Q. – You’re back from Minsk, where you took part in the 16 hours of tense negotiations on Ukraine’s future; we’ll come back to the details of the agreement reached, which includes a ceasefire, the creation of a buffer zone and a democratic process. But before that, a word about the atmosphere of that 16-hour diplomatic marathon you attended alongside François Hollande, of course, Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Sixteen hours of high tension and robust discussions?
THE MINISTER – It was very difficult: nearly 17 hours of negotiations. As is often the case in these kinds of negotiations, there were highs and lows. At the beginning, we were working on a text that we, the Germans and French, had drawn up together; things were going well. The person who sets the tone is very important – the one who proposes the text prepared by our advisors beforehand.
Q. – In fact, it was Angela Merkel and François Hollande who set the tone.
THE MINISTER – Right. As we entered into the discussions, on two main points it became very difficult. In the end, it was almost scuppered completely because the separatists, who were in another building in the city, said they didn’t agree.
So there were two main points where the discussions foundered for several hours. Firstly, of course, the control of the borders: if Ukraine’s integrity is to be respected, there must be borders, and the Russians were and remain very reluctant. The other aspect is, what’s the status of the much-talked-about regions, Luhansk and Donetsk? There’s a whole very complicated mechanism there; it took a long time.
If I had to sum up the agreement that was finally signed, I’d say hope but vigilance.
Q. – When you say it became very difficult at one point, do you mean Vladimir Putin lost his temper?
THE MINISTER – No.
Q. – Were there tense discussions with the Ukrainian President or not? Did they simply talk, directly?
THE MINISTER – Yes, of course. We were in a large, circular room with a small room next door. Depending on what point we were at in the discussion – there were about 15 or 20 of us – everyone was talking together or in small groups. For example, François Hollande and Angela Merkel, Mr Poroshenko and Mr Putin, Mr Putin and M. Hollande. At other moments, there were meetings of the foreign ministers – there were four of us –, or meetings with just the four heads of state and government. (…)
Q. – Has war been avoided?
THE MINISTER – I think so and I hope so. The plan proposed and adopted is a peace plan. Now, clearly, I say “hope but vigilance” because a lot has yet to be done. A ceasefire has been decided for 0.00 on Sunday; it will have to be implemented. Then there are a whole series of legal and economic problems to overcome. I was telling you that it was almost scuppered at one point because the separatists said, “no, we don’t want your agreement”. Why? Because – I imagine you have the map in mind – there’s a city which is currently…
Q. – Being surrounded…
THE MINISTER – Well, that’s disputed: the Ukrainians say, “not at all, we’re relatively relaxed”. The Russians and the separatists say, “we’re about to surround it”.
Q. – It’s the city of Debaltsevo, a strategic hub…
THE MINISTER – Exactly. There are 5,000 to 6,000 men with powerful weapons. So the separatists wanted – want perhaps – to exploit their advantage to push it to the limit. So they wanted the ceasefire to come as late as possible so that they could turn their malicious thoughts into deeds.
Q. – Moreover, as soon as he emerged from the 17 hours of talks with you, Mr Putin asked those Ukrainian soldiers, who are supposedly surrounded, to lay down their weapons. Is it him, Vladimir Putin, who’s giving the orders?
THE MINISTER – Vladimir Putin has an influence over the separatists, but at the same time he makes out he’s an external party. Ultimately, what he’d really have liked was to be in the same situation as the Germans and French. That’s not the reality. On one side you have the Ukrainians, and on the other the separatists supported by the Russians, and you also have the French and Germans playing the role of mediators. But he challenges that role.
Q. – Do you take Vladimir Putin at his word? Why would this ceasefire agreement be respected when, as you were saying, it wasn’t in September?
THE MINISTER – We can’t be sure of anything; that’s why I say: great vigilance. (…)
Q. – Last night alone, while you were in the talks, 50 Russian tanks entered Ukrainian territory via a border post. Is there still a risk of a military escalation between now and Saturday evening?
THE MINISTER – Yes, I’d say both that it’s tragic, with the human consequences it’s having, but also that it’s like this whenever ceasefires are planned: everyone seeks the maximum advantage so as to hold their positions. So the tragic paradox on the human level is that, just before peace, there’s the maximum amount of fighting. (…)
HEAVY WEAPONS’ WITHDRAWAL/OSCE ROLE
Q. – We’ve talked about the ceasefire; there’s also going to be the buffer zone set up, with the combatants withdrawing…
THE MINISTER – Yes, on both sides. The chief aim is for heavy weapons to be withdrawn, because heavy weapons can have a considerable range – 50 kilometres, 70 kilometres. So heavy weapons must be withdrawn on both sides of the ceasefire line. You’ll understand how difficult that is because it means that a number of people will be giving up their positions. Here too, it’s a practical, natural difficulty.
Q. – Who’s going to supervise this military dismantling?
THE MINISTER – The OSCE has to supervise that. It is a body where everyone is represented, with observers. From the – I was going to say, moral – point of view, there’s obviously Germany and France.
Q. – It seems a very unreal agreement when viewed from the Ukranians’ side, from those on the front line. There are deaths every day, civilians dying in the bombardments.
THE MINISTER – Of course!
Q. – What guarantee are you giving them today? What guarantee of peace?
THE MINISTER – The commitment of the two major countries of Germany and France, the Russians’ signature and the fact that Poroshenko himself has had to make an effort. That must be clearly borne in mind: President Poroshenko was elected. He’s taking what I’d say is a relatively moderate line, but a whole section of the public in Ukraine has become increasingly anti-Russian as the conflict has developed. So it’s very difficult for him, too, to sign, because a whole section of the public is saying, even if it’s unreasonable: “We’ve got to go Russian-bashing”. (…)
Q. – And what about the sanctions against Russia? There’s a European summit this evening in Brussels. What is France going to ask? For the threat of sanctions to be maintained or not?
THE MINISTER – For the moment, in the current context, increasing the sanctions wouldn’t make sense. On the other hand, if there hadn’t been an agreement, it’s extremely likely – certain, even – that further sanctions would have been decided. Sanctions are adopted to exert pressure, but there, at the Council taking place this afternoon, there are no further sanctions.
UKRAINE/ECONOMIC AID PLAN
Q. – Does a massive economic aid plan for Ukraine also have to be embarked on, a sort of Marshall Plan? Ukraine is obviously on its last legs, because of the war effort.
THE MINISTER – Yes, that’s planned. The IMF has also released more money and the issue is raised because Ukraine was already in a very difficult situation. Here, obviously, as there’s a conflict, it’s in an even more difficult situation; in particular there are the energy supply problems. So yes, economic support undoubtedly has to be provided.
FRANCE-RUSSIA MISTRAL CONTRACT
Q. – Is the sale of the Mistrals still on hold? No decision on this from the French side?
THE MINISTER – Yes, we’re at the same point and that’s completely understandable. How do you expect the contract signed several years ago to be applied in this context? No, the contract is on hold for the moment./.