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Former French President Francois Hollande on Ukraine

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

It's been another day of Russia and Ukraine on the brink and another day of diplomats and world leaders trying to avert a conflict. Germany's chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was in Kyiv today and heads to Moscow tomorrow.

In 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took over parts of eastern Ukraine, it took some intense diplomacy to negotiate a cease fire. A couple of European leaders were deeply involved, including the former French President Francois Hollande. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sat down with Hollande today to talk about those negotiations and hear his thoughts on the current crisis.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: (Speaking French).

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Former president Francois Hollande welcomes me to his office, just off Paris' Place de la Concorde. Elegant paintings line the walls. His black Labrador is flopped across the hardwood floor.

Hollande says he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Putin and then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as fighting raged in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Hollande says Putin dragged the negotiations out all night to give more time to the separatists to take territory and finally made some concessions early in the morning.

HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) Vladimir Putin is in the same mindset today. He builds tensions and pushes things until the last second to get maximum political concessions. He knows how to play with tension and force, while the West is not at ease with this kind of behavior. But when Putin understands he cannot go any further, he stops.

BEARDSLEY: Hollande says he does not believe economic sanctions alone are enough to dissuade Putin. He says Western diplomacy must be accompanied by the threat of force. But he warns...

HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) Putin, first and foremost, always wants to appear as a victim, never the aggressor. So the West has to be careful that our military actions don't go give him the proof he's looking for - to say he's defending himself by invading Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Hollande says the U.S. and Europe are doing right to stay united and to make Putin understand he has much to lose by attacking Ukraine. Hollande believes a determining moment came in 2013, when the U.S. allowed the Syrian regime to go unpunished after it used chemical weapons. President Obama had described that as a red line. France had been ready to punish the Assad regime alongside the U.S., but Obama changed his mind.

HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) Putin interpreted that as a weakness of the West, and from then on, he's been on the offensive. I think it was a really decisive moment, and soon after, he advanced on Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: Hollande believes the U.S. was further weakened by President Trump. He says Putin thrives on others' weaknesses.

Current French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to revive those four party talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany, known as the Normandy Format. Hollande believes it's a good idea. He says the fact that the U.S. is not part of the talks means Putin will not be able to manipulate anti-American sentiment in Russia. While the chance of these talks succeeding is slim, Hollande says Putin is taking a long-term view.

HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) He thinks Ukraine and everyone will become tired of it all. He doesn't want Ukraine to ever be stable.

BEARDSLEY: Hollande points to frozen conflicts all around Russia - Belarus, Kazakhstan, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin needs these conflicts and thrives on them, he says. This former French president does not believe Putin needs to invade to get what he wants. He just needs to threaten. But Hollande says war sometimes breaks out even when no one wants it. And that's the risk, he says, with all these troops mobilized and tensions so high.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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