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Bid for Russia-Ukraine De-escalation: French Charm Offensive Crashes Against Intractable Putin

Concerning foreign policy, few major Western-European leaders ever really go against the pensée unique. French President Emmanuel Macron has, however, done that very thing. On the eve of his diplomatic mission to Moscow to take place on Monday, February 7th, in a desperate bid for a de-escalation of tensions on Ukraine’s borders, he told Le Journal du Dimanche that “the geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU.”

The comment was nothing short of striking. With it, Macron had stepped out of the accepted framing, which since December had been constructed—and diligently, if sometimes awkwardly reinforced—by NATO and U.S. leadership. The latter even intensified its messaging in recent days. After the U.S. had made the unsubstantiated claim that Russia was plotting a false flag attack to justify invading Ukraine, its National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made the dire warning that Russia could invade its neighbor “any day,” triggering a conflict that would come at an “enormous human cost.” 

Macron has a distaste for such alarmism and avoids hyperbole, favoring a commonsensical approach, taking seriously Russia’s stated security concerns instead. He advocates an agreement that would factor in such concerns, such as a new security architecture for the European continent, one that would actively involve Russia. 

By a fortuitous coming together of events, Macron is perhaps uniquely positioned to play a mediating role in such an endeavor. He keenly knows this precarious moment is historic, one in which reputations are made, or unmade. With France currently holding the EU Parliament’s presidency, the country carries a measure of authority. On the domestic front meanwhile, presidential elections are looming. Macron has not yet announced to run again, but it would be naive to think he wouldn’t soon make the announcement. Gusto he has no shortage of and, should his efforts abroad pay off, it might pay dividends at home. For a recent example of this, we need look no further than former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was instrumental in brokering the deal for a peace plan in Georgia in 2008. 

But the Russian President Medvedev of 2008 is no Vladimir Putin, and this time, with two nuclear powers being involved, the stakes are exceedingly higher than they were 14 years earlier. Yet, Macron can draw on a considerable history with Putin. While never exactly chummy with the Russian leader, his quest for rapprochement with Russia goes back to 2017, the year he became the youngest ever president of France. At a highly publicized event, he then played host to Putin at the Palace of Versailles. During a keynote speech two years later, he said that keeping Russia out of the Western fold was a “strategic error,” one of the lone voices to do so. 

Of all European leaders, Putin appears to respect him most. Since December, they have had five phone calls, during one of which Putin called Macron a “quality interlocutor.” One could pass this off as mere flattery, done for strategic purposes—the shrewd Putin, after all, remains inscrutable—but at least it keeps open the path of dialogue. 

Their five-hour talk earlier this week, while seated at the long, now iconic white table, didn’t bring about a significant change, however. 

During their joint press conference, it soon became clear that the hoped for breakthrough, as was expected by the Kremlin, had not happened. Half-jokingly, Putin even referred to the talk as “tormenting.” 

After hailing French efforts “to resolve the issue of security in Europe,” particularly in finding “a settlement of the crisis” in Ukraine, Putin quickly shifted gears. He took the press conference as a fresh opportunity to lay into NATO, criticizing its “very liberal” open-door policy meant to benefit the U.S and “possibly several other NATO members.” He claimed it violates “the fundamental principle of equal and indivisible security, which has been set down in many European documents and includes, as we all know, a pledge not to strengthen one’s security at the expense of the security of other states.” His tone became more defiant when he put into question NATO’s status as “a peaceful and purely defensive alliance,” and said that “people in many countries, namely Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan have learned the truth of this statement the hard way, and this is also true about the large-scale military operation against Belgrade waged without a UN Security Council sanction, which is definitely not an operation that could be waged by a peaceful organization.” As further proof of NATO’s combative character, Putin pointed to the 2019 NATO Military Strategy document, which “openly describes Russia as the main security threat and an adversary. NATO has designated Russia an adversary.” He even boldly declared that Crimea, which Russian forces invaded in 2014 after the coup in Ukraine, is now irrevocably part of Russia, and not Ukraine.

Putin described NATO as “advancing its military infrastructure very close to our border,” saying that 

NATO and its member states believe that they have a right to teach us where and how we can deploy our armed forces. They consider it acceptable to demand that we do not hold planned drills and exercises and present the movement of our troops on our own—I repeat, our own—territory as a threat of a Russian invasion, in this case the invasion of Ukraine. They claim that the Baltic states and our other neighbors feel threatened as well. In any case, this presumption is being used to pursue an unfriendly policy towards Russia. 

NATO’s eastward expansion, “through the admission of new members,” Putin sees “as an overall threat,” reminding Macron that “it is not us moving towards NATO, but NATO moving towards us.” Putin called accusations that Russia is behaving aggressively “at odds with logic.” He further urged for a “non-deployment of offensive systems” near Russia’s borders. 

NATO members’ arrangement “to pump Ukraine with modern weapons … allocating substantial financial resources to modernize the Ukrainian army, and sending military specialists and instructors to Ukraine,” proved irksome as well. He called on the Ukrainian government to “meet their commitments under the Minsk Package of Measures and the Normandy format agreements, including those reached at the summits in Paris and Berlin.” In Putin’s opinion, “it is clear to everyone that the current authorities in Kyiv have set a course for dismantling the Minsk accords.” Since the 2014 coup in Kyiv and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian government forces have been fighting those of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

He later promised that should Ukraine join NATO, European countries would “automatically” be at war with Russia under Article 5, adding that “Russia is a military superpower as well as a nuclear superpower,” and that “there will be no winners and you will be drawn into this conflict against your own will.” 

Macron didn’t mount much of a defense against Putin’s provocative statements—on Crimea especially, he failed to reaffirm France’s and the EU’s position, who view it as an illegal annexation. Some of Russia’s demands, in fact, Macron called compatible with the goals of the West. 

Guarantee demands formulated by Russia a long time ago on the limitation of military deployments, transparency of conventional military activities in Europe, transparency on anti-missile defense and the post-INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty] regime of control and limitation for short-range and intermediate-range missiles, are all Russian demands that correspond exactly to the demands made by the European states … I have no doubt that we will be able to provide a collective response, all of us Europeans, but also allies and Americans.

Macron went on to say that Putin had “assured me of his readiness to commit to this logic [to solve the problem of security in Europe] and of his desire to maintain the stability and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” But the most delicate matter, further NATO expansion, Macron avoided touching on. Instead, he emphasized the importance of continued dialogue, adding that “the next few days will be decisive,” referring to his anticipated meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

Macron has a clear vision to align Russia with Europe: “for me it is obvious: Russia is European. If one believes in Europe, he must be able to work with Russia and find ways and means to build the future in Europe and with Europeans.” The French President’s endeavor to harmonize Europe with Russia is certainly noble. Yet, it has the undeniable whiff of the platitudinal about it; temporary de-escalation it might offer, but a long-term solution, for the moment, seems out of reach. A formal deal, even though the Financial Timesclaimed otherwise, has not been struck.

While standing across from Putin, Macron revealed a stoic acceptance of the slog this diplomatic marathon has proven to be: “we must know how to work with Russia … Is that easy? No. But was Europe built on easy things? No. Does the task smack of ingratitude? Yes. Should it be abandoned? No.”

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.

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