Ph.D. in Political Science, Senior Researcher at the Institute of World History of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine Oksana Mitrofanova is answering the Independent Analytical Centre for Geopolitical Studies BINTEL’s’ questions. As a teacher-researcher at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO), Paris, France, she spends some time abroad, where she performs active outreach work on current events in Ukraine.
— It is difficult to overestimate the importance of your current activities for Ukraine, but let’s start with the “arithmetics”: over the past few months, when you were abroad, how many times were you invited by French TV?
— I was invited four times, but I took part in three broadcasts. While the LCI presents current news with short comments from experts, France 24 has an interesting debate where participants can share their thoughts and views.
— Did you have experience of communication with foreign journalists? If so, how are they different from ours?
— Ukraine is currently an important topic of French broadcasts and printed mass media. It is important for French journalists to understand the position of Ukraine, and to hear about it not only from representatives of our leadership, but also from scientists and ordinary citizens who are invited to televised debates. Of course, the language factor can be an obstacle. If a Ukrainian politician’s speech is accompanied by a translation, then in order to participate in debates on an equal footing with French professionals, it is necessary to speak French. Journalists there are no different from ours. When the newspaper Le Monde ordered me to write an article about how the policy of the French government is perceived in our country regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, there was only one request — to write as it is.
Oksana Mitrofanova, political scientist.
Ukrainian political scientist Oksana Mitrofanova, in an article in Le Monde, points to the misunderstanding caused by France’s orientations since the beginning of the war in her country.
The publication lists four proposals — how to bring Kyiv closer to Paris.
— What was discussed during the broadcasts? What information about Ukraine surprised the French, and what perhaps surprised you in their perception of our events?
— One of the topics of the debate on France 24 in June 2022 was the planned visit of Emmanuel Macron to Kyiv and granting Ukraine the status of a candidate for the EU membership. As always, French experts predictably warned that the process of reforming Ukrainian legislation will be difficult, and Ukraine will face a difficult transition period in the process of joining the EU. But in the credits of the TV debates, my opinion was placed that right now is the time to think about the practical implementation of the French concept of a European army with the Armed Forces of Ukraine being its important component. Yes, France is a nuclear power, has modern fighter jets and a navy, but its ground forces are focused mainly on overseas operations, not on a continental war in Europe. And in this context, politicians should thoroughly analyze the combat experience and potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in particular, their possible role in the further defence of Europe. There are other components of Ukraine’s potential, which they should also take into consideration in view of Ukraine’s future membership in the EU, and not just talk about the Ukrainian state as a recipient of aid from the West…
At the end of June, there was debate on France 24 — about the NATO summit. Undoubtedly, an urgent question was discussed: did NATO enlargement provoke Russia’s war against Ukraine? Therefore, it was necessary to remind once again about the essence of the authoritarian regime and the logic of rebuilding the empire (Russian — ed.), which explain the real reason for this war. By the way, this should be constantly emphasized at such conferences or radio and television broadcasts. But as soon as the broadcast ended, it was my turn to be surprised — the participants of the debate immediately, without getting up from their chairs, plunged into an ardent discussion. For example, the former French ambassador to Russia, Jean de Gliniasty, said that Ukrainians fight for the state, the homeland, and not for European values, to which the journalist-observant replied that Ukrainians fight for both these values and their Motherland. I was confused by the very formulation of the question, that is, is it possible to separate one from the other? At the very least, freedom, which is a universal human value, is an integral part of the theme of the Russian-Ukrainian war. After all, it goes without saying that Ukrainians are fighting for freedom of choice, at least elementary freedom of the press, freedom for writers to write in Ukrainian without the threat of being sent to prison in the Urals (as O. Berdnyk was once sent), or freedom to freely draw and demonstrate paintings, and not be driven to suicide, like the postmodern artist M. Tryhub. Or even simply to be able to study history from the point of view of different concepts and civilizational, systemic and other approaches, which, by the way, has become a reality at the Faculty of History of the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv immediately upon gaining independence, and not through the prism of one doctrine of scientific communism, as we had before…
The aforementioned TV debates took place precisely on the Day of the Constitution of Ukraine, June 28, so I asked the debaters whether they knew that in his greeting, President V. Zelenskyi emphasized the value of freedom: “The enemy will not be able to realize the strength with which we are ready to fight for our independence, for our rights and freedoms”. However, probably, for a good understanding of what is happening in Ukraine, it is necessary to have certain knowledge of the 20th century’s history of Ukraine and the current state of the society, or perhaps simply to tell the French about the fates of Ukrainian artists and writers, at least of the same M. Tryhub and O. Berdnyk.
