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29th Nov 2022

Russia on 'irreversible' path to clash with West, France says

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Russia's invasion of Ukraine put it on an "irreversible" path toward a clash with the "collective West", France has warned.

"The rupture introduced by the war and the irreversibility of Russian strategic choices make it necessary to anticipate a confrontation with Moscow," the French Secretariat-General for National Defence and Security (SGDSN) said in a Strategic Review published on Wednesday (9 November).

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  • Macron with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow in February - 13 days before Putin invaded Ukraine (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

The rolling clash would take place "over a long period of time, in multiple regions and spaces," it predicted.

Russia's motive was a nakedly "imperialist" pursuit of "power conceived as an opposition to what Russia designates as the 'collective West'," it said.

Russia had already been trying to destabilise Europe for years by non-military means, such as "diplomatic-political subversion" and "information warfare", it added.

But "without having disappeared, this strategy is now coupled with a desire to engage in direct military confrontation, materialised in the war of aggression unleashed against Ukraine," the French threat assessment said.

"The Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic area, the Balkans, the North Atlantic, but also Africa and the Middle East offer prospects of prolonged confrontation coupled with risks of potentially escalating incidents," it also said.

France normally publishes a Strategic Review every few years, but issued a snap one on top of 2021 due to the Ukraine conflict.

It was signed off by French president Emmanuel Macron, who also warned of heightened tension with Russia in a speech the same day.

The Ukraine invasion had shown "the risk of high-intensity warfare between states" had returned to Europe, Macron said at a military base in Toulon, France.

He added, in the same breath, not to "accept with fatalism" the worst-case scenarios.

The French president is the only Western leader who regularly speaks by phone with Russian president Vladimir Putin in search of a peace deal.

Washington has also urged Kyiv to hold talks with Moscow, amid fears Putin might use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine if he keeps losing on the ground.

But Macron's optimistic personal approach to Putin stood in contrast to the pessimism of the SGDSN, a French state security-policy unit, with some 1,000 staff at its HQ in the historic Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, despite the president's signature on the review's preamble.

The "irreversible" logic of the Strategic Review indicated that any peace deal with the Kremlin would be a temporary ceasefire, prior to further escalation.

If Putin was able to get away with nuclear blackmail in Ukraine, he'd likely do it again in other countries, it warned.

"A successful coercive manoeuvre backed by nuclear weapons would set a dangerous precedent," it said.

The Ukraine conflict "demonstrates the need to maintain a robust and credible nuclear deterrent to prevent a major war" in the Euro-Atlantic area, France, the EU's only nuclear power, also said.

The SGDSN was not too proud to admit that "the United States has once again emerged as the main provider of European security, through the scale of its reassurance and military support to Ukraine".

Macron wants to create an EU rapid-reaction force that can fight in localised conflicts in Europe's neighbourhood without US support in future.

Shrinking hard power

But the French president also formally announced the end of the largest French military operation in Africa on Wednesday, under Russian pressure.

The anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane in Mali, which had 5,500 French soldiers in its heyday, was being wound down in favour of a constellation of smaller forces in neighbouring countries in future, Macron said in Toulon, while standing on a warship.

The jihadist threat to Europe remained formidable, the SGDSN paper noted. "The terrorist threat remains strong in the Sahelo-Saharan band and is spreading towards the Gulf of Guinea," it said.

But Mali, Burkhane's principal host, turned against France and the West following a putsch in 2021 and signed a contract with Russian mercenary group Wagner to fight rebels instead.

Wagner's presence in Africa caused predation of economic resources, human rights atrocities, and political instability, the French review said.

It also mentioned China as a tough competitor to Europe, but said China's objective was to replace the US as the leading superpower in an insidious, but more peaceful strategy than Russia's raw aggression.

China

The French paper didn't discuss the implications of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan before 2030 — the review's cut-off horizon.

It warned that both Russia and China were a threat to EU efforts to keep the peace in the Western Balkans, however.

"In the short term, the Western Balkans will probably constitute a zone of fragility that these countries may seek to exploit to divide and weaken Europe," France said.

But China's modus operandi in Africa was different to Wagner's brutality, it noted.

China was trying to get "a stranglehold on infrastructure, the economy and debt [of African nations], creating risks of [Chinese] dependence of our [African] partners, but also of espionage and constraint on our operational environment," the SGDSN said.

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