President Macron has sought to resume talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, whilst maintaining a firm position, including on topics such as cybersecurity. The openings he offered, especially on Syria, have not yet materialized into tangible results. The recent Russian attitude – blatant violation of UN resolutions on a truce for Syria, the Skripal case (referring to the Russian spy targeted by a poisoning attack in Salisbury, UK) – makes it increasingly harder to reach any opening policy.
29 may 2017 Vladimir Putin visits Paris 24 may 2018 - 25 may 2018 Emmanuel Macron visits Moscow
29 may 2017
Vladimir Putin visits Parismay 2017
24 may 2018 - 25 may 2018
Emmanuel Macron visits Moscowmay 2018
Candidate Macron’s discourse was somewhat ambivalent:
The Versailles meeting with President Putin on 29 May 2017 in particular launched Emmanuel Macron’s policy towards Russia. Symbolically, the lavish welcome of the Russian President, only a few days after Emmanuel Macron’s assumption of power, strongly contrasted with President Hollande’s refusal a few months before to host Vladimir Putin in Paris for the Russian cultural center’s inauguration on the banks of the river Seine.
In practice, the meeting resulted in the creation of a “dialogue between French and Russian civil societies”, coupled with the end of the freeze on certain bilateral ministerial meetings.
At the end of this visit, loyal to his “et en même temps” rule – which translates into “and at the same time” -, Emmanuel Macron hit the common press conference with some harsh truths. This particularly included Russian attempts to manipulate information and destabilize Western democratic processes, while acknowledging some elements of Russia’s argument on Syria: agreeing to Bashar al-Assad’s remaining in power at least during the transition period, opening contacts with some elements of the regime, being ready to work with Russia on a political roadmap. Synthesizing both approaches, the French President indicated what he expected from Russia regarding two “red lines”: the regime shall use no chemical weapon and humanitarian convoys should be granted unhindered access.
It is likely that Vladimir Putin, who is used to manipulating his counterparts, let Emmanuel Macron take the stage in the hope of building a profitable relationship with the new French President. In this context, the striking – even mysterious – element is that Russian diplomacy has made no effort to pursue this relationship. For instance, it would not have come at a great cost for Vladimir Putin to accept his counterpart’s proposal of a “contact group” working on Syria. He did not assent to this gesture nor did he agree on inflecting President Assad’s mind on chemical weapons or humanitarian access. Both visits from Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Moscow have later on proved to be unproductive.
It goes without saying that Vladimir Putin did not address Macron’s calls for restraint neither on the “information war” nor on the now classic topics of disagreement, such as Ukraine.
How could we explain Moscow’s attitude, which has not been very encouraging? One way of understanding it is that from Vladimir Putin’s perspective, “Versailles went wrong”. It is said that the Russian President did not appreciate being lectured by his young colleague. A second interpretation is that Russia does not rank its relationship with France as important enough to substantially alter its policy. Especially on Syria, Russia follows the well-known pattern: “France: how many divisions?”.
Nevertheless, Emmanuel Macron is expected in May 2018 at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, which will potentially be preceded by a State visit to Moscow. It is likely – third interpretation although it does not contradict the first ones – that the Kremlin leader has a long-term agenda: he is waiting for the French Head of State to come to his land. Emmanuel Macron’s expertise in business and the links he develops with French companies must lead Vladimir Putin to think that Russia can improve its relationship with France thanks to the economic channel.
Besides Russia’s tougher policy towards the West, one of the issues for the Europeans precisely lies in their difficulty to use the economic card they traditionally resort to when dealing with Russia. That is for two reasons: the continuation of sanctions, due to the lack of progress on the Ukrainian issue, the objective decline of Russia’s economy (lack of reforms, increasing corruption, de-globalization). Moreover, as demonstrated by the French “Defence and Security National Review”, security concerns are becoming increasingly tense and Paris is becoming more hesitant.
Russia’s overall relations with the Western world are now at stake, because of the country’s persistent confrontational stance, along with Washington’s tightness in part due to domestic considerations. Donald Trump’s pro-Putin bias cannot alone offset the current polarization trend.
Under these circumstances, will Emmanuel Macron be able to adopt a potential moderating role? The Skripal case, following Russian meddling in several European elections, Russia’s complicity with the Assad regime and the freeze of talks on Ukraine diminish the French President’s room for maneuver. Today, one does not know whether there will be new European sanctions or a boycott of the World Cup, which will take place this Summer in Moscow.
In this context, doubts arise over the upholding or at least the details of next Presidential trips to Russia.