France, Russia clash after Paris evokes 'economic war'

March 1, 2022 | 06:20 am PT
France's finance minister said Tuesday that Europe was waging "economic war" against Russia, prompting a senior Kremlin figure to warn about the dangers of a "real" conflict between the countries.

"We will bring about the collapse of the Russian economy," Bruno Le Maire told the Franceinfo broadcaster on Tuesday morning after France, the EU and others said they would impose a new round of sanctions on Moscow.

"The economic and financial balance of power is totally in favour of the European Union which is in the process of discovering its own economic power," he said.

"We are waging total economic and financial war on Russia," he said.

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who is now deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, responded on Twitter that "some French minister has said that they declared an economic war on Russia. Watch your tongue, gentlemen!

"And don't forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones," he added.

Le Maire later told AFP that his language had been "inappropriate", adding that "we are not in conflict with the Russian people."

French President Emmanuel Macron has sought to keep open a dialogue with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, with the two men speaking again on Monday.

But French ministers have been using increasingly blunt rhetoric to describe the Western strategy of trying to strangle Russia's economy and cause pain for Putin's business allies.

"The oligarchs need to watch out because the list of oligarchs that have been targeted by the EU is very large," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the BFM channel late Monday.

He said they were being hit "not only in their share portfolios but also with the possibility -- and we will do it in France -- of asset seizures.

"So if I was an oligarch, in Russia or France, I'd be worried."

On Monday, the EU added more Kremlin-linked oligarchs and Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman to its sanctions blacklist.

Among the high-profile names were Igor Sechin, head of state oil giant Rosneft, and Nikolay Tokarev, boss of pipeline mammoth Transneft.

Three men ranked within Russia's 10 top richest by Forbes were also added: metals magnate Alexei Mordashov, tycoon Alisher Usmanov, and businessman and Putin friend Gennady Timchenko.

Le Drian added: "I hope he (Putin) realises how the balance of power has shifted and that he has lost the information war."

French energy

Le Maire said the total amount of Russian assets being frozen amounted to "almost 1,000 billion dollars".

After the Russian central bank raised its key interest rate to 20 percent on Monday, "companies can only borrow at high rates", Le Maire said.

He acknowledged that ordinary Russians would also suffer from the impact of the sanctions, "but we don't know how we can handle this differently".

Le Maire said he would talk to France's two energy giants TotalEnergies and Engie in the coming days to decide on their involvement in Russian energy projects.

There was now "a problem of principle" with any collaboration with people close to Putin, Le Maire said.

His remarks, which came after other energy majors including Shell and BP announced that they would pull out of Russia, caused Engie's share price to slump by five percent in early Paris bourse trading Tuesday.

Engie is notably involved in Russia's pipeline project Nord Stream 2, which Germany last week put on hold when Moscow recognised two Ukrainian breakaway republics.

TotalEnergies pledged Tuesday that it "will not invest any new capital in new projects in Russia" -- but did not say whether it would pull out of the country.

The group makes between three and five percent of its annual sales in Russia and owns a 19.4-percent stake in gas group Novatek and 20 percent in Yamal LNG, a liquefied gas specialist, among others.

The group said it approves "the scale of sanctions put in place by Europe" against Russia and pledged to implement them.

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