Roger Cohen, 27 August, 8.5 minute read
— Remarks by Nicolas Sarkozy have raised fears that Europe’s pro-Putin chorus may grow louder as Ukraine’s plodding counteroffensive puts pressure on Western resolve. —
PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, was once known as “Sarko the American” for his love of free markets, freewheeling debate and Elvis. Of late, however, he has appeared more like “Sarko the Russian,” even as President Vladimir V. Putin’s ruthlessness appears more evident than ever.
In interviews coinciding with the publication of a memoir, Mr. Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, said that reversing Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “illusory,” ruled out Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO because it must remain “neutral,” and insisted that Russia and France “need each other.”
“People tell me Vladimir Putin isn’t the same man that I met. I don’t find that convincing. I’ve had tens of conversations with him. He is not irrational,” he told Le Figaro. “European interests aren’t aligned with American interests this time,” he added.
His statements, to the newspaper as well as the TF1 television network, were unusual for a former president in that they are profoundly at odds with official French policy. They provoked outrage from the Ukrainian ambassador to France and condemnation from several French politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron.
The remarks also underscored the strength of the lingering pockets of pro-Putin sympathy that persist in Europe. Those voices have been muffled since Europe forged a unified stand against Russia, through successive rounds of economic sanctions against Moscow and military aid to Kyiv.
The possibility they may grow louder appears to have risen as Ukraine’s counteroffensive has proved underwhelming so far. “The fact the counteroffensive has not worked up to now means a very long war of uncertain outcome,” said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist at Sciences Po, a university in Paris. “There is the risk of political and financial weariness among Western powers that would weaken Ukraine.”
In France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, not even the evident atrocities of the Russian onslaught against Ukraine have stripped away the affinity for Russia traditionally found on the far right and far left. This also extends at times to establishment politicians like Mr. Sarkozy, who feel some ideological kinship with Moscow, blame NATO expansion eastward for the war, or eye monetary gain.
From Germany, where former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is the most prominent Putin supporter, to Italy where a former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement has spoken out against arms shipments to Ukraine, some politicians seem unswerving in their support for Mr. Putin.
France, like Germany, has always had a significant number of Russophiles and admirers of Mr. Putin, whatever his amply illustrated readiness to eliminate opponents — most recently, it seems, his sometime sidekick turned upstart rival, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who led a brief mutiny two months ago.
The sympathizers range from Mr. Sarkozy’s Gaullist center right, with its simmering resentment of American power in Europe and admiration for strong leaders, to Marine Le Pen’s far right, enamored of Mr. Putin’s stand for family, faith and fatherland against a supposedly decadent West. The extreme left, in a hangover from Soviet times, also has a lingering sympathy for Russia that the 18-month-long war has not eradicated.
Still Mr. Sarkozy’s outspokenness was striking, as was his unequivocal pro-Russian tone and provocative timing.
“Gaullist equidistance between the United States and Russia is an old story, but what Sarkozy said was shocking,” Ms. Bacharan said. “We are at war and democracies stand with Ukraine, while the autocracies of the world are with Mr. Putin.”
The obstinacy of the French right’s emotional bond with Russia owes much to a recurrent Gallic great-power itch and to the resentment of the extent of American postwar dominance, evident in the current French-led quest for European “strategic autonomy.” Even President Macron, a centrist, said as recently as 2019 that “Russia is European, very profoundly so, and we believe in this Europe that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
With Mr. Putin, Russian rapprochement has also been about money. Ms. Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party took a Russian loan; former Prime Minister François Fillon joined the boards of two Russian firms (before quitting last year in protest at the war); and Mr. Sarkozy himself has been under investigation since 2021 over a €3 million, or about $3.2 million, contract with a Russian insurance company.
This financial connection with Moscow has undermined Mr. Sarkozy’s credibility, but not made him less vocal.
He urged Mr. Macron, with whom he regularly confers, to “renew dialogue” with Mr. Putin, called for the “ratification” of Crimea’s annexation through an internationally supervised referendum, and said referendums should also be organized in the eastern Donbas region to settle how land there is divided between Ukraine and Russia.
Rather than occupied territory, the Donbas is clearly negotiable territory to Mr. Sarkozy; as for Crimea, it’s part of Russia. Dmitri Medvedev, the former Russian president and now virulent assailant of the West, hailed Mr. Sarkozy’s “good sense” in opposing those who provide missiles “to the Nazis of Kyiv.”
