Emmanuel Macron in Russia: Viewpoints from Paris to St. Petersburg
By Institut Montaigne
Emmanuel Macron will travel to Russia on 24 May to attend the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. This represents a real opportunity for him to discuss with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in order to "identify common grounds to respond to international crises". Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Michel Duclos, Special Advisor to Institut Montaigne, share their analysis of President Macron's first trip to Russia.
What should we expect from President Macron’s visit to Russia?
The French President is coming to Russia to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) and to have bilateral discussions with the Russian leader. In St. Petersburg, Emmanuel Macron will appear on a panel with Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe and Christine Lagarde. The image of the four of them engaging with one another in front of a global audience will illustrate, yet again, the failure of American efforts to isolate Russia.
Indeed, there is a clear need for a sustained dialogue. Over time, the absence of regular contact could have serious negative implications for all parties. Macron obviously understands that. He started building the Franco-Russian relationship exactly a year ago when, as newly elected head of state, he invited President Putin to Versailles. It is now Putin’s turn to endorse the role of host in his own country.
Such high-level exchanges should not, however, spark unreasonable expectations. It is very unlikely that the main issues between Europe and Russia will suddenly be resolved, or that trust between both leaderships will instantly be rebuilt. Furthermore, hard security issues in Europe - be it Donbass, the US missile defense deployments, or the fate of the ailing Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) - require full American engagement. As long as the US and Russia continue to confront each other, a productive dialogue on these issues will remain impossible.
The following can however be done: acquiring better knowledge of the rationale behind the other party’s position; identifying areas where the cooperation between Russia and the EU is possible, even under the present circumstances; shielding non-political areas such as trade and investment, technology, science and education, culture and exchanges between citizens from the cold winds of the current confrontation.
In a nutshell, the purpose of visits such as Macron’s is to reduce the estrangement that has prevailed in the EU-Russia relations since the failure of the “modernization partnership” and certainly since the Ukraine crisis. Of course, a visit can only do so much, but regular and purposeful dialogue at different levels and involving many EU countries can gradually ease tensions between Europe and its biggest neighbor on the continent.
Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and the risk that conflicts in the Middle East deteriorate will dominate political discussions. The two countries agree on the necessity to try to preserve the JCPOA. Russia's support, albeit limited, to Macron's fourfold plan towards a "new deal" would be a success for the French President. More generally, the question arises as to whether the two countries can cooperate to contribute to a de-escalation of tensions, at least in some segments of Middle Eastern crises. The case of Syria deserves particular attention. A starting point could involve working on a de-escalation mechanism for tensions between Israel and Iran.
However, Mr Macron will be careful not to forget everything that opposes us to Russia, from the country's behavior in Ukraine to the Skripal case to the cyber-attacks against electoral processes in Western democracies. This is why immediate results should not be expected from this type of meeting - although a few important business contracts will be signed. We should rather consider them as a sign of the willingness to maintain an open dialogue. Emmanuel Macron should bank on the long term: Vladimir Putin and himself are likely to stay in power in the coming years. No Western head of state or government currently entertains an even relatively trusting relationship with the Russian President - Angela Merkel doesn’t anymore, and Donald Trump is paralyzed by the American domestic situation. Emmanuel Macron could seek to establish with the Kremlin leader, yet in a more sober style than with Mr Trump, a personal relationship to preserve the future. This is the most important issue underlying the French President's visit to St. Petersburg. Indeed, this type of relationship must be established on a sound basis in order to be productive. This entails that it should neither be close-minded, nor should it forget the differences between the two countries, nor should it be aggressive, nor should it aim to please at all costs. It should also include a share of secrecy, despite the fact that such practices have recently become unusual.
Are we witnessing a new Cold War?
I first publicly wrote about a new Cold War in late February 2014, amidst the dramatic developments in Kiev and in Crimea. I however changed my position quickly. To speak of a Cold War today, I now think, would be misleading. Indeed, the analogy encourages one to expect things that will not happen, to happen, because the world has changed, and to bypass many other things, which will occur - again, because the world has changed. The current confrontation is essentially of the same kind as the Cold War, but its nature, scale, scope, tools and tactics are different. I call this new conflict a Hybrid War, to underline both similarities and dissimilarities between the two phenomena.
The Hybrid War is also a confrontation between major powers, short of a shooting war. It is, however, non-ideological and fought in the global commons, such as the global economy, global information environment, borderless cyberspace, etc. It is also highly asymmetrical, due to the tremendous imbalance between the opponents. And, while it is not absolutely central to the global system, it is a key feature of the ongoing changing process of the world order.
We are currently witnessing a global competition between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies - even if international tensions cannot be reduced to this single central confrontation (in the Middle East, for example).
