Galia Ackerman is an essayist and a historian specialized in Russia and Ukraine. She is also associate Researcher at the University of Caen. We can mention her latest book The Immortal Regiment, Putin’s sacred war where she analyses the policies of the Russian. In particular, she looks back at Putin’s attempt to rewrite the history of Russia.
We therefore wanted to ask her about Emmanuel Macron’s initial participation in the commemorations of the 9th of May 1945, Victory Day in Moscow. Galia Ackerman thinks that it would be better for Emmanuel Macron not to agree to come to the Russian capital on the 9th May, fearing that Russia inspire in Central and Eastern Europe. She also gives us her views on the evolution of the Ukrainian crisis.
Comments by Arthur Kenigsberg
The rapprochement between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin
Before the announcement of its postponement – due to Coronavirus – Emmanuel Macron had expressed his willingness to participate in the Victory Day parade on 9 May in Moscow. This participation would then have been the first for a French President since Jacques Chirac. In your opinion, was this decision the symbol of Macron’s openness towards Russia?
The opening did not begin with Emmanuel Macron’s announcement to participate in the Victory Day celebration. It started much earlier. When he took office, however, Emmanuel Macron had a lot of restraint towards Vladimir Putin when he received him in Versailles. He had even criticized in front of him Russian media broadcasting in France, namely RT and Sputnik, accusing them of being propaganda tools. But then, during his visit to the St Petersburg Economic Forum and afterwards, during Vladimir Putin’s visit at Brégançon – the French Presidents’ country house – Macron put forward the theory that Russia is not really a friend, even a country to be wary of and potentially harmful, but also a country that is essential to build common European security.
I believe that this change corresponds to Macron’s difficulties and failures with Donald Trump, because the French President failed to build a relationship based of trust and sympathy with Trump. They tapped each other on the shoulders a lot, they shook hands a lot, but in reality, Trump did not give in at all to what Macron was proposing and so now he is convinced that we can no longer really count on the transatlantic Ally.
Another important thing is that Macron has tried to propel himself as an EU leader with projects such as creating a common defense, having more economic and political integration, and here too he has been turned down. No EU leader rushed to his side. Not all these proposals have come to fruition. And so, in order to try to strengthen Europe and to create privileged relations with a power, Russia remains one of the only available options.
So this so called rapprochement might be a result of political realism according to you ?
I think it is a false political realism! I say false because it is almost impossible to build a common defense and to share common strategic interests with a country that very often lies. It is a bit brutal but Russia lied about the Skrypal poisoning case, it did not acknowledge its responsibility in the Malaysia Airlines Boeing disaster, it denied at the beginning that it had any involvement in the Crimea, and it still denies taking part in the war in the Donbas, etc. The list goes on and on! It is therefore difficult to imagine that this new « détente » can last.
As part of all these attempts to reengage dialogue, Macron has agreed to go to Moscow to attend the commemorations of May 9th (75th anniversary of Victory in World War II), which are now postponed until next autumn. France is of course recognized as one of the four great victors in the Second World War. But now Russia, its propaganda, and Russian historians are undertaking a massive rewriting of history. So not only is it a celebration that shines with these lies, but simply with the criminal cases of all those who are trying to preserve the truth, such as the famous historian Yuri Dmitriev who spent three years behind bars for his discoveries of three Stalinist mass graves – I think it’s a mistake for Macron to agree to go there, and maybe it’s good that because of the Coronavirus he is not going.
Emmanuel Macron was also ready to lend himself to another exercise in Franco-Russian friendship with the transfer of the body of Napoleonic General Charles Etienne Gudin. His remains were found near Smolensk where he perished and his bones were recognized thanks to the DNA analysis of his descendants. This spring, there was to be the solemn transfer of the body to the Invalides in the presence of Vladimir Putin.
“It was a mistake for Emmanuel Macron to want to go to the May 9th commemorations in Moscow.”
This rapprochement has produced diverse reactions in France, ranging from outright rejection to warm support. Generally speaking, there is the impression that Russia always seems to arouse extreme and opposing passions in France, between fascination on the one hand and continuous mistrust on the other. What do you think about that?
There are many influential people in France who are very interested, for various reasons, in a rapprochementwith Russia. We can look at the interests of each influence group.
There is of course a part of the ruling elite. At Macron’s instigation, French Ambassadors in various countries and Quai d’Orsay’s – French MFA – staff and administration were told to not undermine the President’s efforts in this direction, and that resistance would not be tolerated from people dealing with French foreign policy on a practical level.
