I visited Paris March 4-10, 2015, to talk with people there about Russian policy toward Ukraine and related issues. I was able to speak with highly knowledgeable French government officials, scholars, and journalists about this subject. I will not cite the views of specific individuals here, but will give a general sense of the views I heard in Paris.
There was much praise for the degree to which Washington and Paris have collaborated on this matter (as opposed to previous instances—namely the 2003 U.S.-led intervention in Iraq—when they did not). Indeed, there was a sense that the members of NATO and the EU have succeeded in working together in opposing Russian policy toward Ukraine, and that even the somewhat troublesome governments in Hungary and Greece will not pose an obstacle to this.
French observers, though, are unanimous in opposing the suggestions made by some American politicians and officials that the U.S. should provide arms to Ukraine in order to fight against Russian and Russian-backed forces on its territory. Indeed, I was frequently asked whether these suggestions were actually serious. They oppose such a move for several reasons, including: 1) Moscow’s ability to easily counter it with additional arms to the Russian separatists or deployment of its own forces; 2) the Ukrainian military’s weakness which casts doubt on its ability to make effective use of any arms that it might receive; and 3) the prospect that this could lead to an expanded conflict.
But just as my French interlocutors fear the impact of American over-involvement in the Ukrainian crisis, they also fear the impact of American under-involvement. There is concern in Paris that the Obama Administration is not sufficiently engaged in this conflict due to its prioritization of other issues. President Obama’s characterization of Russia as a regional threat is seen as an indicator that he may think that Russian policy in Ukraine is less America’s problem than it is Europe’s.
Some I spoke with in Paris see Europe as unable to deal with Russia on its own—partly because of the growing strength of Russian influence with business interests as well as with certain political parties. The motives of those wishing to protect their business interests in Russia are straightforward: they don’t want to suffer the damaging losses that further sanctions or open hostilities would lead to. The views of pro-Putin politicians are more complex. Many of these are motivated not so much by genuine support for—or even understanding—of Russian foreign policy, but by seeing Putin as an ally in their generally anti-American, anti-EU, and anti-German cluster of resentments. Further, some of my interlocutors felt that in France, these views are not just limited to the far right or far left, but to many mainstream politicians as well. When asked if there was anything Washington could do to change this, one observer responded with a flat, “Non!”
None of this, of course, makes it easier for Europe and America to respond effectively to Russia’s forward policy in Ukraine. Some French observers expressed fear that Putin might make similar incursions into the Baltic states—especially Latvia, where there is a large, disgruntled Russian population living along the border with Russia. This would be far more serious since the three Baltic states are members of NATO, which the other members are all bound to defend. Some, though, believe that Putin will not pursue policies toward the Baltics similar to those he has pursued toward Ukraine due to the greater risks this would run.
Yet while specific proposals about how to deal with Putin were in short supply in Paris (just as they are in Washington), there was a general sense that although Putin is in an advantageous position to pursue an aggressive foreign policy in the short run, he faces many disadvantages in the long-run. His rule in fragile and it is not in his interests to get Russia bogged down in numerous conflicts that could go on indefinitely. Putin, they believe, is rational enough to recognize this.
The best that the West can do, then, is to avoid measures (such as arming Ukraine) that could lead to a broader conflict, but make it clear to Putin that further expansion is unacceptable and will have significant costs for Russia through, among other things, continued—or perhaps even increased—economic sanctions. At the same time, Europe and America should encourage Kiev not to focus on regaining lost territory, but on reforming Ukraine economically and politically—a difficult task, but one that Putin’s behavior has made Ukrainians more willing than before to undertake. If there is one silver lining that my French interlocutors see in all this, it is that the United States government—especially Secretary of State John Kerry—has been more willing to consult and confer with the French government about this crisis with Russia than over a decade ago about the one in Iraq. Both Washington and Paris do better when they work together than when they are at cross purposes.