— Do they clearly understand Ukraine, its statehood? And if not, what should be done for better understanding?
— There are objective and subjective reasons explaining why Ukrainian statehood is not clearly understood there. The problem is the almost complete absence in France of international affairs experts, specialists in the foreign policy of Ukraine, who speak Ukrainian and are able to familiarize themselves with Ukrainian publications of a political science nature. At one time, with the collapse of the USSR, French Sovietologists became specialists in Russian politics. Knowledge of the Russian language contributed to their study of Russian and Russian-language sources. Attention was focused on the study of the politics of Russia, while the analysis of the politics of Ukraine was a sideline. In vain, for the past 23 years, I have been trying to find among my colleagues there a French international affairs expert who would read sources in Ukrainian and with whom it would be possible to discuss the French vision of the same multi-vector policy of Ukraine, strategic partnerships of Ukraine or the ways to improve the French-Ukrainian relations. To my comments that it was worth having at least two highly specialized French experts on the foreign policy of Ukraine who could read Ukrainian, I was told that it is enough to know Russian to analyze such a policy.
Over the 30 years of Ukrainian independence, this situation has not changed. Once, in the autumn of 2021, I was given for review an article about the foreign policy of Ukraine for a very respectable French publication. But there was not a single source in the Ukrainian language in the text. After all, when I chose to study French politics in my early twenties, learning French became an urgent necessity. My French colleagues probably cannot imagine if someone tells them that it is enough to know only English to study French foreign policy. Dozens of highly specialized monographs and hundreds of articles on Ukraine’s foreign policy, as well as many books on the modern history of Ukraine, have been published in Ukraine in Ukrainian, but they are not available to French specialists. Therefore, there is an urgent need in France to have at least a few international affairs experts who know Ukrainian politics not superficially.
The relevance of the issue is also in the fact that France will participate in the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine, and such specialists will be very needed for dialogue with the Ukrainian authorities, not to mention the fact that Ukraine’s gaining the status of a candidate for EU membership encourages strengthening of French-Ukrainian cooperation and strengthening of consultative participation of the French in the process of reforming Ukrainian legislation. At least, both the legislative and executive branches of the French government emphasize their readiness to help Ukraine on its way to join the EU. One can study the Ukrainian language at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris), where there are Ukrainian studios, but we need that a certain number of today’s students choose Ukrainian politics in the study of international relations and properly master the methods of analysis of modern Ukrainian politics.
There are other aspects, in particular, the same language one. From a purely linguistic point of view, the process is clear, the Old Slavic language became the basis of different Slavic languages, like Romanian languages also arose from Latin. But in France, the topic of the fraternal Italian or Spanish peoples is not raised because of the similarity of their languages. On the other hand, understanding the language situation in Ukraine requires specialized historical knowledge, without which it is difficult to understand current events. For example, the Ems Decree of the Russian Emperor Alexander II of 1876 with the aim of ousting the Ukrainian language from the cultural sphere or the Shot Revival are components of such a general process.
One more thing: during conferences and TV debates, such an important aspect as emotional is lost, that is, what exactly Ukrainians feel during the war. Therefore, my speech in the Senate to a group of French people interested in the study of Eastern Europe was the most exciting. The head of the group, Thierry Breuillac, suggested to prepare not a scientific speech, but simply to tell the audience about the first week of the war in Kyiv and the situation with refugees. I would call the atmosphere in the hall specific: those present seemed to be glued to the chairs and did not move. They were listening about the feelings of the people of Kyiv, about their reaction to the air-raid siren; how the battle near the Beresteyska metro station of the Ukrainian soldiers with the Russian DRG (sabotage and reconnaissance group) went on at night, about the movements of the territorial defense fighters in the streets, who were impressive with their calmness, or what emotions were caused by the lack of a clear reaction of the EU countries regarding aid at the very beginning of the war, etc. What they heard from me, helped the French to understand that a full-scale war is going on in Ukraine, which cannot be described with standard scientific theses. There were many different questions, and the conversation ended only at 11:00 p.m., because the Senate premises had to be closed already.