There is of course the extreme right in general and particularly Marine Le Pen’s party, the Rassemblement National, which has always been pro-Russian because the Russians more or less openly support the break-up of the European Union. I read a lot of Russian newspapers, I watch a lot of Russian TV and I see very often claims that the European Union may not survive this pandemic. Marine Le Pen does not have to change her position, she has most probably received money from Russia and, ideologically, this Russian tendency to national sovereignty suits her very well. And especially its anti-European tendency.
There are also some politicians on the extreme left who are against classical parliamentary democracy and who are not, in fact, unfavourable to Russia.
Part of the army admires the great reform of the army, which has produced very good results, as the war in Syria has shown. Some career soldiers also dream that in our society there could be as much admiration for the army, with such a budget dedicated to it. Russia, which puts its army at the centre of attention, arouses the admiration of certain French soldiers.
There are also business circles. We know that doing business in Russia is very dangerous, because it is a very corrupt country. On the other hand, there can be profits there that cannot be obtained elsewhere. In short, the lure of profit is big enough to attract many French industrialists.
In short, if we take all these people who are in favour of opening up to Russia, there is a lot of people.
Fears and refusals of a rapprochement with Russia
This French initiative has also triggered strong reactions among our European partners, particularly in the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania. Moreover, these countries are generally opposed to initiatives to build closer ties with Russia. Could you explain this position to us?
It is very simple! One of the biggest Russian lies being uttered at the moment concerns the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which has completely changed the face of Europe. Under this pact, the Soviets, together with Hitler, dismembered Poland and then annexed the Baltic States and part of Romania, Bessarabia. That was in 39/40.
During the war the Germans occupied all these territories and at the end of the war the Soviets eventually recovered them.
This occupation of the Baltic States, part of Poland (today, Western Ukraine and Western Belarus) and part of Romania resulted each time in 39/40 and afterwards from 44/45 by death sentences, imprisonment, transfers of populations to Soviet camps in Siberia. These populations suffered in their flesh from this double occupation. This is something they have not forgotten, and these populations remain very distrustful of Russia.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols defining the division of Eastern and Central Europe between the Nazis and the Soviets are at the center of the attempt to rewrite history. Currently, Russians are trying to show that the Pact was completely legitimate and even the secret protocols were justified, when their existence is not simply denied… In short, when Emmanuel Macron intended to go to Moscow on 9 May, he should also have had reminded of those for whom the Liberation from Nazis meant at the same time another occupation.
« One of the biggest Russian lies at the moment is about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which has completely changed the face of Europe. »
Yet within this region, political unity about Russia does not translate into consensus. The example of the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia) is particularly interesting. How to explain these differences in positions between states and between political leaders?
The « pro-Russian » position of the Czech Republic is quite strange. A communist government was imposed on them after the war; they also have the trauma of the Prague Spring crash in 1968. In Hungary, these positions are also astonishing because Hungarians keep the memory of the 1956 Budapest Uprising, crushed with great cruelty.
It is rather complicated to understand why these two countries of the Visegrád Group show favorable positions to Russia. I think it is because Russia is usually against « Third World immigration » to Europe. Viktor Orbán is a nationalist and sovereigntist, who often goes against the European Union, and he frequently states that this immigration destroys European identity and its history. To a more modest extent, it is the whole Visegrád group that does not want to implement the decisions of the European Union, for example, on quotas for refugees. These small countries fear for their identity.
These countries feel a little isolated within the European Union compare to large countries such as France or Germany. They believe that the rapprochement with Russia is in their interests because they are supported in their positions and ideas.
Considering these specific conditions, what should be the strategy to adopt with Russia while avoiding alienating our European partners?
Some politicians such as Hubert Védrine – former French Foreign Affairs Minister (1997-2002) – who remains highly influential, defend the idea that dialogue is always a good thing. In other words, we do not give up on our principles, but we have to talk as it is the principle of diplomacy. Yes, we have to talk, but the question is: to talk about what? and to achieve which specific objective?
For example, Russia during the Coronavirus crisis asked the UN to adopt a resolution to fight the pandemic: to abolish all economic sanctions in order to manage at best this crisis and to be able to import medicines and technologies. But we know very well what Russia wants. It is being strangled by the fall in oil prices and the Russians want the sanctions that are holding them back to be lifted. However, there has been no embargo on the import of medicines to Russia, which is cheating on the part of the Russians, and what they want is for the sanctions to be abolished.
After the Coronavirus crisis, some European countries are going to raise the issue of lifting sanctions against Russia, as well as the issue of Russian counter-sanctions against, for example, our food industry. We will have to save our economies, so we will see whether it is principles that will win or political realism. As we are in a new situation with this Coronavirus crisis, I personally cannot predict what may happen.
The evolution of the Ukrainian conflict
One of the major sources of tension between the EU Member States and Russia is, of course, Ukraine. War has been raging for six years now in the Donbas. The surprise election of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy just a year ago raised many hopes. At the same time, Russia still seems reluctant to cooperate in a possible resolution of the conflict. How do you see this situation developing?
