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Letter from Moscow – Any "Macron effect" on the Kremlin?

BLOG - 2 October 2019

Russia is a sensitive issue for the French public opinion. The fluctuations in the bilateral relationship between Paris and Moscow trigger reactions that are often emotional among our compatriots. Emmanuel Macron's recent openings towards Russia - welcoming Mr. Putin to Brégançon on August 20, the announcement of the President's presence at the ceremonies on 9 May 2020 in Moscow, the speech before the Ambassadors on August 27, meeting of Defense and Foreign Affairs Ministers in Moscow on September 9 - have not failed to spark debate in the French media.
 
What about in Moscow? A brief visit to the Russian capital last week for discussions on the Middle East does not give a clear picture. However, some impressions emerge from various conversations with informed observers. It is clear, first of all, that a deep skepticism mixed with cynicism is what characterizes best the underlying attitude of the Russian leaders towards Europe in recent years. Sarcasm, which has become systematic in the statements of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is illustrative in this respect. France is not immune to this attitude.

Sovereignty as a marker of international relations

The Kremlin believes that Russia is one of the last truly sovereign states, along with the United States and China, while large emerging countries, such as India, aspire to regain as many attributes of sovereignty as possible.

Where does this rather unkind attitude come from? Certainly, from the picture of powerlessness and divisions that Europeans give of themselves in the face of the great challenges of immigration, terrorism or the crises in the Middle East, and even in the case of Ukraine, because of the anti-Russian attitude of certain Member States (Sweden, Poland, the Baltic States) perceived from Moscow. In addition, as always, there is a tendency to consider (or pretend to consider) Europeans as subjected to Washington's instructions: since Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Russian officials have often expressed regret that successive French Presidents have gone astray with regard to General de Gaulle's independence policy, for example.

Given the state of their economy and their country's backwardness in many areas, is the Russian condescending attitude on Europeans - justified? Objectively, we can doubt it. Under Vladimir Putin's firm rule, however, a concept has gradually emerged as the major marker in Russia's vision of international affairs: that of sovereignty. The Kremlin believes that Russia is one of the last truly sovereign states, along with the United States and China, while large emerging countries, such as India, aspire to regain as many attributes of sovereignty as possible. There is some understanding towards Iran for the same fundamental reason. In this context, Europeans appear to be insignificant, discounted as merely following the United States, while at the same time seeking, for some of them - in fact for most of them - to be in Moscow's good graces. The weakening of Germany - historically the great country of continental Europe, for the Russians, more than France - only accentuates this perception.

The Franco-Russian "reset"

President Putin's visit to Brégançon was initially assessed on this basis. But let us not exaggerate: the Russian leaders make the difference between a proud France, led by a brilliant and energetic President, and Austrian, Italian or Hungarian politicians. Seen from Moscow, however, the "French openings" (which had been preceded by French support for Russia's return to the Council of Europe) fell into the classic pattern in which a large European country cannot permanently cut itself off from Moscow - and always ends up taking the first steps. Converging circumstantial interests - on Ukraine, given the greater flexibility of the new Ukrainian President - have been successfully exploited by both sides. The exchange of prisoners between Kiev and Moscow would probably have taken place without France getting involved, but fortunately it goes along with the Franco-Russian "reset".

A few elements of context deserve to be noted. First, the idea of Russia's return to a reconstituted G8, which is thought in Moscow to correspond to President Macron's intimate preference, is met by the usual reflexes of mistrust among some people close to the Kremlin: what would be the cost for Mr. Putin? Then, more than Brégançon, it is the speech to the Ambassadors that seems to have struck our interlocutors. Moscow did not expect such a clear commitment from Emmanuel Macron, embedded in such broad perspectives, mixing, curiously to Russian ears, the world of yesterday (i.e. the "European security architecture"), that of Mitterrand and Chirac, and the world of tomorrow (i.e. the China question).

Seen from Moscow, however, the "French openings" fell into the classic pattern in which a large European country cannot permanently cut itself off from Moscow - and always ends up taking the first steps.

Moreover, Mr. Macron's activism on Iran impresses the Russians, because it shows that France keeps some leverage in this field of manoeuvre - the Middle East - which they now tend to consider their preferred playing field. Finally, the meeting of the four ministers on September 9 obviously went well, without any particular breakthrough: a work programme has been agreed and a long and tedious work begins, for which it is likely that the Russians will "let the French come".

The next test will come quite quickly as it concerns the implementation of the Minsk agreements on Ukraine, which could be the subject of a new summit in the so-called "Normandy" format (Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia). A difficult test in fact: it would be surprising if, on such an explosive subject as the status of the Donbass, the Russian and Ukrainian leaders were to agree on a real solution. Will we have to settle for half measures to maintain the Franco-Russian reset? Or, admit that issues other than Ukraine justify the deepening of the dialogue between Paris and Moscow, even if the dispute over Ukraine persists? How can we imagine that, on Syria and other crises in the Middle East, in which the Russians feel in a position of strength, discussions can go very far?

The Russian bear in the shadow of the Chinese dragon

In any case, seen once again from Moscow, the temptation is to see Mr. Macron's openings as a return to what was once a classic figure in East-West relations: a France useful for disuniting the Western camp and grabbing some advantages in the process, even if it means giving it a few minor rewards. President Macron will have to reassure our European partners on this point; and above all, he will have to work to break this "syndrome" in the minds of the Russian leaders. The stake is to explore on which possible specific issues, once castles in the air have been discarded, a balanced relationship can be established. On the latter point, can the obvious risk of China's ultimately using Russia as a satellite facilitate a change in the way Russian leaders view Europe?
 
This is a vast subject that cannot be addressed here but should be the subject of in-depth reflection. Here again, let us note two or three impressions drawn from a few conversations: fear and mistrust are strong on the Russian side towards China; the great mutual affection displayed by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin is perceived as surprising by seasoned Russian observers. At the same time, the Russians have by no means the feeling that they have been "pushed" into Beijing; our interlocutors note that Mr Putin has turned to China as many other states have done: who can do without it today? Under its sovereignty policy, can’t Russia assume a role as a Eurasian power that stands out in a multipolar world?
 
It is true, however, that the same interlocutors feel a certain embarrassment when we list a few examples showing that cooperation has gone very far, obviously asymmetrically, between the two countries: hydrocarbon agreements of little benefit to Russia, arms sales in which Russians yield very advanced technology, military exercises with advanced intelligence sharing, the Arctic open to the Belt and Road Initiative , the choice of Huawei, to name a few. But the reply comes rather quickly: what can Europeans offer?

 

Copyright : LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

 

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