Yet Putin's Russia appears as a model for the authoritarian side. Since the 2011-2012 shift, the country has been using the matrix of the Cold War, although adapted to the current world, to navigate its way through global competition. Indeed, most of its strategy relies on destabilizing the adversary, using proxies overseas, and waging an all-out propaganda war. It had indeed done so in the past, yet this time the ideological content is different, its influence in a declining world is relative, and it benefits from new fields of action, such as cyberspace. Another key point is the belief in Moscow that we are involved in a zero-sum game, where the geopolitical and ideological gains of the one side can only amount to losses for the other side. As if haunted by the nostalgia of the Cold War, Mr Putin often refers to nuclear arsenals, and highlights Russia’s restored military power. In Europe, not only does he encourage populist trends, but he also leads a "roll back" policy in Central Europe and in the Balkans. He also remains faithful to the Cold War’s traditional goal: weakening the transatlantic relationship.
One of the consequences of this policy is that it diverts Russian leadership from much-needed domestic reforms, especially in the economic field. Thus, the “de-globalization” of the Russian economy brings about an additional break with Europe and increasingly exposes the country to Chinese influence. It is true that by adopting a sanctions policy, Westerners are also embracing a Cold War approach. If they implement this policy with excess - as Washington recently did - they run the risk of deepening this break further, and even of making it irrevocable. In this respect, it is important that President Macron's visit to Russia takes place within the framework of the St. Petersburg Forum, as the latter illustrates Russia's ambition to remain a key player in the global economy.
Given this context, what can the role of the Franco-Russian relationship be?
Russia does not consider itself to be in conflict with Europe, even less so with France. The conflict essentially lies between Russia and the United States. Russia refuses to recognize the American global leadership, and wants to be on equal terms with America. Meanwhile, the United States believes it leads the current world order, and does not consider any country as its equal. The reasons for the EU-Russia estrangement are many, and are closely linked to the disappearance of the former platform of relations built on the assumption that post-communist Russia would be rebuilt in Europe’s image. Now that Russia has opted for a distinct Russian identity within a greater Eurasia, it sees Europe as a neighbor rather than as a model, or a mentor.
In the eyes of the Russians, France stands out from other European countries as one of the EU’s two main leaders, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, as a nuclear power and as a diplomatic heavyweight. Many people in Russia still long for a “de Gaulle-style” policy led from Paris that would stand for France and Europe’s greater emancipation from Washington. They do not necessarily see a continuation of this line in Macron, but rather an attempt to involve France in global affairs, from Africa to the Middle East, and from human rights to climate change issues. Under Macron, France has also played a more visible and active role within the European Union, thereby somewhat moderating Germany’s primacy, which has also suffered from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic political weakness. Both Germany and France remain Russia’s main interlocutors in Europe.
Indeed, a week before welcoming President Macron to St. Petersburg, Mr Putin hosted Chancellor Merkel in Sochi. Paris and Berlin partner with Moscow and Kiev in the so-called Normandy format; they also guarantee the Minsk-2 agreement on Donbass. Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel keep contact with both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Yet, few Russians pin their hopes on the success of their mediation between Moscow and Washington, or on their influence in Kiev.
At this point, Russia should probably focus on involving France and its EU partners in the Middle East. There are many different opportunities to do so. In Syria, France can help to both revive the political process and launch post-conflict reconstruction. Regarding Iran, Russia and France can collaborate in trying to keep Tehran within the JCPOA agreement, despite America’s withdrawal. In Libya, the goal is to help stabilize the country, which still reels from the chaos that followed the 2011 toppling of the Gaddafi regime. On the very long-term, some Russians hope that if the European Union ever embarks on the path towards strategic sovereignty, such a position would be led by France, and backed by Germany.
The Franco-Russian relationship has long been the victim of roleplay.
The French expect a lot from a “mythical” Russia, which in their mind is misunderstood by Westerners, which remains a counterweight to an all-powerful America, and which would be able, if it was better treated by the West, to solve various crises affecting European security. A French historian, fine connoisseur of the East-West competition, recently concluded that France had been a “reluctant player in the Cold War”. To this day, French elites all admit that Westerners are largely responsible for Russia’s estrangement from the Western world. Conversely, in Russia, France (along with Germany) is often perceived solely through the lens of the strategic relationship with the United States. Moscow constantly criticizes European nations for their apparent obedience to the United States. Yet this accusation reveals a Russian obsession - yet again fueled by nostalgia - to restore peer-to-peer exchanges with the United States.
Parties involved in this roleplay should note that Donald Trump’s presidency changes the whole situation. Europeans, and France and Emmanuel Macron in particular, clearly disagree with Washington on a variety of topics such as climate change, trade, and now with the JCPOA, non-proliferation, all pertaining to global issues. Moreover, the “anti-West shift” which occured in Russia in 2011-2012 is now mirrored by a profound “anti-Russian shift” emanating from Washington. The time has come for the French and the Russians (the Germans will probably also be involved) to launch a twofold approach: identifying concrete areas of cooperation, including for the management of crises (Middle East), and launching an in-depth reflection on ways to exit the current situation of tension and paralysis, regardless of the name we choose to call it by.