Decisions on European security are taken without its main stakeholders. Statements like this made headlines across Europe. Paris deplores the widespread popular perception that Europeans are not involved in diplomatic talks over escalating tensions on Europe’s eastern flank. In fact, they are present in all the relevant forums: the Geneva discussions (through consultations with the United States), the NATO-Russia Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Paris, like Berlin, is committed to its role as mediator in the Norman negotiations with Kiev and Moscow – which should resume after a two-year hiatus. Emmanuel Bonne and Jens Plötner, diplomatic advisers to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz respectively, have traveled to Kyiv and Moscow in recent days to ensure that these talks resume at ministerial level soon. Although it has come under heavy criticism, the Normandy format is now widely recognized as the primary framework for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Despite divergent analyzes on the imminence of an attack, Paris is aligning itself with its European partners to prepare to respond to all scenarios of military escalation near the Russian-Ukrainian border – where Russia has massed nearly 100 000 soldiers in recent months. Europeans have expressed concern about the cyberattacks suffered by Ukraine on January 14, prompting NATO to announce that it has signed an agreement that strengthens its cooperation with the country to counter such attacks.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have pointed to the Europeans’ absence from the negotiating table – although they seem to have missed the irony, given that Moscow has tried to go over the Europeans’ heads by ‘bilateralising’ its talks with Washington. But – following the diplomatic fallout from the announcement of the AUKUS security pact in September 2021 – Americans and Europeans have engaged in enhanced consultations and cooperation. This means that the Europeans have always been present in key discussions on the war in Ukraine, which has allowed them to respond directly to requests for security guarantees from Russia. The idea is to maintain lines of communication with Moscow without giving in to its demands on non-negotiable matters. Accordingly, discussions between the parties should focus on European security, not Russian proposals.
In a series of meetings last week, Americans and Europeans, as well as Europeans within the EU, showed unity in their approach to Russia. These talks involved US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Geneva, the first NATO-Russia Council meeting in three years in Brussels and OSCE talks in Vienna. . By definition, Europe is involved whenever there are talks at NATO level. The OSCE, the only institution where Eastern and Western Europe meet regularly, is responsible for supervising the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, intended to end the war in the Donbass. As such, it should be the standard forum for such discussions, although it has so far been unsuccessful.
The Europeans’ demonstration of unity is particularly remarkable given their initial positions on the war in Ukraine. Holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union, France knows that it has a special role to play in listening to and taking into account the concerns of its main partners. France is also aware that some of these partners – in particular the Member States of Central and Eastern Europe – suspect it of complacency in the face of the Russian threat. Thus, Paris is aware of its responsibility to ensure that the Russian question does not divide Europeans. Thus, French leaders will be looking to make the most of an interesting coincidence: while Paris currently holds the presidency of the EU Council, Berlin and Warsaw have the same roles respectively within the G7 and the OSCE. As the EU, the G7 and the OSCE will all be key forums in future European security developments, it may be time for the Weimar format to realize its potential.
While the crucial negotiations on Ukraine will take place in the Normandy format, the other – less formal – talks with Russia will also be important. However, the resumption of talks will not necessarily lead to negotiations. For that to happen, the talks would need written support. So far, Moscow has issued only ultimatums — like its demand for a permanent ban on Ukraine from joining NATO, which Sherman dismissed as a no-go for the United States and its allies.
For France, European sovereignty is at the heart of discussions at the meeting of EU foreign ministers last week in Brest. Paris aims to strengthen the position of strength of the Europeans, while doing everything possible to avoid war. The escalation of the conflict in Ukraine and a possible stalemate in talks over it could prove to be a strategic surprise that upsets the French presidential campaign. Although foreign policy is not usually a hot topic in these campaigns, Russia is the only exception to that. The question sheds the blood of the candidates: French politics has a pro-Russian component that transcends the traditional divisions between the far right and the far left, with figures on both sides advocating rapprochement with Russia. Depending on how the situation in Ukraine develops, French presidential candidates could find themselves caught up in defending or rejecting this push for rapprochement.
In all discussions on European security, the overriding objective of the EU is to remain a full player and to reaffirm its ability to counter the threats it faces. The EU has announced that it is preparing to impose heavy sanctions on Russia, hoping to deter a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ideally, in the near future, the Europeans will build on these experiences to regain the upper hand in setting the political agenda with Russia – on issues such as arms control, for example – when their strategic interests are at stake. Game.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.