Q. – So, in Ukraine the situation is increasingly tense; Russia isn’t yielding an inch. Has Vladimir Putin won?
THE MINISTER – No, and our approach throughout this crisis has been to show firmness – because we can’t agree to the integrity of a country, in this case Ukraine, being flouted – and, at the same time, to try and find avenues of dialogue.
The day before yesterday, there was a certain de-escalation. During the meeting in Paris, we got everyone to meet and a certain possible way forward was found. But yesterday it was the opposite, because the Crimean parliament voted for annexation, as it were.
Q. – Is what’s currently happening in Crimea an annexation?
THE MINISTER – The Crimean parliament’s wish is to be incorporated into Russia. But no one’s fooled by this. The demarche is obviously being carried out in liaison with the Russian authorities. I’ve noted a number of things which tie in with each other and have been done over the past few days. Firstly, the Russian soldiers in Crimea; then a decision which went almost unnoticed – even though it’s very important – taken by Mr Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, saying: “we’re going to build a bridge between Russia and Crimea over the Kerch Strait”. Then the Crimean parliament’s appeal. Then a law [drafted] by the Duma, stating that “if a region of a foreign country votes to be incorporated [into Russia], we Russians will allow it to happen”. Finally, the proposed referendum text, which is totally unconstitutional and illegal under international law, which states: “either more autonomy or incorporation into Russia” with a date which has been brought forward. All this demonstrates that there’s obviously a manoeuvre.
Q. – A manoeuvre by Vladimir Putin?
THE MINISTER – Of course. I want to be absolutely clear: I’m a friend of Russia and have always championed the partnership between Russia and France, which historically is something very important and desirable. This is reflected in the effort we’re making to bring about a de-escalation. But partnership doesn’t mean weakness, and friendship doesn’t mean being blinkered. So we’ve got to be clear and I think it’s very important for Europe to be united – and it is – in this crisis, which is perhaps one of the most serious since the Cold War.
We’re working very closely with our German friends in particular – on instructions from the President, which we’re following – and we’re working with the Americans too.
Yesterday I was at a conference on Libya in Rome, where I saw Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, and I was there with my friend Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister. The Europeans must stand together, and they are.
Q. – And you feel you’re on the same wavelength! Let me put the question to you again very clearly: has Russia today annexed Crimea?
THE MINISTER – It hasn’t actually done so yet, but it controls it. It’s present with its soldiers, and, if the referendum takes place, the spirit of it is to say that Crimea and Russia are one and the same. We have to clearly see that, beyond the Ukraine issue, which is already very serious, there’s a wider issue.
Q. – You fear that the Russians will go further?
THE MINISTER – No, not only that. But if a region in the world – be it in Europe, Asia, Africa or elsewhere – can, because it is called on by a neighbouring country, decide to change borders and incorporate itself into the neighbouring country, it means there’s no longer any international stability.
Q. – That’s what happened in Georgia a few years back…
THE MINISTER – Yes, and it’s not a good example at all.
Q. – The Russians actually control South Ossetia and Abkhazia today.
THE MINISTER – And we were told at the time that it wouldn’t happen, and it’s happening. But there’s a difference – I don’t want to be legalistic – between actual control and incorporation, i.e. the disappearance of a country and the incorporation of a region into another country. In Georgia, we’re talking about South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and, in fact, the Russians stayed there even though they said they wouldn’t, but those two provinces haven’t been incorporated into another country.
SANCTIONS AGAINST RUSSIA
Q. – You’re protesting again this morning about Russia’s attitude; let’s say things very simply: isn’t it too late? Isn’t Crimea’s fate sealed?
THE MINISTER – No.
Q. – Have you any more means of preventing what’s happening today in Ukraine?
THE MINISTER – Yes! And this is the strategy…
Q. – What are they?
THE MINISTER – …that we’re pursuing. As you saw yesterday, a first round of sanctions was adopted by heads of state and government. And if there aren’t very swift results, then there’ll be new measures aimed at Russian leaders and companies.
Q. – Including by personally targeting Vladimir Putin?
THE MINISTER – It may be asset freezes, it may be visa cancellations or refusals. And if another attempt is made, then we get into an entirely different thing, namely serious consequences concerning relations between Europe and Russia.
Q. – What does “serious consequences” mean?
THE MINISTER – It means that if a country acts in such a way as not to respect the borders and independence of other countries – and this isn’t far from the EU –, it means that given this hypothetical scenario – which I absolutely don’t wish for, and we’re trying to bring about a de-escalation – we can in no way have the same relations as we had before. And we’d go back to what we experienced many years ago, with the huge problems that will pose for Russia.
Q. – But for the people listening to us, what does it mean? Is it a return to the Cold War? Is it the choice of war? What is it?
THE MINISTER – I’m not going to both argue for de-escalation and cite apocalyptic examples. But it means that, in economic terms, clearly relations couldn’t be the same at all. It means a very severe blow would be struck against Russia, because you mustn’t forget that Russia is a fragile power, economically speaking. What they’re doing is resulting in a huge collapse of the rouble and probably a withdrawal of foreign investment in Russia. Yesterday the United States discussed the prospect of exporting gas to reduce energy dependency, so it means a total change in our relations.
We’re not yet at that stage; at the same time we want to be firm – because what’s happening is unacceptable; the people must be supported – and we want de-escalation.
Q. – You haven’t answered my question about possible sanctions against Vladimir Putin himself.
THE MINISTER – An initial list of sanctions was adopted by the Europeans against 18 Ukrainian people close to former president Yanukovych, and the Americans adopted a second list of sanctions that may target either Russians or Ukrainians.
Q. – So you’re not ruling out sanctions against Vladimir Putin?
THE MINISTER – Because he’s the leader of a state, it’s a different matter. By contrast, it’s entirely possible for the whole so-called close circle, if the Russians don’t understand that they must return to a normal international relationship.
Q. – I’m asking you because François Fillon, for example, criticizes you, criticizes the French government for treating the Russians – and I quote him – as if they were a sort of South American dictatorship with a million inhabitants… ultimately, for looking down on the Russians.
THE MINISTER – Yes! I remember – perhaps you do too – M. Fillon calling Mr Putin by his first name and explaining that all this was entirely peaceful. I don’t want to get personal about things, but I think that in this business it’s better to support your own country than provide support to those who are violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
SOCHI PARALYMPIC GAMES/FRENCH PRESENCE
Q. – It’s Friday; the Paralympic Games are beginning in a moment in Sochi; can you confirm to us that the French government is going to boycott the opening ceremony in Sochi?
THE MINISTER – We’re adopting an attitude that seems to me very reasonable. There’s no question of penalizing the athletes, because they’ve worked in very difficult circumstances to be there, they’ve worked for months and it’s right for them to be able to compete. But for there to be French ministers there too would have been very inappropriate, so they won’t be there./.