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World Stage: Ukraine with Philippe Étienne, French Ambassador to the United States

World Stage: Ukraine with Philippe Étienne, French Ambassador to the United States

Published on March 1, 2022
The Washington Post | Live (February 28, 2022)

David IGNATIUS – Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Post. This afternoon, in the third of our three discussions today on the war in Ukraine, I’m joined by France’s ambassador to Washington, Ambassador Philippe Étienne. Ambassador Étienne, welcome back to Washington Post. We’re glad to have you today.

Ambassador Philippe ÉTIENNE – Thank you, David. Thank you for having me again.

So, Mr. Ambassador, today we have some significant diplomatic news centered around President Macron, the president of France, who spoke today with President Zelensky of Ukraine, and then with his encouragement, had a 90-minute phone conversation with President Vladimir Putin in Russia. Tell us about those conversations and about where things stand after the talks that your president had today.

Thank you, David. I think it is important also to say that there was another coordination between the European and American and G7 leaders, because we keep this very close coordination between all of us. The purpose – and as President Zelensky is concerned, he speaks with many leaders in the world, and in particular, he has been having many conversations with our president.

The call with the Russian president was made to – again to demand a ceasefire, and but also, more precisely, also to ask for the immediate stop of attacks against civilian residential areas and against civilian infrastructure and to provide for humanitarian access. France is right now putting forward to the Security Council of the United Nations – or we’ll do this very soon – a new resolution on humanitarian access. This is, unfortunately, now really one of the top priorities both inside Ukraine and of course for the refugees outside Ukraine.

So, Mr. Ambassador, reading the initial accounts of the conversations between President Macron and President Putin, President Macron called for a halt on all airstrikes and attacks on civilians, as you said, preservation of civilian infrastructure, road axes south of Kyiv, and interestingly, according to the account that I have, President Putin confirmed his willingness to commit on all three requests that President Macron made to him. Is that accurate?

Yes, but we will see. Like other commitments he made, of course, we will – we will see, in the reality what happens. Indeed, you added something also very important, which is to keep up and – one of the roads, at least, of course, to Kyiv. And it’s really important right now to do this. And again, he – the Russian leader will have the choice of doing it or not. But the fact that he committed himself to it in this – in the conversation, doesn’t mean anywhere that he changes his general attitude. But at least this humanitarian question and the protection of civilians, we’ll see what happens. We will judge on the reality, as I say, on the ground.

As you say, this is a situation in which actions matter more than words. But I’m interested in whether President Putin made any commitment to President Macron to cease attacks on the civilian population in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities where people have been pounded by bombardment today. Did he make any commitment to do that?

Well, it is a – it is the meaning of what the – what was discussed. And I’m not following the exactly what’s happening on the ground. But I heard after a certain period where there was all these discussions happening between the two delegations that, again, there are shootings in Kharkiv, for instance, and very – and heavy weapons being used. So, we will see. But anyway, it’s really important to make clear as directly as possible to him and to tell him what we know is happening, and to tell him what we want him to do.

So, Mr. Ambassador, just so our viewers will understand where this diplomacy goes next, France will be introducing, if I understood you earlier, a resolution shortly at the Security Council. And can you be specific as to what the points of that resolution will be?

Yes, there are two tracks here. There was a first resolution vetoed by Russia condemning its – the invasion. And yesterday, the Security Council of the United Nations decided to send the matter to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and it will be discussed this week.

And then there is another issue, which is humanitarian access, which is a priority in such conflicts where the civilians pay such a high tribute, and there are already hundreds of civilians who have lost their lives. And we have to secure the conformity with international humanitarian law. And this is the role also of the Security Council, and this is a reason why we will introduce a second draft resolution to be hopefully voted as soon as possible.

And I’m wondering, Mr. Ambassador, what comes next. Your president has had a channel of communication with President Putin, not just in this crisis, but going back several years. Was there any discussion between them of a follow-up conversation, of further discussions about some way to resolve this conflict?

