PARIS — Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, was once known as “Sarko the American” for his love of free markets, freewheeling debates and Elvis. However, in recent days, he has become more like “Sarko the Russian,” even as President Vladimir V. Putin’s brutality appears more glaring than ever.
In interviews to coincide with the publication of a memoir, Mr. Sarkozy, who was president from 2007 to 2012, said that returning to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “an illusion,” ruling out Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO because it must remain “neutral,” and asserted that “Russia and France need each other.”
“People tell me that Vladimir Putin is not the same person I met. I don’t find that convincing. I’ve had dozens of conversations with him. He’s not irrational,” he said Le Figaro. “European interests are not aligned with American interests at this time,” he added.
His statements, in the newspaper as well as on the TF1 television network, were unusual for a former president in that they were at odds with official French policy. They drew ire from the Ukrainian ambassador to France and condemnation from several French politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron.
The remarks also underscore the strength of lingering pockets of pro-Putin sympathy that remain in Europe. Those voices have been stifled since Europe built a unified stance against Russia, through successive rounds of economic sanctions against Moscow and military aid to Kyiv.
The likelihood of them stepping up appears to have increased as Ukraine’s counter-offensive has proven to be poor so far. “The fact that the counteroffensive has not worked so far means a very long war of uncertain results,” said Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist at Sciences Po, a university in Paris. “There is a risk of political and financial exhaustion among Western powers that will weaken Ukraine.”
In France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, even the apparent brutality of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has not dispelled the ties to Russia traditionally found on the far right and left. It also sometimes extends to establishment politicians like Mr. Sarkozy, who feel some ideological kinship with Moscow, blame NATO’s eastward expansion for the war, or see monetary gain.
From Germany, where former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is Putin’s most prominent supporter, to Italy where a former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement has spoken out against arms shipments in Ukraine, some politicians seem unwavering in their support for Mr. Putin.
France, like Germany, has always had a large number of Russophiles and admirers of Mr. Putin, regardless of his broad portrayal of a willingness to eliminate opponents — most recently, apparently, his one-time sidekick turned upstart rival, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who led a brief coup two months ago.
The sympathizers ranged from the right to the Gaullist center of Mr. Sarkozy, with his simmering resentment of American power in Europe and admiration for strongmen, to the far right of Marine Le Pen, who is enamored with Mr. Putin’s stand for family, faith and homeland against a supposedly decadent West. . The extreme left, in a hangover from the Soviet era, also has lingering sympathy for Russia that the 18-month war has not ended.
The frankness of Mr. Sarkozy, as well as his clear pro-Russian tone and provocative timing.
“The Gaullist equidistance between the United States and Russia is an old story, but what Sarkozy said was surprising,” said Ms. Bacharan. “We are at war and the democracies are standing in Ukraine, while the autocracies of the world are Mr. Putin’s.”
The persistence of the French right’s emotional ties to Russia owes much to a recurring Gallic great-power itch and resentment of the extent of postwar American dominance, reflected in the current quest led of French for European “strategic autonomy.” Even President Macron, a centrist, recently said in 2019 that “Russia is European, very deep, and we believe in this Europe that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”
To Mr. Putin, Russia’s rapprochement is also about money. The far right National Rally party of Ms. Le Pen took a Russian loan; former Prime Minister François Fillon joined the boards of two Russian companies (before quitting last year in protest at the war); and Mr. Sarkozy himself has been under investigation since 2021 over a €3 million, or about $3.2 million, contract with a Russian insurance company.
This financial connection to Moscow has undermined Mr. Sarkozy’s credibility, but it has not made him less vocal.
He urged Mr. Macron, with whom he speaks regularly, to “renew the dialogue” with Mr. Putin, called for the “ratification” of the annexation of Crimea through an internationally supervised referendum, and said that the referendums should also be settled in the eastern Donbas region to settle how the land there is divided between Ukraine and Russia.
Rather than occupied territory, Donbas is clearly negotiable territory to Mr. Sarkozy; for Crimea, it is part of Russia. Dmitri Medvedev, the former Russian president and now a fierce attacker of the West, praised Mr. Sarkozy’s “kindness” in confronting those supplying missiles “to the Nazis of Kyiv.”
