like that are doing the fighting in Ukraine right now. And these people are very hard to control. So, you can negotiate and come to some sort of agreement, but then there’s no guarantee it will be respected. These volunteers don’t respond to anybody. This is the most alarming point about current conflicts. The same thing is happening in the Middle East today. You never know whom you should talk to.

SS: Right. So, these volunteers fighting in Ukraine have an agenda of their own.

HCE: Absolutely. And the thing about the Minsk Accords is that Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande decided to invite president Poroshenko and President Putin. Poroshenko is in charge of Ukraine. Putin is in charge of Russia. He has no power over any Ukrainians. There is no parallel here, so the recent deal in Minsk was very difficult to achieve. But there is no point in criticising it, we should only welcome this deal.

When it comes to solving the crisis in Ukraine, it is very important that we remember what happened in Yugoslavia, and make sure that it’s never repeated in Europe. You have to realize that it’ll be very easy to break up Ukraine into two or three pieces, or even more, because if this agreement doesn’t work out, a real war will start, and it will go on for two, three, four, five years, and eventually Ukraine will break up into pieces – and not just two pieces. Czechs may decide they want a part of Ukraine, for example…

SS: You’ve said that EU engagement with Ukraine was a mistake - what does EU want from Ukraine? The country is a financial mess, and the EU itself isn’t filthy rich these days - so what’s so attractive about Ukraine?

HCE: I can tell you where the EU was mistaken. The entire EU policy with respect to Ukraine is wrong. The EU fails to see that Ukraine has a special relationship with Russia. And by that I mean, that Ukraine is Russia’s European frontier. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia put up with the fact that former members of the Warsaw Pact joined NATO. We are talking about the EU, but this is actually about NATO. NATO is like an umbrella for all the countries that seek to join the EU. They think they need NATO, to protect them from Russia…they think they need the EU. Why they think so – that’s another issue. If the EU saw Russia as a partner, things would have been different. I don’t know why the EU radically changed its policy. Before 2006, Russia was part of the picture – not as an EU member, of course, but as a European country, as partner. But then it was discarded.

SS: You said earlier that Europe is not just Germany and France; the European Commission calls the shots.

HCE: Right, and this Commission had a policy.

SS: So, now, as Merkel and Hollande seek to work out a compromise, they’re being criticized by Brussels. You’re saying that Europe is split into three parts. So, my question to you: Do you think Europe as a whole wants this conflict to de-escalate?

HCE: First of all, I think we’re no longer in the escalation stage. We’ve entered the stage of de-escalation.

SS: You think so?

HBC: I may be too optimistic but I think that this agreement really helped to stop something bad from happening.

SS: Right, but do you think Europe as a whole wants this?

HCE: Like I said, the conflict is now in the de-escalation stage, and this means that France and Germany had enough influence to make this turn around and convince others that there was a need to de-escalate this conflict instead of escalating it further. I know that you’re worried because the EU may still impose further sanctions, and there are countries that say Europe should ramp up sanctions, but that’s a different issue. This is something that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes some time for such a policy shift to show. Frankly, I think there was a point earlier in time when the EU could have done something. That’s when Mr. Putin said Russia would respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. I thought that the EU should’ve said at this point, “All right, we’ll go back on sanctions a little bit — you know, just to show that we hear you.” Because what Putin said was a signal. It was clearly a signal. And after that, he had a meeting with the French president, when he got back from Astana. So, they were a few stages to this process. Anyway, there is the EU, and there is clearly something that Germany and France are doing. And I think the rest of the EU is more or less going to follow Germany and France’s lead – even though, naturally, you have the opposition, and it is these New European countries I’m talking about. Let’s be frank about it. Poland is a great country, and I have a lot of respect for it, but it’s weird to hear Poland say that there is some kind of border where Europe ends. That’s what Poland thinks, and Poland’s position played a role in this situation. Poland thinks Ukraine should join NATO as soon as possible and shut Russia out. And Poland’s position means a lot, because, like I said, Poland is a great country. Among these New European countries, Poland occupies a place that’s comparable to that of France.

SS: I believe the US also plays a major role in all this.

HCE: That’s a different story.

SS: I’d like to know your personal opinion: who has bigger clout in the Ukrainian crisis? Is it the EU or the US?

HCE: The US only interferes when there is nobody in Europe to sort the problems out. It doesn’t have as much clout as Europe does. But in this situation, there was no agreement in Europe. You can’t lay all the blame on the US, or say they are bad guys who want to dominate Europe, and so on. It’s not that simple. America is still the only superpower. China doesn’t want to meddle into European affairs so far. So the US still has this feeling – which will eventually go away – that it is in some way responsible for peace in Europe. When America spots something going wrong, that’s when it steps in. But right now, even Barack Obama is playing it cool. We have Secretary Kerry travelling around Europe and openly pondering the possibility of sending weapons to Ukraine, but it’s the President, not even the Congress, who has the final say.

