There are growing concerns that France and Russia are seeking to cooperate on military matters, despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after a top-level phone conversation between the two country’s defense heads was reported by Russian state news agency TASS.
The news outlet, citing the Russian Ministry of Defense, reported on Thursday that Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov and the French Chief of the Defense Staff Thierry Burkhard discussed by phone both the situation in Ukraine and in the African Sahel region.
A Polish expert on international relations, Professor Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, sharply criticized the phone discussions in an interview with Polish news outlet Niezalezna.pl, warning that the discussion may have focused on each country working to promote their interests in different regions.
He pointed out that the Wagner mercenaries operating in Africa are Russia’s bargaining chip, as they create problems for France in Sahel, which is France’s region of interest.
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Vel Grajewski argued that “Russia expected France to support them in their priority interests, meaning the imperialistic politics, the current victim of which is now Ukraine in exchange for respecting French interests in Sahel.”
When vel Grajewski was asked if this type of talk must first be discussed with allies from NATO, he said that member states of NATO are independent and do not require any permission to make bilateral contact with other countries.
“There is no such obligation, but the situation is extreme, and it is obvious that amid brutal Russian aggression against Ukraine, this type of contact may raise certain questions,” vel Grajewski said.
“I believe that this was the offer, however we do not know if it was accepted or not,” Żurawski vel Grajewski added, revealing that the content of the agreements is not yet known, only the topics of the conversation: aggression against Ukraine and Sahel.
According to Russia’s TASS agency, the conversation took place at the request of France, with Russia’s defense ministry claiming in a statement: “During the talks, parties discussed the situation in Ukraine. They also exchanged opinions about the situation in the region of Sahel.”
The expert also touched on possible diplomatic repercussions of actions by French officials, adding that NATO’s Eastern Flank had reasons to be concerned and outraged over the talks.
“The U.S., Canada, U.K., and Denmark are probably not enthusiastic about that conversation,” said the expert. He listed Germany and Italy as some of the countries that would “receive this conversation with understanding.”
“The Spanish stance on that is interesting,” he said, adding that Spain experienced Russian support for Catalonian separatism, meaning that it can make a more sober assessment on the matters involving Russia than most other Western European countries.
“I believe that it should be natural that French allies demand that the outcome of those talks is disclosed, but that is where trust comes in, whether France will disclose the entirety of it or only a selected fragment,” said Żurawski vel Grajewski.
“This is the way Russians deal with NATO, creating at least the impression of a divide,” vel Grajewski said, adding that it is not certain if the divide will deepen as the agreements are not known.
“We know that the conversation took place and this situation raises distrust towards France, whose president, for quite some time, was calling Putin with offers to save face at the expense of Ukraine, which would pay for it with its own territory,” explained the expert.
“This does not lead to building the prestige of France and unity of the West,” he warned.