Commenting on Mr. Sarkozy in the daily Libération, journalist Serge July wrote: “Realism suggests that the meager results of the Ukrainian counter-offensive have suddenly redrawn the map of Russia. Supporters who remained wary were finding their way back to the microphones. One is reminded of the words of Edgar Faure, a star of the Fourth Republic: ‘It is not the weather vane that turns but the wind.’
If the West’s goal is to capitalize on major military gains through a Ukrainian counteroffensive in a favorable Ukrainian negotiating position with Moscow — as senior officials in Washington and Europe suggested earlier this year — then that scenario seems remote at the moment.
This, in turn, could put greater pressure over time on Western unity and resolve as the US presidential election approaches next year.
Mr. Putin, who appears to have strengthened his 23-year rule by killing Mr. Prigozhin, may be playing time. It is not for nothing that Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who clashed with Donald J. Trump over the former president’s demands that Mr. Raffensperger the results of the 2020 election, was strangely included in a list of people banned from Russia that was published in May.
While nodding and winking at Mr. Trump, it’s pretty remarkable.
Mr. Macron responded to Mr. Sarkozy by saying that their positions were different and that France “does not recognize the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, or the results of the parodies of the elections that were arranged.” Several French politicians expressed anger at Mr. Sarkozy’s views.
Over the course of the war, Mr. Macron’s own position changed from reaching out to Putin, in the form of numerous phone calls to him and a statement that Russia should not be “embarrassed,” to strong support in the cause of Ukraine and the Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky.
There have been echoes of Mr. Sarkozy’s stance elsewhere in Europe, though the Western resolve to stand in Ukraine does not appear to have fundamentally changed.
Mr. Schröder, a former chancellor of Germany and, in retirement, a Russian gas lobbyist close to Mr. Putin, attended a Victory Day celebration at the Russian embassy in Berlin in May. Also present was Tino Chrupalla, the co-chairman of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, as it is known in Germany.
A significant minority in Germany’s Social Democratic party retains some sympathy for Moscow. In June, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who oversees military aid to Ukraine worth billions of dollars and views Russia’s aggression as a historic “about change” that obliges Germany to remove itself from the post- Nazi skepticism about the use of force, faced the antics of the “warmonger” as he gave a speech at the party.
This month, in a comeback, the government of Mr. Scholz backed away from making a legal commitment to spending two percent of GDP on defense annually, a NATO target it had previously accepted, Reuters reported. Anxiety over military rather than social spending is rising in Europe as the war in Ukraine continues.
Many people in the former East Germany, part of the Soviet empire until shortly before German reunification in 1990, favor Moscow. A poll conducted in May found that 73 percent of West Germans supported sanctions against Russia, compared to 56 percent of those living in the East. The AfD has successfully exploited this division by calling itself the party of peace.
“I don’t think German tanks will ever head in the direction of Russia again,” said Karsten Hilse, one of the more ardent Russian sympathizers within the AfD, referring to the tanks supplied to Ukraine.
In Italy, Mr. Putin’s most vocal supporter was Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time prime minister who died a few months ago. Giorgia Meloni, who as prime minister heads a far-right government, has stuck to a pro-Ukrainian line, despite the sympathies of far-right movements across Europe for Mr. Putin.
Mr. Conte, Italy’s former prime minister, recently declared that “the military strategy is not working,” even if it takes a devastating financial toll.
In France, Ségolène Royal, a prominent former socialist presidential candidate who denounced Ukrainian claims of Russian atrocities as “propaganda,” announced this week that she intends to lead a united left group in the elections in the European Parliament next year. This is another small sign of a potential resurgence of pro-Russian sentiment.
Mr. Putin has used entrenched conflicts to his advantage in Georgia and elsewhere. If there is no victory for either side in Ukraine before the US elections in November 2024, “the outcome of the war will be decided by the United States,” Ms. Bacharan.
Reporting was contributed by Christopher F. Schuetze in Berlin, Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle in Paris and Gaia Pianigiani in Rome.