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French ambassador: ‘Now is not the time for negotiation, now is the time for war’

French Ambassador to Ukraine Gael Veyssiere speaks with the Kyiv Independent in Kyiv, Ukraine, onNov. 29, 2023 (Olena Zashko/ The Kyiv Independent)
by Olga Rudenko December 8, 2023 3:43 PM 19 min read
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Gael Veyssiere (Gaël Veyssière) started his work as French ambassador to Ukraine in August 2023, having previously served as the ambassador to Croatia. He succeeded Etienne de Poncins, who was moved to a posting in Poland after serving as the ambassador in Ukraine for four years.

Veyssiere arrived in Ukraine at a difficult moment in the war. Soon after he started his tenure – which will likely last from two to four years – it started to become clear that the country’s summer counteroffensive against the Russian forces wasn’t about to reach its objectives. It warranted the mood in Kyiv shifting from exalted anticipation of soon-to-be-made gains to grim acceptance that significant gains won’t be seen any time soon.

Soon, in November, reports began to question the volume of France’s support for Ukraine – numbers, based on public pledges of aid, show that the country lags behind Lithuania.

Veyssiere’s response to that: France chooses to not make all of its aid to Ukraine public.

The Kyiv Independent sat down with Veyssiere in Kyiv on Nov. 29 to discuss this and other matters related to France and Ukraine. The video version of the interview is available on our YouTube channel.

The Kyiv Independent: If we look at the story of France and Ukraine concerning Russian aggression, it’s not always been smooth. At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, France was one of the countries that opposed making Ukraine and Georgia NATO action plan members. Since then, Russia invaded Georgia, then invaded Ukraine in 2014, and then started the full-scale invasion last year. How has the relationship between France and Ukraine evolved since then?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, I'm not sure if I would characterize the past like you are doing it. If you focus on what is happening now, since the start of the war, it's very clear that Ukraine is a victim. It has all the rights to have its full integrity and sovereignty. These are both fundamental rights of the country and the people. They are blatantly violated by a member of the United Nations Security Council with the nuclear weapon, and this is unbearable. So we have been wholeheartedly with you since day one and try to be as effective as possible.

Then you can add that there is still strong chemistry between President Macron and President Zelensky, which is true. Because they are talking all the time and trying to address the situation and to see how best we can support Ukraine.

And then you said earlier that Ukraine is dependent on Western support.

Of course, we try to play an important role, as important as possible, with other allies and partners. But remember that in February 2022, when Russia attacked, Ukraine was completely alone, and it resisted. So the real strength of Ukraine is Ukraine, and there is lots of admiration in France for the extremely brave people of Ukraine. So we are here to support you, we are here to stand with you, and we will be with you as long as it is necessary for this terrible war inflicted on you.

The Kyiv Independent: To be clear, does France support Ukraine in winning the war against Russia or in merely surviving?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: We wholeheartedly support Ukraine in winning the war against Russia because it's what Ukraine deserves. But it's also our interest. What message would it send to the rest of the world if Ukraine would just survive? Ukraine must survive, of course, but it must win the war.

This is what we are standing for. We are not playing for a half-game. It's completely the opposite of what you can read sometimes. We are providing as much military support and equipment as we can.

French Ambassador to Ukraine Gael Veyssiere speaks with the Kyiv Independent Chief Editor Olga Rudenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, onNov. 29, 2023 (Olena Zashko/ The Kyiv Independent)

Actually, we have been trying since the end of September to enter into a new phase in providing joint military production with Ukraine. It's a key priority for the French president, the minister of defense of France, who happened to be here on Sept. 28, and the French minister of foreign affairs. So we involve the business companies to stand with Ukraine too and to produce with Ukraine. For historical reasons, we have many important French companies in the defense sector.

Again, it is what is needed for Ukraine because it's close to the battlefield, but it's also needed for us on the European continent. The sad reality is that we have become accustomed to a long period of peace. We do not produce enough ammunition, equipment, or weapons in Europe. So we need to increase production. It's a win-win situation.

The Kyiv Independent: You mentioned the military aid that France provides to Ukraine. And I can’t not mention a recent report that basically called out France for the amount of aid provided to Ukraine.

According to the Kiel Institute, which keeps track of military aid donated to Ukraine, France has sent Ukraine 533 million euro in military aid. This puts France behind many European countries, including Lithuania. For context, the same report said that Germany allocated 17 billion euros in aid and the UK – 6.6 billion euros. In response, the French government said the methodology was flawed, and the actual aid amounted to 3 billion euros. Is that correct?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: So, it's completely correct that we cannot agree with the methodology of Kiel Forum. Basically, they are taking all the public statements and making additions to them. Many things we are providing are not public, and we don't want to make it public. It's a decision that was made since the beginning. The Ukrainian government knows what we are doing, but not everything is public.

