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Sarkozy vilified for speaking uncomfortable truths about Ukraine

The former French president offers a diplomatic way out — the commentariat responds with reflexive 'pro-Putin' invectives.

Analysis | Europe

In an interview with Le Figaro published on August 16 and based on his new book, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid out what has been missing from Western thinking on the war in Ukraine: a diplomatic Plan B in case the present Ukrainian offensive fails. 

If it does fail, as seems increasingly probable, the most likely alternative to a diplomatic solution is an indefinite and bloody war of attrition along roughly the present battle lines.

Quite apart from the threats of disastrous escalation and a NATO-Russia war described  by Sarkozy, Westerners who are or claim to be friends of Ukraine should consider the consequences of an unending war on that country. These include a continuation of dreadful human losses and continued destruction of the Ukrainian economy, with no certainty at all over who will pay to rebuild it. They would also entail the indefinite postponement of the process of EU accession, which would have offered Ukraine its best chance of truly joining the West and the inability of Ukrainian refugees to return home, leading to a catastrophic and permanent decline in Ukraine’s population.

In addition to all of this: the possibility that a Ukrainian army exhausted and bled white by years of failed offensives will eventually fall victim to a Russian counter-attack, leading to territorial losses far greater than Ukraine has suffered so far.

This being so, one might think that even those who disagree with Sarkozy’s specific recommendations would welcome the chance to hold a serious public debate on ways forward. Instead, the response from the great majority of Western (including French) politicians and commentators has followed the wearisomely familiar path of denunciations of the former president as a “Russian influencer” and “friend of Putin” whose remarks were “shameful” and “shocking.”

A survey of Western “news” reports (mostly in fact veiled and hostile opinion pieces) is interesting in this regard. Of the ten top stories about the interview resulting from a Google search, only two focused on Sarkozy's remarks themselves. All the others, in their content and headlines (like “'Shameful’ Nicolas Sarkozy Under Fire for Defending Putin” in The Guardian), highlighted and quoted at length the angry attacks on Sarkozy.

What Sarkozy actually said is the following:

“Without compromise, nothing will be possible and we run the risk that the situation will degenerate at any moment. This powder keg could have frightful consequences…

The Ukrainians... will want to reconquer what has been unjustly taken from them. But if they can't manage it completely, the choice will be between a frozen conflict... or taking the high road out with referenda [in territories occupied by Russia since 2014] strictly overseen by the international community… any return to the way things were before [ie Ukrainian rule over Crimea] is an illusion. An incontestable referendum... will be needed to solidify the current state of affairs.

On the question of NATO membership for Ukraine, Sarkozy said that:

“Russia has to renounce all military action against its neighbors … Ukraine must pledge to remain neutral … NATO could at the same time affirm its willingness to respect and take into account Russia’s historic fear of being encircled by unfriendly neighbors.”

He also described as unrealistic and hypocritical suggestions that Ukraine can join the European Union in the foreseeable future, comparing this to Turkey’s hopeless decades-long efforts: “We are selling fallacious promises that will not be kept to.”

On French President Emmanuel Macron’s previous efforts to negotiate with Putin, Sarkozy said that these had been correct, but that Macron had failed to follow up with any concrete proposals for compromise, partly “due to pressure from eastern Europeans.”

Sarkozy asked Europeans to remember that, like it or not, Russia will always remain part of Europe and a neighbor of the EU, with which it will be necessary to co-exist. Therefore, “European interests aren’t aligned with American interests this time.”

Despite the near-universal vilification Sarkozy’s interview has provoked, much of what he said has in fact been stated on background by some U.S. and European officials, and quoted in the Western media. In February, unnamed Biden administration officials told the New York Times that the U.S. goal should not be for Ukraine to retake Crimea (something that they judged both extremely difficult military and a risk for Russian escalation towards nuclear war) but instead to “credibly threaten” the Russian military hold on the peninsula, so as to “strengthen Kyiv’s position in future negotiations.”

This however leads – or should lead – to the obvious question: Future negotiations about what? Unlike Sarkozy, these U.S. officials and their European counterparts have not been willing to state the obvious conclusion: that if Ukraine could achieve such a military success without actually reconquering Crimea, the resulting negotiations would have to be about returning to Ukraine the territories it has lost since last year, while leaving Crimea (and probably the eastern Donbas, also in practice held by Russia since 2014) in Russian hands.

Nor have they addressed the question of how such a peace settlement could be internationally legitimized. Here Sarkozy has suggested a democratic solution that has also been proposed by Thomas Graham and others, but has been rigorously ignored by the governments of Western democracies: to place the decision in the hands of the populations of the areas concerned through internationally supervised referenda.

At present however — and as the Pentagon correctly in advance warned was likely — the Ukrainian army is still very far from being able to retake Crimea, and will very likely never be in that position. The probable failure of the present Ukrainian offensive is now being widely discussed by Western official and unofficial analysts. Once again, however, few have drawn the obvious conclusion that the result will be a prolonged war of attrition, leading either to an eventual ceasefire along present lines or — possibly — to a new Russian victory.

Even fewer have echoed Sarkozy in arguing that the eventual result will have to be a compromise peace, and suggested what the terms of that peace should be.

As to Ukrainian EU membership, EU officials and analysts with whom I talked in Brussels last autumn echoed in private Sarkozy’s profound skepticism that this would be possible for a very long time to come. This is partly because the costs of Ukrainian reconstruction would place unprecedented and colossal strain on EU budgets. Six months ago, the World Bank estimated that the cost of this reconstruction would already be around $411 billion — two and a half times Ukraine’s GDP for 2022 and more than twelve times the EU’s entire present annual spending on aid to its poorer members.

Severe doubts were also expressed to me about Ukraine’s ability to achieve the kind of internal reforms that would enable it to even begin to meet the conditions of the EU’s Acquis Communautaire. President Macron believes that even if peace can be achieved, it will take Ukraine “several decades” to qualify. In these unfavorable circumstances for Ukraine and the West, to reject Sarkozy’s remarks reflexively and without discussion seems the height of irresponsibility, hypocrisy, and moral cowardice, and also does not serve the real interests of Ukraine.

In 1916 and 1917, as the Western front congealed into a horrendously bloody stalemate and Russia sank into revolution and civil war, dissident voices began to be raised in the European combatants calling for a compromise peace. And in all these countries, these voices were also described as “shameful” and silenced by accusations of “treason” and “surrender.”

The result was that three great European states were destroyed, the victors (with the exception of the United States) were irrevocably crippled, and the grounds were laid for Fascism, Stalinism, and the even greater calamity of World War II.

One hundred and six years later, very few historians today would describe those advocates of peace as “shameful,” or their critics as correct. What are historians one hundred years from now likely to say about present Western witch hunts against those who propose peace in Ukraine?

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in August 2016. (Shutterstock/ Frederic Legrand - COMEO)
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