It is also symbolic that the French Senate provided the premises for this meeting on June 13, 2022, in other words, the French legislature is paying attention to the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the President of the Senate, Gérard Larcher, already visited Ukraine on July 9, 2022 and spoke in the Verkhovna Rada. By the way, after visiting Bucha, he pointed out that “I myself and the senators will not be the same when we leave here, because what we saw impressed us deeply”.
Indicative is the fact that more young people than usual came to our meeting. Conclusion: the young generation of the French seeks to understand the situation from primary sources, and not under the influence of Russian narratives. So, I repeat, diverse communication between Ukrainians and the French, that is, between our scientists, artists, journalists, and ordinary citizens of Ukraine and French citizens, is extremely needed.
— How are Russian narratives about “denazification” of Ukraine perceived in France? Did you hear about it during the broadcast or the round table? And how do the diplomats who worked at the French embassy in Ukraine react to this?
—“Denazification”… This term was not mentioned during broadcasts and conferences. But it would be naive to think that all French people are resistant to this narrative. For example, during one of the May demonstrations of Ukrainians (mostly Ukrainian women with children) in Marseille, several middle-aged French passers-by began to say that that was a gathering of… Nazis. Or in the same month, in the center of Paris, near a rack where the newspaper Libération was distributed for free, a French woman in her 60s frankly asked if I had seen Nazis in Kyiv? I answered that I did not see Nazis in Kyiv, I had never encountered problems with the Russian language, and, looking her in the eyes, asked if she knew that President of Ukraine, V. Zelenskyi, is of Jewish ethnic origin, and what that might mean — to “denazify” the President of Jewish origin? And does she know that representatives of many nationalities live in Ukraine? My answer quite impressed the French woman. Therefore, such facts — banal but unknown to French citizens — should be made public.
— Since you are familiar with many such French politicians, who impressed you as a professional?
— France is known for its commitment to diplomatic means. However, in the case of Ukraine, the experience of the French Ambassadors to Ukraine and their understanding of the situation deserve more attention. Example: Jacques Faure, the former Ambassador of France to Ukraine, has a great understanding of the intricacies of information warfare, as well as how narratives about anti-Semitism in Ukraine are propagated, etc. In recent years, the diplomat insisted on the need to pay attention to the fact that the Russian Federation does not comply with international agreements with its own signature: the Budapest Memorandum, the Treaty of Friendship with Ukraine, the Kharkiv Agreements of 2010. He drew attention to the difference between the electoral process in Russia and Ukraine (and, therefore, the differences in the foundations of democracy) by simply counting and comparing the number of elected Presidents in both states during the time of Ukrainian independence. But were the Ambassador’s warnings heard? But for Jacques Faure and his colleague Philippe de Suremain, Ukraine was not just a place of work, but also a country where they have friends, therefore, despite their retirement, they cannot just calmly watch Russia’s war of aggression. Therefore, instead of Parisian cafes, they are often on TV and at conferences, trying to convey to the French the essence of Russia’s war against Ukraine and, necessarily, the specifics of information warfare. By the way, they actively respond to requests to come to a lecture for French students and explain the nuances of Ukrainian history or politics, believing that informing the youth should be a priority.
— Did you notice certain “nuances” in this issue?
— Well, in military circles in France, sympathy for Russia, V. Putin and admiration for the Russian army are quite widely known. However, the position of those French soldiers who participated in the Second World War and gained relevant experience about authoritarian regimes is worthy of attention. Unfortunately, we will no longer be able to hear from them about it, because they are in another world. Therefore, I can only share the memories of Madame Amelie, the daughter of a former French officer, a veteran of the Second World War.
In 2008, her seriously ill father, dying, instead of saying farewell to his family, kept asking about the events in Georgia and at the same time said that if V. Putin is not stopped now, he will move on. What guided such a French veteran who was concerned about the future of Europe? According to his daughter, he understood very well the essence of the authoritarian regime, he also remembered the events in Katyn (shooting of Polish officers by the Soviet authorities). So, even in 2008, the veteran, who, by the way, was not a Gaullist (a supporter of President De Gaulle — ed.), had no doubts about the threat posed by the authoritarian Russian regime.
The story of this veteran is worth paying attention to, if nothing else, because France did not expect a war between Russia and Ukraine in 2021–2022. In the assessments of the French intelligence, which were put on the table of the top leadership of the country, it was said that the price of the Russian invasion would be quite high, and that the Russian authorities were just trying to blackmail in this way. Similar forecasts were given by French analytical circles.