I have always believed that the Minsk Agreements were not feasible. They were adopted in an atmosphere where part of the Ukrainian army was surrounded: it could perish, there could be a hecatomb. So Poroshenko gave up on a few points because we had to get out of this situation. In the Minsk Agreements, there are points that are in favor of Russia but also points that are in favor of Ukraine. However, what is favorable to one side is unacceptable to the other.
Let me explain. For example, it is quite possible to establish a lasting ceasefire if international troops, for example, peacekeepers, are stationed along the border between the part of the Donbas occupied by the self-proclaimed republics and the rest of Ukrainian territory, that is possible. We can also get new exchanges of prisoners because not everyone has been exchanged yet.
The two self-proclaimed republics already have the Russian currency: the ruble; their population speaks only Russian, many of them have Russian passports; most economic exchanges are with Russia. However, they are not Russian regions and I do not think they will return to Russia because it would mean more social assistance from the Russian state whereas it already finances the costs of the annexed Crimea, which is now a Russian region.
We will therefore probably see these two republics remain autonomous, in a state of frozen conflict like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh or Transnistria. These regions will be partially emptied of their population – as we speak more than a million people has already left both to Ukraine and Russia. These two republics are currently ruled by “bandits”. It is the Soviet past that has been resurrected, ruled by bandits with the help of Russian advisors and military force.
A frozen conflict would rather be a good scenario for Ukraine because the Minsk Agreements provide for free elections in both republics. But how can free elections be held in territories under Russian armed control ? These Ukrainian parties would probably not be able to campaign or to have access to television. With these people currently in power all of that is not possible and therefore free elections cannot take place. If the elections take place, but under the control of the separatist authorities, the representatives of these two republics elected to the Rada, would be able to take part in blocking decisions on the main orientations of the country. This is not at all in Ukraine’s interests.
On the other hand, the role Volodymyr Zelenskiy is going to play does not seem clear, indeed he is unpredictable, one day he says one thing and the next day he says the opposite. He is not an experienced politician and at the same time he is probably subject to contradictory influences. His policy is therefore not as clear as that of Poroshenko, who made some mistakes but who, at least in broad terms, had not betrayed what he had promised at the time of his election. With Zelenskiy things are not clear.
There have been appointments to important posts that are strange, to say the least, and we know that Zelenskiy is influenced by an oligarch called Igor Kolomoyski, who is a sort of Ukrainian Berezovski.
There is, however, one note of hope: in Ukraine civil society is quite important. Since the first months of Zelenskiy’s election, many NGOs have signed a kind of memorandum with red lines in the policy that should not be crossed and so far he has not crossed them. We can therefore still hope that Ukraine will continue on the path of reform, that the state will not be declared bankrupt and that Zelenskiy will consolidate the leadership of the country.
« It is very important to separate the problem of the war in Donbas, the annexation of Crimea, and the current development of Ukraine. This is the best thing we can do. »
France is active on this issue as one initiating nation of the Normandy Format. However, it must be acknowledged that diplomatic successes have been rather limited, to say the least, over the past 6 years. In fact, how can French and European strategies towards Ukraine can be developed or strengthened in order to obtain peace? And how can we help Ukraine in its European quest?
I think that unfortunately our diplomacy in the Normandy Format suffers from the fact that we cannot go very far with the Minsk Agreements. There were two agreements, Minsk I and Minsk II, we must now move to Minsk III because with the current agreements there will be nothing but deadlock. At the moment we cannot really make progress on the issues that are still causing problems.
Independently of the Minsk Agreements and the problems caused by the two self-proclaimed republics, France and the European Union can still accompany Ukraine in its financial and economic management, encourage it and even force it to reform because Ukraine is an extremely corrupt country. We must therefore support it very firmly if these reforms are to be carried out.
Before Coronavirus, Ukraine experienced a dynamic economic growth. It is a country of hard-working people, but it is a country where oligarchs are rampant. Ukraine is in the position that Russia would have been without Vladimir Putin, that is to say, a relatively free country with free media and movement, but undermined by corruption.
It is very important to separate the problem of the war in Donbas, the annexation of Crimea, and the current development of Ukraine. This is the best thing we can do.
Thank you for answering our questions! Finally, would you have any books to advise us in order to understand better Russia, Vladimir Putin and its geopolitics?
In the collection Que sais-je je I recommend the book of Françoise Thom and Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier Géopolitique de la Russie, it is short and well written. Then there is also Françoise Thom’s book Comprendre le poutinisme. And finally, I took the liberty to quote my own book The Immortal Regiment, it can be useful to understand Russia, and I specify that there is also a large and well detailed chapter about Ukraine.