You are referring to a French report from the French National Assembly, which estimated that the real figure was something like 3.2 billion euros for military assistance only and France's training of 7,000 military people of Ukraine. There is no official figure from the French government, and to my knowledge, there would not be an official figure.

We don't want to enter into any competition. We are trying to be present by volume, but we are also trying to be present by quality and to make the move into what the others are providing. For example, we were among the first to provide some strong equipment for artillery, the CAESAR, which is very effective and very strong equipment for artillery and very much appreciated on the front line.

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We were also the first ones to provide some light tanks, AMX-10 RC. This doesn't seem so important, but it was. France decided to do that, and then we were followed by others, including Germany.

We are also a member of the coalition of F-16. We don't have F-16s, but we can train pilots to fly modern warplanes. So we are doing this and are now trying to develop these joint productions in Ukraine. The technical relationship between the two militaries is excellent.

The Kyiv Independent: Why is France making the choice not to make everything (pledges of aid) public? If we're talking about this report that compares and adds public announcements, the public announcements of aid from Germany or the UK amount to much bigger numbers. That means that they are making more things public than France. Why did your country specifically make this choice?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, we should ask the military. We try to provide as much as we can. Of course, it depends on the level of equipment of our own forces, the French military. If you say exactly what you are giving, it's an indication not only to the public but also to the enemy of Ukraine. Sending a precise indication of what we have is not something we want to do.

The Kyiv Independent: If we take this 3 billion euros estimation by the National Assembly, it still puts France behind comparable countries in Europe. When you take into account that and some public statements made by President Macron last year, for example, when he said that Moscow needs security guarantees or that Putin shouldn't be humiliated, you start to question whether the purpose of keeping things secret for France is to keep the foot in the door with the Kremlin, and to keep some relationship with Russia and not provoke it.

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I really don't understand your point. We are supporting Ukraine as much as we can, providing as much material as we can, and sometimes even sending materials we would have needed for our own forces. And, in fact, it's a bit provocative to say that we want to keep channels open or whatever.

The Kyiv Independent: I'm asking because, as a Ukrainian, this is how sometimes it is perceived here. That's my perspective.

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, we are here. We are on the ground. We are providing as much support as we can, and we are devoted to continuing to do so.

The Kyiv Independent: What do you think has been the most helpful thing France has done for Ukraine since the start of the war? What is the most important weapon it provided or the biggest step it took? What made the biggest impact?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, I think it would be up to the Ukrainian military to say that. I understand that the CAESAR cannons have been extremely appreciated because they are very mobile so that they can hit and run and then hit again. And they are very much effective.

And then the AMX tanks. Not in itself, but it created the way for the others to provide those weapons. At one point, there was this discussion in Europe on whether we should propose to provide tanks to Ukraine or there would be an escalation. President Macron was the first leader to decide that it was not an escalation, it was the right tool that Ukraine needed.  

We want to provide more defense air systems if we can, but it's very difficult because we don't have so many of them. But there is a French air system in Ukraine.

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The Kyiv Independent: Do you think that because of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some lessons have been delivered to your country? In terms of how it dealt with Russia before and whether it saw Russia as a threat to Europe?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, it's very clear that Russia hid its game and made commitments to us and many other countries, which they did not plan to implement. They are behaving irrationally. So, we take stock of that, and we act accordingly. And we will continue to do so. In diplomacy, you try to take people by their word. But the ultima ratio, the most important thing, is what they are doing. Russian acts are very clear.

The Kyiv Independent: I see. Do you think that more could have been done in terms of sanctions against Russia? Do you think they are working effectively against Russia now?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Sanctions are working against Russia. They are not working as much as we would like. There are still steps that can be taken to increase them. This is why we are discussing this 12th sanctions package inside the EU. The EU has taken more effective, rapid, and comprehensive sanctions than ever in its history. So, the comparison is huge if we compare what the EU is used to doing and what we collectively did for Ukraine and against Russia.

But it's true that we still have to increase the efforts. We also have to fight against those not implementing sanctions or diverting sanction regimes. It does exist. The EU, as an institution but also as member states, is looking into it in detail. For example, when you have a sudden rise in exports between some countries with Russia, sometimes it might be because of some sanctions’ diversions. And, of course, we have to avoid that. And we are determined to avoid that.

The Kyiv Independent: And what about some big French companies that still do business in Russia, like Auchan?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, it's very clear. Everybody can think what they want about it. And personally, I’d rather have them not do business in Russia, as French ambassador in Ukraine – but they have a right to do so. It's not under international sanctions.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you think it should be under sanctions? Do you think French companies should be forbidden from doing business in Russia? Do you think it would help the war effort?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I don't have to answer these questions. I'm here to tell you we should implement sanctions. And there are official Ukrainian sanctions against a few companies and individuals, and we respect that. The issue is to have sanctions that would push and bite the Russian economy in such a way that it would put pressure on them to stop the war. That's the thing, okay?