Commenting on Mr. Sarkozy in the daily Libération, the journalist Serge July wrote: “Realism suggests that the meager results of the Ukrainian counteroffensive have suddenly redrawn the Russia map. Supporters who had remained discreet are finding their way back to the microphones. One recalls the words of Edgar Faure, a star of the Fourth Republic: ‘It’s not the weather vane that turns but the wind.’”
If the West’s goal was to leverage major military gains through the Ukrainian counteroffensive into a favorable Ukrainian negotiating position with Moscow — as suggested earlier this year by senior officials in Washington and Europe — then that scenario looks distant for the moment.
This, in turn, may place greater pressure over time on Western unity and resolve as the U.S. presidential election looms next year.
Mr. Putin, having apparently shored up his 23-year-old rule through the killing of Mr. Prigozhin, may be playing for time. It was not for nothing that Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who clashed with Donald J. Trump over the former president’s demands that Mr. Raffensperger change the results of the 2020 election, was bizarrely included in a list of people banned from Russia that was published in May.
As nods and winks to Mr. Trump go, this was pretty conspicuous.
Mr. Macron responded to Mr. Sarkozy by saying their positions were different and that France “recognizes neither the annexation by Russian of Ukrainian territory, nor the results of parodies of elections that were organized.” Several French politicians expressed outrage at Mr. Sarkozy’s views.
Over the course of the war, Mr. Macron’s position itself has evolved from outreach to Putin, in the form of numerous phone calls with him and a statement that Russia should not be “humiliated,” toward strong support of the Ukrainian cause and of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
There have been echoes of Mr. Sarkozy’s stance elsewhere in Europe, even if Western resolve in standing with Ukraine does not appear to have fundamentally shifted.
Mr. Schröder, Germany’s former chancellor and, in retirement, a Russian gas lobbyist close to Mr. Putin, attended a Victory Day celebration at the Russian embassy in Berlin in May. Tino Chrupalla, the co-chairman of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, as it is known in Germany, was also present.
A significant minority in Germany’s Social Democratic party retains some sympathy for Moscow. In June, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has overseen military aid to Ukraine worth billions of dollars and views the Russian invasion a historical “turning point” that obliges German to wean itself of its post-Nazi hesitation over the use of force, faced heckles of “warmonger” as he gave a speech to the party.
This month, in a reversal, Mr. Scholz’s government retreated from making a legal commitment to spending two percent of GDP on defense annually, a NATO target it had previously embraced, Reuters reported. Disquiet over military rather than social spending is rising in Europe as the war in Ukraine grinds on.
Many people in what was formerly East Germany, part of the Soviet imperium until shortly before German unification in 1990, look favorably on Moscow. A poll conducted in May found that 73 percent of West Germans backed sanctions against Russia, compared with 56 percent of those living in the East. The AfD has successfully exploited this division by calling itself the peace party.
“I could not have imagined that German tanks would once again head in the direction of Russia,” said Karsten Hilse, one of the more voluble Russia sympathizers within the AfD, alluding to tanks provided to Ukraine.
In Italy, the most vocal supporter of Mr. Putin was Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time prime minister who died a few months ago. Giorgia Meloni, who as prime minister leads a far-right government, has held to a pro-Ukrainian line, despite the sympathies of far-right movements throughout Europe for Mr. Putin.
Mr. Conte, the former Italian prime minister, declared recently that “the military strategy is not working,” even as it takes a devastating financial toll.
In France, Ségolène Royal, a prominent former socialist candidate for the presidency who has denounced Ukrainian claims of Russian atrocities as “propaganda,” announced this week that she intended to lead a united left-wing group in European Parliament elections next year. It was another small sign of a potential resurgence of pro-Russian sentiment.
Mr. Putin has used frozen conflicts to his advantage in Georgia and elsewhere. If there is no victory for either side in Ukraine before the U.S. election in November 2024, “the outcome of the war will be decided in the United States,” Ms. Bacharan said.
— Roger Cohen is the Paris bureau chief. He has worked for The Times for 33 years and has served as a foreign correspondent, foreign editor and an Opinion columnist. In 2023, he won a Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award as part of Times teams covering the war in Ukraine.