‘Poker Player’ Putin Bluffed and Won, French Envoy Says

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Vladimir Putin has outmaneuvered his opponents and humiliated Ukraine by continuing to back pro-Russian separatists and flouting a cease-fire, making it crucial that sanctions on Russia remain firm, France’s ambassador to the U.S. said.

The Russian president “has won because we were not ready to die for Ukraine, while apparently he was,” Ambassador Gerard Araud said yesterday at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington, in remarks he said represented his personal opinion. Echoing the view of other European envoys in Washington, Araud expressed concern that the Ukraine conflict has hit an impasse, leaving Putin the winner by default.

While many observers have called Putin a geopolitical chess player, he said, the Russian leader is more a “poker player really, putting all the money on the table, saying, ‘Do the same,’ and of course we blink. We don’t do the same.”

The economic sanctions against Russia must stay in place to prevent Putin from going further, said Araud, who moved to Washington in September after serving as the French ambassador to the United Nations.

“The question is there on the table: When is Putin going to stop?” Araud said. “That’s the reason that we need to keep the sanctions” because, “let’s be frank, it’s more or less the only weapon that we have. We are not going to send our soldiers in Ukraine. It does not make sense to send weapons to the Ukrainians, because the Ukrainians would be defeated real easily, so it will only prolong the war” and lead to a “still bigger Russian victory.”

Not Budging

Araud said that while it was natural to expect Putin to be “more open and reasonable” after the cease-fire agreement was reached Sept. 5, the opposite proved true. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was reduced to thanking Putin at joint remarks in Milan. Poroshenko is “kneeling in front of Putin with the cord around his neck and saying, ‘You know, you have won,’” and Putin is still not backing down, Araud said.

“We know that Russian weapons are still flowing to Ukraine and, as you know, the separatists are still fighting and incidents -- there are multiple incidents on the border,” he said.

Asked about the delivery of two French Mistral-class helicopter-carrying assault ships sold to Moscow, a 1.2 billion euro ($1.6 billion) deal signed in 2011, Araud conceded there are no good options for his government. The first ship was to be delivered this month, but the French government put the deal on hold Sept. 3 over Russia’s armed incursions in Ukraine.

No Good Choices

“Whatever we decide is a disaster for us,” Araud said, again expressing his personal view. On one side, he said, lies France’s credibility as an arms supplier who delivers on contracts, and on the other, the difficulty of delivering a weapons system to Putin, who might use it against Ukraine or a European ally.

The Mistral contract requires a refund of money paid by Russia, plus penalties estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars for non-delivery. Cancellation of the contract would be a blow to the French shipyard, where many jobs would be lost, Araud said.

“We need ideas” to resolve the conundrum, “but for the moment, nobody has stepped in saying, ‘We are ready to help you to face this situation,’” he said. Araud said delivery of the first ship can be delayed for three months without penalties or for six months “with penalties which are bearable.”

The contract leaves the French government with the unenviable task of deciding what to do by the end of this month. “It will be a decision taken at the highest level by the president, considering the stakes,” he said.

Russia signed the contract for the ships with France’s state-owned military contractor DCNS, and the shipbuilder STX France is completing the vessels in St. Nazaire on France’s Atlantic coast.

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