Our president has shown that he is – he will not hesitate to engage, to pass the right messages, and to contribute to a solution or an improvement of the situation. But at the same time – and we have made clear that while we have these discussions, first, we do it in coordination with the president of Ukraine and also with our allies and our partners; and second, we make more and more decisions which hit and isolate Russia as long as we don’t see these requests being followed. And as you have seen, we have taken – and France being one – the presidents of the Council of the EU has had a very important role, of course, there. In one week, we have adopted three series of massive sanctions, and we are implementing them. And we are already seeing the results. So we are – we will continue to – this action. But of course, there – if there is a possibility to improve or to solve a situation, we will do it, but we will do it always in coordination with the authorities of Ukraine, and especially with the president of Ukraine, who has really an attitude which everybody admires.

And before we leave the subject of today’s diplomatic conversations, I want to just to make sure in the initial conversation that President Macron had with other Western leaders, including President Biden, did he have the full support of those leaders in Europe and the United States for making this initiative?

There is – I was not on the call – on the last call per multilateral, and it was about a lot of other issues, I am sure. But this is clearly in – done in a way where we are – because it’s a condition for our success. We are absolutely closely coordinating everything we are doing, the wants of the others. And it is the reason why it works, by the way, because on the issue of sanctions, for instance, the fact that we have been preparing them even while we were trying to preventing this war, we were preparing our sanctions. And it works, as we have seen. So, yes, there is a real – a really close coordination among the Europeans and between the Europeans and the Americans, and with the other partners and allies.

So one thing that some analysts have noted is that over this first week of war, the balance has shifted more towards European action. The United States obviously is playing a leading role. But we had Germany coming out and announcing that it was halting progress on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The European Union has been strongly committed to economic sanctions. France and other European countries worked closely on this morning’s remarkable announcement on sanctions against the Russian Central Bank. But we’re seeing a very strong Europe. And I wonder if it’s right to say that the balance has shifted a little bit so that it’s maybe a more equal distribution between Europe and America. How would you – how would you read Europe’s role over the last week?

The role of Europe and especially of the European Union is important, and the EU is stronger and has taken strong attitudes compared with previous crises in previous times. The U.S. has always been strong and a leader, but the U.S. can only benefit from having a stronger ally on the European side of the Atlantic. And this is happening now. And at least this is something we can – we can see as positive in these terrible times, because it has played a role, a decisive role in getting to a strong reaction, and which has – which binds, which has effects in Russia.

I think it is also due to the U.S. and the U.S. administration, because all of this has been closely coordinated, and we have time to prepare ourselves together. And there was on the U.S. side a real wish to have this coordination in the most effective way. So, I think it is a positive dynamic that – for the U.S. and for the European Union. And indeed, I would go that far to say that you have – you have seen a kind – a sort of transformation of the European Union with the kind of decision which had been taken, including in the – in the field of defense. So, yes, it is definitely something which is impressive. And within the EU, as you’ve said, Germany, but all the also other countries have moved quite decisively. And the EU as such is in this crisis a very, very important actor, which decides quickly on strong measures in close coordination with the United States.

So I want to ask you in particular, Mr. Ambassador about Germany. The French-German relationship is obviously crucial for the European Union. France has had a strong military and a willingness to use that military for decades. But Germany has been much more reticent, as you know, wary of defense spending, was sharply criticized not just by former President Trump, but by other Americans for not carrying its fair share. The announcements of the last several days from Germany about the German willingness to ship lethal weapons to Ukraine and the significant increase in the German defense budget are quite extraordinary. And I’d just be interested in your assessment as France’s ambassador to Washington about these changes in Germany, in terms of its military stance.

