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French diplomat talks about the stakes of the ongoing Ukraine conflict


Frank and substantive - that is how Secretary of State Antony Blinken characterized his talks today in Geneva with Russia's foreign minister. But were they also productive? Blinken and Sergey Lavrov met to talk about the crisis on the Ukraine border. Not attending today were any of America's NATO allies who have a huge stake in what happens next in Ukraine and in trying to keep the current standoff on their continent from tipping into all-out war.

The question of how unified the U.S. and its allies will be in the event of a Russian invasion is a big one, and it's one I want to put next to Emmanuel Bonne, national security adviser to President Macron of France. He's here in Washington today for meetings with his U.S. counterpart, Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Emmanuel, welcome. Bienvenu.

EMMANUEL BONNE: Merci, Mary Louise. Thank you for your invitation.

KELLY: What is your read on today's talks in Geneva? There was no obvious breakthrough, no big announcement. Was anything accomplished?

BONNE: Well, I think it's important, first of all, that indeed Lavrov and Blinken could meet because we are in a moment of high volatility in Europe, and it's important that people talk. Nobody, I think, expects any kind of easy answer to all of the challenges of the time.

But the fact is, we're talking about security. We are talking about ongoing crisis on the border with Ukraine, et cetera. So the immediate challenge for all of us, the U.S. as well as Europeans, is very much to basically find a way to talk to the Russians and potentially find answers to common concerns.

KELLY: So talking is better than shooting, of course. But when you say we have to find a way to talk to the Russians, are you any more clear on what an off-ramp would look like?

BONNE: There are many issues which need to be addressed in what the Russians and the Americans call the strategic dialogue. Talking on strategic securities in Europe obviously requires very significant decisions by Russia. Fixing the Ukrainian issue requires other means and other instruments of diplomacy, like the Normandy negotiation that we're leading with Germany. And all of those instrument have to be played in this same time. So we have, in a sense, an appeasing effect of the tensions at the moment.

KELLY: Secretary of State Antony Blinken told me in an interview last week he doesn't think Vladimir Putin has made up his mind. As you know, President Biden this week said, and I will quote, "my guess is he will move in - he has to do something." What do you think? Has Putin made up his mind?

BONNE: I think, you know, in such a situation, everything can happen, which is a bigger risk. I think President Biden is right, you know, to anticipate or plan for the worst-case scenario. I'm not in the head of Putin and I cannot say, but I know that Putin will test us and will test the limits. So the challenge of the moment is to very much agree on the principles and things which cannot be accepted, and therefore the initiatives we can take again to reduce tensions and come to terms on the most strategic issues.

KELLY: It sounds like the good news, then, is that Putin might still be dissuaded. He might be convinced this is not in his best interest. But it also sounds like that's a very dangerous place to be because there's so many unknowns. The risk of miscalculation is so high.

BONNE: Exactly. That's the main risk, I would say. The fact is, you know, in 2014, we reacted together against the invasion of Crimea and then Russian action in the Donbas. But Putin was not deterred. So it's certainly right that we have to make it clear.

But in case of aggression against Ukraine, we'll react very forcefully. But before reaching this point, we need to use all the instruments of diplomacy, and we believe we still have enough space and capacity to practice diplomacy. We don't want, you know, to resign ourselves to a major crisis in the half of Europe.

KELLY: President Biden this week also suggested there are divisions among the allies, not all on the exact same page when it comes to what the consequences would be of an attack on Ukraine. Was he right there? How unified are NATO allies?

BONNE: Well, I think the outcome of the previous NATO meetings at the level of foreign ministers and then the NATO-Russia meeting with the ministers demonstrated that we could come to terms, that we could agree on the way forward and what needs to be done. Then on the tactics and how we play our different cards at the moment, yes, we may have our differences. But in substance, what we care about is the fact that, you know, we fix the Donbas problem, and this is what we're trying to do in difficult conditions in the Normandy group. It is that basically the Russians be provided an answer to their proposals in the two documents they sent to the U.S. and also to NATO allies and that our answers be as coordinated as possible.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, you'll have seen the reaction from the president of Ukraine to Biden's comment about a minor incursion and that that might trigger different responses from European allies about what would be appropriate. I'll just ask bluntly, did President Biden say the quiet part out loud or did he put his foot in it and make this all more complicated?

BONNE: Well, you know, I think that President Zelensky is very clear about what he cannot accept. And he means no kind of Russian initiative against his country. President Zelensky is adamant that Ukraine has made a choice for itself and that the 2014 crisis basically led to a situation in which Ukraine was more clearly choosing its camp than before.

And Ukraine wants support from the EU, wants support from NATO, and this is kind of - you know, it's basic demand to all of us, to President Biden, but also to President Macron and other European leaders. So I think (unintelligible) is kind of stupid because it is about the integrity of his country. But again, what we have in mind, and I think this is also the ambition of President Biden, is we need to play diplomacy at the point where we are.

KELLY: Last question - for France, what are the stakes? And I'm curious, you know, how you will answer that for an American audience because this situation is not in our backyard. How urgent, how dangerous does this feel for you?

BONNE: The danger is there, and we must not underestimate the risk of war in Europe today if the situation in Ukraine is not put under control again. That's essential. And for restoring visibility, predictability, for ensuring, you know, stability, indeed, we need the U.S. involvement, a U.S. commitment to security in Europe, which is consistent with what we can do on our side and which is basically coordinated with all those who have the capacity to basically deliver peace and security in Europe.

KELLY: We have been speaking with Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic and national security adviser to the president of France. Thank you. Merci beaucoup.

BONNE: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN SHIELDS' "IKEBANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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