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The End of the Sanctions Regime against Russia?

Does a statement by the head of French Military Intelligence before the Assemblée nationale presage a change in Paris’s support for the sanctions regime against Russia?

On 25 March, the head of France’s Directorate of Military Intelligence (DRM), General Christophe Gomart, made a statement before France’s L’Assemblée Nationale that may spell the end of the sanctions regime against Russia. This statement has just recently been made public. General Gomart stated the following (my translation):

The real problem with NATO is that US intelligence predominates while French intelligence is more or less only taken into account – this is why we need to feed NATO commanders with sufficient intelligence of French origin. NATO announced that the Russians were going to invade Ukraine while according to the information available to the DRM, nothing supported this hypothesis. We had established that the Russians had not deployed a command post, nor the logistics, that is, field hospitals, that would allow for a military invasion and that second echelon units remained in their positions. What happened next showed that we were right because if Russian soldiers were actually seen in Ukraine, this was more a manoeuvre designed to put pressure on Ukrainian President Poroshenko than an attempt to invade.

Essentially, General Gomart wanted to convey three (problematic) messages.

First, it is true that the US dominates NATO intelligence: it has by far the greatest resources at its disposal. But it also has the most effective system of checks and balances. America’s oversight system, for all its faults – and there have been many over the last decade – is incomparably superior to that of France. French oversight actors are pussy cats in comparison with their American counterparts. To suggest, as General Gomart does, that French intelligence is more trustworthy and reliable than that of the US is disingenuous.

Second, according to the information available to the DRM, nothing supported the NATO hypothesis that Russians were going to invade Ukraine. This is too clever by half. There is a good case to be made for the idea that Russia does not want to occupy Ukraine; if it can ensure that Kyiv does its strategic bidding with the means it has used so far, Russia does not need to occupy Ukraine. That said, NATO intelligence – and this is not just about US sources – has been saying for months that Russian materiel and men have been supporting the rebels in eastern Ukraine.

This was the rationale for the sanctions decided by NATO and EU members in 2014, including of course, France. The EU decision, for example, cited “the clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces” as well as “the illegal annexation of Crimea and deliberate destabilisation of a neighbouring sovereign country.” A decision to extend the EU sanctions will be subject to a decision of all its 28 EU members at a summit of their leaders in June.

Third, General Gomert made a point of omitting any reference to Russia’s presence in Ukraine. His only reference to Russia’s presence was hyperbolic – if Russian soldiers were actually seen in Ukraine. The General’s audience could be forgiven for concluding that Russia has not at all been involved in Eastern Ukraine. But why else, for example, would five Nordic nations have recently decided to ramp up their defence cooperation? They want to launch an offensive against Russia?

So what is going on here? Let’s scan the possibilities. One is that General Gomart is a rogue intelligence officer with an axe to grind. Another is that he has been bought by Moscow or the right-wing Front National (which is reported as having received a ten million euro loan from Russia in 2014 and to be negotiating with Russian sources for a further thirty million). In either of these scenarios, his head would have already rolled if he had made his statement without first getting the go-ahead of the French government. So my assumption is that General Gomart cleared his statement with the current French government or was instructed to say what he said.

If this is true, the reason why the French government would want to call into question the sanctions regime is not hard to discern. President Hollande’s socialist party ran third in the French departmental elections held in March. It is on tap to do as badly in the presidential elections that will take place in 2017.

Hollande wants, of course, to weaken his rivals. Basically, he is trying to kill three birds with one stone. The political formation of his rival on the centre-right, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, placed first in France ‘s departmental elections that took place in March. It was Sarkozy who championed France’s reintegration with NATO in 2009. He also wants to weaken the right-wing National Front, which has absorbed voters from the socialist camp. And Hollande is on record as saying he will not run again for President unless he can turn France’s employment situation around. This remains stubbornly high at over 10 percent.

The French President needs a signal that things are finally on the mend. To revoke the decision taken in November 2014 not to deliver to Russia the amphibious assault ship “Vladivostok” that Moscow ordered from France could present just such a signal. Hollande may also sense that the preparedness of a number of EU members to support the sanctions regime is dwindling. Countries like Hungary, Greece and even Italy were never very keen. The recent rise of the rouble and the rebound of oil and gas prices seem likely to suggest to others that the sanctions regime may not working anyway.

General Gomart’s remarks were quick to be picked up by the Russian press. According to one report, Russian MPs called his comments “a cold shower” in the “anti-Russian hysteria in the West,” while a member of the United Russia party responded by saying that US intelligence has been “working to fulfill a political order.”

My sense is that President Hollande will not take the lead in any offensive against the sanctions in the European Council. That said, there is now a statement on record that could provide a justification for France supporting other EU members, should their opposition to the sanctions begin to assume serious proportions. And if France goes this route, the sanctions regime will not survive, certainly not in its current configuration.

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