Well, exactly because I am the French ambassador in Washington, I am not the best place to speak for another country. But actually, it happens I was ambassador in Germany also between 2014 and 2017. And I remember in November 2015 – you remember, too, David – the terrorist motor – motorist terrorist attacks in the center of Paris by terrorist groups against our country. And I remember, I was there [unclear] in Berlin, and the German parliament, the German government and German parliament decided in a very short time to answer positively to our requests for help, also for military help. So, I think that we have no doubt about – and as you said, France and Germany, with their different traditions, histories are – their cooperation is – has been from the very beginning a fundamental element in the European integration. But I personally have no doubt about the fact that Germany, when we come to such a crisis, will do what’s necessary.

But indeed, the decisions taken by Germany in recent days are quite impressive and are very important in this general movement. I described a European Union which is more and more able to be – to be strong, to be quick, to be a capable ally of the United States when it comes – and complementary to NATO, of course. So, you have seen also this NATO Summit, which was really important, and we took also very important decisions. The EU becomes an actor which is really up to the task.

And I would say, if you consider the whole history of the European Union, not only that France and Germany have always played a very important role together with the other countries, the other member states, but also that the EU has grown, has become stronger through crisis. And so it is also something which is not completely new because of this huge, huge crisis, this even turning point in the history of Europe, we see the EU adapting its role and stepping up.

I’m interested in the reaction of public opinion in France and other European countries. France, with all of us has watched the bravery of the Ukrainian people at resisting the Russian invasion, the bravery in particular of President Zelensky. And I wonder if that is going to have any effect on French public opinion on the question of enlargement of the European Union to include the possibility of membership by Ukraine. What do you think?

I think that there has been, across Europe, but in the world, more broadly, of course, including the United States, a very strong movement of sympathy. There is – there is a strong emotion which is felt, and it is completely understandable and positive. And I think it has also been an element for what has already been decided by the EU. For instance, the acceleration of the decision concerning SWIFT or the decision to make available defensive weapons and equipment for the Ukrainians so bravely defend their country. So yes, it gives this feeling of sympathy. I don’t know how it will play out in the future on the – on the question of the enlargement of the European Union. But I’m sure there is this strong movement of sympathy and emotion in our country like in all the European countries.

Ambassador, let’s shift our discussion a bit to talk about Russia. It’s widely said by analysts here in the United States that President Putin appears to have miscalculated – miscalculated the extent to which Ukrainians would resist the Russian invasion, miscalculated NATO’s and Europe’s unity with the United States in resisting aggression through sanctions and other means. Does France – do your colleagues in the Foreign Ministry share that assessment that Putin appears to have miscalculated here?

Well, it’s difficult to know exactly. But apparently, indeed, if you look at how the military operations have started with the use of only a part of this massive accumulation of military equipments accumulated on the border of Ukraine, it seems pretty clear that there was at least a hope on the Russian side that things would go differently. And you’re right to say that both the resistance of the Ukrainians – which is, of course, the most important on the ground – but also the rapidity and the strength of our collective reactions to the invasion might have been something which has not completely factored in by the – by the Russian move. And it must also reinforce our determination to continue to be very, very, very firm to address this invasion.

Your country has traditionally had close cultural relations with Russia, certainly in the pre-communist period. We remember seeing art exhibitions in Paris about Paris-Moscow. I’m wondering what you think the effect of this invasion and the strong opposition to it, what effect that will have on the Russian public and whether it’s likely that we’ll see continuing, maybe even increasing protests in Russia against this policy if Putin continues with his war?

Well, David, I thought of this myself. I lived in Russia 30 years ago, three years in Moscow, with my family. I speak Russian. We loved the Russian culture, language, literature. And I cannot imagine that the Russians themselves accept this, even if the access to the information is made more difficult for them. I’m sure that this action, these invasions, this use of such a force against the country which is also so close to Russia cannot – must raise a lot of negative reactions in Russia itself, in spite of the propaganda and everything, as I said, the control of the information and also the repression. So, it’s just a guess. We have some signals, of course. We see that in Russia.

