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Macron heads east on risky peacemaker mission

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron is taking an almighty gamble by styling himself as the world leader who can strike a peace deal with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a meeting on Monday.

If he pulls it off, he’ll be the hero who prevented an assault on Ukraine and put Europe back on the map as a diplomatic big-hitter, all just in time for the French presidential election in April. Stoking expectations of a breakthrough, French media in recent days have been full of comparisons with former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who successfully jetted in as the middleman in the conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

The one-man mission neatly dovetails with Macron’s vision of European “strategic autonomy” — meaning a Europe that can stick up for its own security interests and not sit on the sidelines while Washington and Moscow duke it out. As Cyrille Bret, an international relations expert at Sciences Po, put it: “You don’t win elections with foreign policy, but it is a reminder of Emmanuel Macron’s status as a statesman of international stature and it allows him to stand out from the other candidates even before entering the campaign, to show that he is capable of making France exist on the international scene.”

On the other hand, the prospect of a Frenchman with a long track record of conciliatory words on Russia trying to go head-to-head with Putin makes many countries in the region and beyond extremely nervous. Macron is already hinting that Western countries could have to make trade-offs with Russia, and any suggestion of bending to Moscow’s bullying will play badly in NATO capitals that reckon Putin will only back off in the face of a show of force and increased arms shipments to Ukraine.

Partner of quality

Putin himself — a master of playing divide-and-rule tactics with Western leaders — is signaling that Macron is someone he can do business with, albeit in unctuous terms. French officials say Putin told Macron he was “a discussion partner of quality” and said last week that the French president was “the only one with whom he can have such deep discussions and who cared about dialogue.”

There are obvious reasons for Putin’s enthusiasm for Macron. The French leader is a conspicuous international outlier in his belief that Moscow’s protestations about the threat from NATO and Russia’s own security concerns are a legitimate topic for discussion. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, by contrast, flat-out rejects the suggestion that Russia is anything but the aggressor in deploying some 130,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, describing Russia’s portrayal of Ukraine and NATO as instigators of the military tensions as “absurd” and a “false narrative.”

In a newspaper interview before leaving for Moscow, Macron struck an accommodating line toward Putin. He told the Journal du Dimanche that it was “legitimate” for Russia to raise its own security concerns and insisted that Putin’s ultimate goal was not to conquer Ukraine but to recalibrate its relations with NATO and the EU. Macron said European countries needed to strike a “new balance” while respecting Russia’s security concerns, though he was vague about what any of that meant.

He also suggested Russia would not move alone, intimating Western countries would have to offer up something in any deal. “We have to be very realistic. We will not obtain unilateral moves, but it is essential to avoid a deterioration of the situation,” he said in the interview.

Political scientist and author Nicole Bacharan noted an unusual depth of sympathy in France to the Russian arguments. “France is a bizarre country and is in many ways pro-Russian. The idea we should talk to Russia, that it’s a great civilization, is very common in academic circles,” she said. Indeed, in a display of that civilizational Russophilia, Macron in his JDD interview said Western countries needed to understand the “contemporary traumas of this great people and great nation.”

Nerves in Kyiv

Publicly, Ukraine is playing up the chances of an impending diplomatic deal. The fear in Kyiv, however, is that Macron will be suckered into surrendering ground in terms of the Minsk protocol of 2015, which was meant to end fighting in eastern Ukraine, with diplomatic involvement from France and Germany. Ukrainians fear Putin will win Western backing for calling local elections and granting some kind of “special status” — effectively autonomy — for the non-government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. This could then give Russian proxies some veto powers over decisions made in Kyiv.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told POLITICO he worried that Macron would be under extra pressure to come away with a deal because he is facing an election in April.

“He [Putin] will definitely play a very sophisticated game with Europeans trying to persuade Macron and [German Chancellor Olaf] Scholz, no doubt, with the stick and carrot policy, saying that: ‘Look, this is the best — this is the only solution. You co-sponsored this decision. There is no other way. If you don’t accept this, so what should I do? I don’t have another off-ramp rather than to launch a large-scale military operation.’”

Indeed, the Elysée said that eastern Ukraine would be on the agenda and noted that Putin wanted to see progress on the Minsk agreements. Still, Macron’s staff also insisted that there was no question of Macron going rogue and stressed that he had the full blessing of other world leaders after a flurry of calls over the past week.

Macron will ask Putin to pull back troops from the Ukrainian border, and also suggest halting military activities in the Black Sea, Belarus and in the seas near Scotland. “We think that across all of this, there are elements that Vladimir Putin can moderate so that the allies will see this as a signal, and that there’s a de-escalation,” an Elysée adviser said ahead of his visit.

Personal touch

Beyond the nitty-gritty of the Minsk protocols, it’s typical of Macron to believe that face-to-face talks can break the impasse.

“Macron thinks that direct, physical contact can help to better understand each other, to get to the bottom of things,” said Pierre Sellal, a former French ambassador to the EU. “But it’s not sure he will meet his objectives.”

Macron has long courted Putin, but that wooing has so far failed to pay political dividends. He has continually argued that Russia is a “profoundly” European country and that he shares Putin’s vision of a Europe running from Lisbon to Vladivostok. The French leader has also consistently stuck to the view that Putin is not trying to build a stand-alone superpower or pivot to China, but that Moscow fundamentally wants to align with the EU.

The problem for Macron is that Putin keeps Europeans guessing about his motives on a number of fronts ranging from limiting gas supplies to Europe to spreading disinformation (that even reportedly hit Macron’s election campaign in 2017). One factor that will also prey on Macron’s mind is that Putin is more ideologically aligned to his far-right rivals in April’s presidential election — Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, who both want to pull out of NATO — than to his own liberal outlook. The Russian leader has reasons for not wanting Macron to turn into the man of the moment.

Still, Paris denies it is naive when it comes to Russia, and insists it is fully alive to Moscow’s belligerence. 

“We have often faced disappointments,” said Sellal. “I think Macron is coherent and has backed tough responses such as the sanctions over Crimea. And he has never asked for the preparation work on [new] sanctions to be stopped.”

The view from France is that it is high time the EU took the lead on talks over Ukraine, instead of uncomfortably watching Russia and the United States discuss a conflict on its doorstep.

“It was a necessity to act,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris, noting that France holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council.

“Europe must be present, so it was either Macron, or it was [the EU’s foreign affairs chief] Josep Borrell, but something had to be done.”

Macron also plans to discuss the “new European security order” with Putin, which should enable the EU “to play its role” in managing crises in the Continent and talking to Russia, the Elysée said on Friday.

He’s good at big visions but political scientist Bacharan cautioned that Macron is stepping onto the narrowest tightrope between competing interests.

“Nobody is behind him, there is an extreme reluctance to build a European force seen as parallel to NATO,” said Bacharan. “Germany is reluctant for economic reasons. And then the people who feel the direct threat of Moscow are also reluctant.

“Macron is ambiguous. Right now, he is very firmly in NATO, but he is a man of history and there is a temptation of thinking we can get along with Russia.”

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