Not since the Yugoslav Wars has Europe faced tensions at the level of the crisis that is unfolding at Ukraine’s gates. True to their golden rule of diplomacy first, Europe’s heads of state are doing everything in their power to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Moscow on February 8 was part of the efforts to temper Vladimir Putin’s resolve. In this latest article in the series "Ukraine and Russia: Destined for Conflict?" Michel Duclos, former ambassador, analyzes the meeting between the two presidents.
Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin have a strange relationship.
Whether in Versailles in May 2017 or Moscow this month, St. Petersburg in May 2018 or, of course, the Russian "tsar’s" spectacular visit to Brégançon in August 2018, Macron has worked hard to woo Mr. Putin. Thus far, his efforts have proved nothing but futile.
Emmanuel Macron did not obtain any concessions from the Kremlin on Syria, nor on Ukraine, which was the main issue on the agenda in Brégançon already. Putin also got in Macron’s way in Libya, not to mention in Mali, where Russia has been dealing strategic blows to French interests through the Wagner company. In the case of Mali, Russia’s actions risk bolstering jihadist groups and plunging the country into further chaos.
Despite the repeated rebuffs, the French President has consistently maintained a willingness to engage in dialogue. He has laid out his approach many times - the November 2019 interview with The Economist comes to mind - and defends it to his European counterparts, who are often wary of Russia. His standing with other European heads of state, as well as with American Democrats, has suffered as a result: in many capitals, the French president arouses suspicions of complacency toward Moscow.
At best, Macron’s relationship with Putin has been unfruitful; at worst, it has been toxic. Does the Moscow meeting mark a turning point?
At any rate, the five hours of discussion between the two men, followed by a dinner where sturgeon was on the menu, were not futile. In fact, they have helped lower tensions. It should be recalled that both Russia and commentators have previously emphasized that dialogue with Washington is the only thing that counts in the eyes of Moscow. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will follow President Macron’s visit to the Kremlin next week. In other words, after seemingly having been cast aside, Europe is now making a comeback through two of its dominant players.
Perhaps Vladimir Putin realizes that a tête-à-tête with Joe Biden is not enough to transform his threats to invade Ukraine into a political breakthrough. He undoubtedly hopes that his European counterparts are easier to manipulate. This, however, is precisely where his history with Emmanuel Macron may come of service: the French president - who has never ceded anything of particular importance to Russia - has experience in dealing with Putin.
Within this context, from a French point of view, there are three questions that will determine how this crisis will play out.
Is Emmanuel Macron’s approach to Russia yet another instance of "going at it alone", an accusation that has often been targeted at the president?
The answer is no, for at least two reasons. First, unlike in Brégançon, the French president made sure to consult a large number of European partners, including the Baltic states, which are among the most vulnerable to the Russian threat. He phoned President Biden several times. On his way back from
Moscow, he stopped in Kiev to debrief with President Zelinski, and then in Berlin for talks with the German Chancellor and the Polish president, Andrzej Duda.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: in their own styles and accents, the different western capitals are in fact singing the same tune.
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