And this is what the sanction regimes of the EU are trying to do. Usually, sanctions regimes try to avoid directly hitting the population too much. And again, there is still room for improvement in the international and EU sanctions. We are working on that, and I hope that by December, the EU will be able to adopt the 12th sanction package to support that.

The Kyiv Independent: If we talk a bit about the mood in French society. For us in Ukraine it seems that the world's attention is not as much on Ukraine as it used to be, and support is decreasing. Is this the case in French society?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I think that attention and support are not completely the same thing. They are linked, but not directly. So it is true that since Oct. 7, the horrible terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel, there has been lots of public attention in France, as everywhere else in the world, focused on this. And as you may know, we have 40 French people who died in Israel. So it's also terrible news for us.

The attention was indeed less focused on Ukraine. But at the same time, when you look at the polls, there is still a huge appreciation and huge support for the Ukrainian fight in France, and there is no Ukraine fatigue in France.

There is still a huge interest. Of course, the attention was not on the first rank as it used to be because of what was happening elsewhere. But that's life in the media world and the public bubble. And I'm quite sure that the attention will remain on Ukraine. Ukraine will not be forgotten. The situation might be different in other countries, and maybe in the USA, which is much further away, people can be less focused on that.

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The Kyiv Independent: And also, the elections are coming.

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: And they have elections. Well, we also have elections coming, European elections. But not exactly with the same challenges, of course.

The Kyiv Independent: Since you say there is no war fatigue in France, I’d like to ask, as a Ukrainian – are the people of France ready to support Ukraine long-term? Are they ready to potentially make sacrifices, in terms of finances, mostly, to support Ukraine's victory? And can this commitment last for years? Do you think the people of France will support Ukraine in trying to win the war for as long as it takes?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I do. But in your question, it is as if you would imply that French people do not pay the price for the war now. They do. Not as Ukraine, of course.

The Kyiv Independent: I understand, but this feeling of paying the price can accumulate. It's one thing to pay the price for a year or two, but if you're asked to pay the price more and more, then…

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I think it's very important to explain to the French public, like in every country, the sense of what is happening, what the situation is, what it means, what the challenges are. So people would realize why it is so important to be committed to helping Ukraine win this war.  

A few weeks ago, President Zelensky gave an interview to French TV. I think it's great. They also need to hear from Ukrainians, even in English or Ukrainian, with translation – no problem. But it's great to engage the public directly.

So, no, I don't see this fatigue. Yes, there is a price to pay. The existing sanction regime is indeed harder for Europeans than for others because we used to have a big trade with Russia. Of course, there is a price to pay. But we are ready to pay this price because we think it's fair and effective.

The Kyiv Independent: Something that makes us here in Ukraine somewhat worried about the future of European support for Ukraine is media reports about European governments behind closed doors talking to Ukrainian leadership about the need for peace negotiations. And we're anxious that we can be pushed into peace negotiations.  

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, our position is extremely clear, and it was said officially a few weeks ago by French President Macron to BBC. And French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna did say that recently, too. It's very simple. We are supporting Ukraine. So, Ukraine decided that they wouldn't negotiate with Russia until the last Russian boot would be outside of Ukraine. We fully support that, completely, 100%. and there is no way that we would put pressure on the country that is the victim of Russian aggression.

It's up to Ukraine to decide if and when they want to speak to Russia. And I fully understand that now is not the time for negotiation; now is the time for war. And your president did say very clearly that the counteroffensive is going on and that it will be continued.  

The Kyiv Independent: And, just to make it clear, would France support Ukraine in its fight to liberate Crimea as well?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, in my understanding, Crimea is, of course, Ukrainian. It was in the borders in 1991, so it's very clear for us. Again, your president and the Ukrainian authorities decided this was the aim: full recovery of the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. We support that wholeheartedly.

Also, if there is something less than that, it gives a signal that it is possible to invade its neighbor. This is not the kind of relationship we want in the 21st century in the world.  

Again, it's up to Ukraine to decide what is good for Ukraine and the conditions to be met for any negotiations. We also fully support the 10-point peace formula by President Zelensky. And actually, tomorrow (Editor’s note: The interview was recorded on Nov. 29) we will participate in new meetings on that. And we participate in every subgroup meeting.

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The Kyiv Independent: You’ve mentioned the production of ammunition in Europe. Earlier this year, we participated in a cross-border journalistic investigation into how people both in Ukraine and in the EU failed to ramp up the production of ammunition since the start of the full-scale invasion. The conclusion was there was not enough effort and alignment in the EU. Do you think that this can be changed?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: The EU gave itself an objective – one million (rounds of) ammunition for Ukraine by the end of March. So, focusing on that objective and working in that direction is very important. There has been no conflict on this scale in Europe since 1945.