But you’re right to say also that there is a sympathy in Germany, in France, in many European countries for these traditional – you know, this Russian culture – by the way, not only traditional the creation – cultural creation today, there is this norm. And it didn’t prevent us to act. But we do not want to act against the Russian people. We want to act against this policy and this invasion, military invasion of another European country.

Let’s talk for a moment about one of the dangers that could lie ahead, and that is the threat of Russian cyberattacks, which have been experienced by the United States, by France, by many countries in Europe in the past. And there’s concern that as Putin faces such opposition in Ukraine, he may turn to cyber weapons. Tell us about France’s preparation for the possibility of such cyberattacks. And do you believe that France, the United States, NATO countries in general, should regard such attacks as acts of war – they’re certainly going to be damaging – under NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defense?

Well, probably it would depend on the – on the – on the scope and the nature of these attacks. But you’re right. We are very much indeed aware of this danger. And cybersecurity in general – not only in our relations with Russia – but in general is – has been a growing concern, and a topic more and more important for our security cooperation between France and the U.S. and between Europe and the U.S. So, I guess we are better prepared. People in the business community, in the society are more aware. We try to better protect our critical infrastructures. And again, we do it in close cooperation. But we are aware of these dangers. And I think the people in charge of this are very, very vigilant.

Again, to ask about one of the darker scenarios ahead, assuming that this war continues, that today’s diplomacy is not successful in checking it, and we have a Russian conquest of major Ukrainian cities, occupation, there is the question of whether the United States, France, other Western countries should support this Ukrainian opposition to Russian occupation, if that’s what it becomes. What is France’s feeling about whether to help the Ukrainians resist, through supplies of weapons and other assistance, as they – as they fight against an occupation army?

Well, we are doing that already with the fact that, indeed, the Ukrainians hold their cities, especially the two big cities to the north, Kyiv and Kharkiv, in spite of the massive use of military force by the Russian army. They fight everywhere. And we support them, of course.

And there is another place where we support the Ukrainians, which is the refugees which – and we commend the work made by the member states of the EU who are on the front line, especially Poland, but also – as we see on the TV, but also Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, also Moldova, not an EU member state, which was on the front line. This is also where to – everybody has seen these heartbreaking pictures of mothers and children’s saying goodbye to their husbands and fathers. And we welcome them, the Ukrainian refugees. and it is also a way to contribute to the Ukrainian people.

And this is something which we do at the level of the European Union. The EU has also a very strong policy here. And the French presidency organized a meeting of all the first ministers last Sunday. We are active in – on all fronts of this – of this crisis to help the Ukrainians in different way.

So, we have just a minute left. Mr. Ambassador, I’m going to ask you a quick question. I can remember talking to you in recent months, in the last year when U.S.-French relations were really in a terrible situation because of French anger over the AUKUS submarine deal. What would be your quick summary of the state of U.S.-French relations today?

Well, first, they have great – they have recovered after AUKUS because we had – the United States reached out very, very quickly, and including, and first of all, the president of the United States. And we had a very, very, very substantial dialogue, which led to the declaration adopted by President Biden and President Macron in Rome at the end of October.

And now even before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we had developed – we had implementing this declaration, we have advanced very much in Africa, in the Indo-Pacific, and on this – on the subject of European defense. And now we see how it is useful, especially when France is holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union, that this work has been doing – has been done. And we are – indeed, there were many conversations between the two presidents. And we are indeed seeing a very close coordination. I mentioned the preparation of the sanctions between the whole of the EU, but on all the aspects of this, of this very, very serious crisis, the dialogue, the cooperation, the exchange are permanent between our two countries.

So, Ambassador Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to Washington, thank you so much for joining us and talking about things that are happening almost as we speak. We look forward to having you back with us at Washington Post Live.

Thank you. Thank you, David. Thank you very much.

So thank you to our viewers for joining us today. We’ve had our three discussions of Ukraine. We’ll be continuing those through this week. If you want to look at the programming we’ve got ahead, go to WashingtonPostLive.com, register for the programs that interest you. Thanks for joining us today.