— Do you think that France understands well what is happening in Ukraine? And is this understanding unequivocal in the entire society?
—There is not enough information about Ukraine there. One interesting episode: in March, average French people were frankly surprised that Ukraine still had military aviation and air defense. Either they received information from Russian sources, or they simply compared the official number of military aircrafts of Ukraine and the Russian Federation… And they were convinced that with such a ratio of Ukrainian military aviation and air defense, confrontation is no longer possible. This prompted my French colleagues to look for information on the Internet. The “spectrum” of emotions was as follows: skepticism and mistrust changed to undisguised positive emotions after the discovery that somehow miraculously, despite all predictions and forecasts, Ukrainian military aircrafts are performing combat missions, Ukrainian air defense is functioning. Thus, there is a need for quality information from the Armed Forces of Ukraine in an accessible form not only for citizens of Ukraine, but also for residents of the EU.
By the way, if the Ukrainian government’s request for military assistance is accompanied, for example, by the assurances of Ukrainian pilots in their ability to quickly master Western military aircrafts, then this argument makes one think, at least. In fact, despite the West’s negative forecasts that the Russian Federation will quickly take control of the Ukrainian skies, the Ukrainian aviation has been carrying out combat missions for the fifth month of the full-scale war, which is a strong argument for negotiations with the West regarding the provision of military aid.
Or another fact. On June 13, 2022, a conference on events in Ukraine was held at the Paris City Hall, which certainly shows the desire of the City Council to promote the spread of knowledge about our country. By the way, Ukrainian flags fly over the buildings of French city halls, and the city councils provide Ukrainians with all kinds of help… But at this conference, I was personally impressed by the thesis of Professor emeritus Anne de Tinguy about the need to seek reconciliation between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. And this proposal is put forward precisely when war crimes of Russia on the territory of Ukraine are recorded daily! When the hearts of Ukrainians shrink every moment from what they hear! Apparently, it is necessary to turn for help to those French people who are able to tell their compatriots the truth about Russia and the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Or another fact. A month ago, a lawyers conference on international law and the war in Ukraine was held at Panthéon-Assas University. Lawyers, among other problems, determined legal methods of punishment for war crimes of the Russian Federation. And Lille University professor Muriel Ubéda-Saillard pointed out that talking about reconciliation without punishing war crimes is simply not understanding the psychology of nations. Not accidentally, this lawyers conference ended with a loud motto — “Glory to Ukraine!”. It remains to be hoped that French lawyers will help their compatriots to realize the need to punish war criminals and, when the day comes, contribute to the punishment of war crimes of the Russian Federation through their participation in international tribunals.
— You communicate with French young people, in particular, with students. What are they most interested in regarding Ukraine?
— Communication with French students is probably the most exciting episode, because young people are not poisoned by pro-Russian propaganda. We sometimes forget that the French youth was formed already under the existence of the European Union, independent Ukraine and the use of the Internet, which caused the appearance of such a habit as traveling freely in Europe, checking information, and perceiving studying with foreigners as a commonplace. By their nature, students are open to communication, inquisitive and even capable of surprises. For example, after a lecture on French-Ukrainian relations, one of the students mentioned that he had known for a long time that Ukraine was a country of resistance, even during the days of its being part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Can all our ordinary citizens tell about this?
Another student, by the way, a military who is applying for a public position, considers the proposal to perceive the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a component of the future European army worthy of analysis, and with a certain tinge of envy emphasized that our Armed Forces are a “true army”, which, of course, once again confirms my idea that the European Union should be reminded: Ukraine in partnership with the EU should not only be a recipient of aid, but can also be a contributor in some spheres. If now the Ukrainian military are quickly mastering NATO standards, then later they will share with their European colleagues their Ukrainian standards acquired during the Russian-Ukrainian war.
In the end, I will note that only 70–80-year-old French people told me about the “great Russian culture” and their love for it. Even after seeing the photo from Bucha. At the same time, the 20-year-olds were interested — how are the Ukrainian children during the war, who takes care of them and protects them? And sympathizing, they called that it is necessary to convene conferences on war issues.
Frankly speaking, the difference in the values of the generations of the French does impress, but at the same time it cannot help inspiring hope.
Recorded by Oleh MAKHNO