And, indeed, we didn't have enough production in Europe. So, we are trying to fix that.

But in my career, I was posted twice in Brussels. And at that time, speaking of the EU financing ammunition or weapons was unthinkable. It was completely out of the scope. So, we went from this situation to this current situation where the EU is financing this with the EU taxpayers' money. And France is the second contributor to the EU budget after Germany. It's a huge step forward.

Sometimes, it's part of the charm of the EU that we would do what is necessary when necessary. It would have been better if we could have done that before. But you cannot rewrite history. So, it is important to continue in that direction. As far as military equipment is concerned, there is some EU financing. There is also some national financing. And the French parliament did vote a few days ago on an additional 200 million euros to a national fund, which enables us to finance Ukrainians buying French weapons.

The Kyiv Independent: Living in Kyiv, do you feel the war?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, it's surprising when you are not used to it. Because, 80% of the time, you don't feel the war. And then suddenly, the war imposes itself on you. Because there is an alarm. You have to get down. Or you visit a hospital, and you meet with wounded soldiers with terrible injuries. And then the reality of war is imposed on you.

But I'm very humble about that. My family is not with me here. It means that when an alarm is sounding, I'm not worried about my kids. And this must be absolutely terrible. When it happens, I think of the people working for me in the embassy, who are Ukrainians with their kids at home. And they are the ones who feel the war. Because they are worried about their loved ones. I am lucky enough not to be in this situation.

The Kyiv Independent: Has anything you've seen in Kyiv, or Ukraine in general, has been a surprise to you?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, many things are a surprise. When you are a diplomat, you try not to come up with pre-fixed ideas of the situation. Because you always fail, actually. So, the good thing is to come as you are and to try to understand people as they are. And usually, you get only good surprises.

The resilience of the Ukrainian people is incredible. For example, in this society, you are doing different things at the same time. You are fighting a terrible war imposed on you. You are making reforms. You are aiming to enter the EU. All of this would seem very difficult. But you managed to do that and look good on all fronts.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you think Ukraine is indeed looking fine in terms of reforms? In Ukrainian society, there is a call to speed up anti-corruption reforms, for example.

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, we have been very impressed by the way Ukraine has answered the seven recommendations of the EU. Of course, there are still many things to be done. You have a few legal things to be settled. I expect them to be settled very early. I know that the government is very devoted to fixing them.

When you speak about corruption, of course, you must change the mentality and how people behave. You need a realistic approach and time for implementation, legal decisions, and independent bodies to take full scale over their responsibilities.

We are very impressed, in particular, by how NABU (National Anti-Corruption Bureau), SAPO (Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office), and all the others are working. They are doing a wonderful job. Of course, there are still many things to be done. Ukraine is not Switzerland. It's not France. It's not Germany. It's something different. But the road Ukraine is taking and the efforts already made are very impressive.  

The Kyiv Independent: When we’re talking about the battlefield situation, the general observation is that  the counteroffensive hasn’t achieved the desired result and we are not where we wanted to be at the end of this year. We have not liberated that much land. And the land that was liberated was liberated at a huge price. We don't know what to expect from the battlefield and from our partners in the West, including France, in the next year. What are your thoughts on what's going to happen in 2024?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Well, you can expect support. You can expect continued support. And we hope that all partners will continue to provide full support. Of course, it's up to Ukraine to make military decisions. Indeed, the counteroffensive results are not exactly as expected or wished for, but there are some results. In particular, the Black Sea, for example, is where very important gains have been achieved.

We wish, as you wish, for big military gains. We'll see how the situation will evolve. Wars never happen as planned. I'm not a military man, but this I know. We are fully confident that Ukraine will win. And we want to take part in that and to support that.

The Kyiv Independent: So France will help Ukraine defeat Russia on the battlefield?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: We are militarily supporting Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine. Absolutely.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you think that this is Vladimir Putin's war, as many people in the West do?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I don't know what to answer to your question. I mean, it's not up to me to define this war. It is a war for which Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, is fully responsible. He's the president, he made those decisions. He decided to invade a neighboring country whose independence and integrity he had the duty to support under the Memorandum of Budapest. He decided to do that. He's responsible for that. Of course, he is.

The Kyiv Independent: Well, the question is, basically, whether the Russian population is responsible for the war as well as Putin.

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: Again, a diplomat would not see things like this. There is a state. The state has institutions. Individuals lead institutions. And the responsibility for these decisions is the responsibility of the individuals in power, namely Mr. Putin and his allies. And that's it. But a diplomat cannot go further than that.

The Kyiv Independent: You arrived three months ago. Do you think you will be the ambassador in Kyiv when Ukraine wins the war?

Ambassador Gael Veyssiere: I hope so. This is why I'm here, of course. Absolutely.

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