SS: And yet, Obama did not rule out this scenario. Do you think he realizes all the implications of sending 1 bln dollars’ worth of weapons to Ukraine?

HCE: You know, it’s a challenging situation in the US now, because Obama has no more influence over the Congress.

SS: But the Congress approves the arms supply.

HCE: That’s one thing. They would clearly like to send weapons there. On the other hand, there has always been a pecking order of issues in international history. The key priority now is the Middle East. Ukraine is of less importance. What tops the American agenda is Iran, Syria and peace in the Middle East, a region which is now posing a threat even to Europe. The recent terrorist attacks have demonstrated the wide-ranging spillover effect of the Middle East tragedy.

SS: I’d like to talk about this a little later. But for now, let’s focus on the US. The US is not part of the Normandy Four. Can we see the Minsk talks as a sign that it’s possible to reach compromise without a contribution from the US? Can the Ukrainian crisis be resolved without American involvement?

HCE: Certainly. It can only be resolved without any American involvement.

SS: Is this even possible?

HCE: It’s more than possible; it’s how things will end up. But not right now. Remember there is a strong Ukrainian, diaspora in the US, just as strong as Polish, same in Canada. So Ukrainians have a major say in North America. Back in Soviet times, it would seem as if Ukraine had no links to the Ukrainian expats in the US. But I’ve seen with my own eyes that they did indeed have a contact network. We keep forgetting that the Ukrainians are a genius people, they have an amazing sense of solidarity, of Ukrainian solidarity. They had it even back then, in the Soviet era. And it certainly affects American political decisions. On the other hand, this is a purely European issue. The US is engaged elsewhere. My hypothesis is that at a certain point, not now, when Obama wants to make peace with Iran and Syria, he will need Russia, because he can’t do without it. That’s when he will stop making such a big deal about Ukraine. That will be a barter exchange of sorts.

SS: To elaborate on what you’ve said, indeed, Russia and US face common security threats. You’ve already mentioned Iran and Syria, then there’s Afghanistan, ISIS – they are not going anywhere. So in this way or another, the West does need Russia to solve these problems, right?

HCE: The West needs Russia to resolve issues in Ukraine and in the Middle East. Without Russia, this is impossible. Look, how is Obama going to talk to Iran and Syria without Russia being there? Right now he’s got a trump card of NATO enlargement in Europe. Russia is against this…

SS: Yes, they’re deploying bases in Eastern Europe, do they really think Russia…

A: That’s good for America.

SS: And for Russia?

HCE: Of course it’s not! But it gives Obama something to trade with Russia, once the time is right. It’s not right yet, however. I don’t know if Obama or a new president will make it happen, but I’m convinced there is a pecking order of issues in the US, where the Middle East ranks first. Europe is a friendly region where the US has clout, but they can also use it to trade influence in the future.

SS: Do I get it right that you think…

HCE: Just my opinion.

SS: … that probably in exchange for Russia’s assistance in the Middle East the US will close down its bases in Eastern Europe?

HCE: Let’s put it in other words – maybe “exchange” is not good enough. It’s difficult for the US to talk to Iran, because Iran and Syria are essentially evil for the US. One day the US might say, “To get rid of them, we have to make concessions in Europe.” That’s also a way to deal with public opinion in the US, to show that America is not just giving things up. It’s not that easy. This will take months or probably even longer. But I don’t think we should decouple European affairs and the Middle East. While Russia is a stakeholder in Europe, it will also play a key role in the Middle East. But its time has yet to come. I think Russia has to exercise patience, which is very difficult at a time when the Ukrainian crisis feels so unsettling for the Russians.

SS: One final question on Ukraine. This war has almost pushed Ukraine’s economy to the brink of insolvency. The IMF will have to increase aid to Ukraine – again. So it takes quite a handful of money to keep it afloat. Someone will have…

HCE: …will have to pay.

SS: …will have to pay for Ukraine. But who will?

HCE: The EU won’t do that now: it has to fight poverty inside Europe. So probably the US or even Russia, in part, will take charge, because if the federalization scenario does come true, someone will have to help rebuild the part of Ukraine that won’t be able to support itself. There are lots of issues now, for instance, Crimea, that are put in a political freezer, so to speak. Though President Poroshenko is saying he will get Crimea back, trust me, he won’t. But when the US, Russia and the EU sit down at the table, the issue of Crimea will pop up, too. People still have it at the back of their minds. And while Russia will keep Crimea, it will have to give something in return to Ukraine. It may seem people have gotten over Crimea. But they haven’t.

SS: Madame Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, thank you very much for this interview. It was a pleasure talking to you.