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Is France Making Its Own Russia Play?

Emmanuel Macron’s conversation with Vladimir Putin today comes amid rumblings of disquiet with the U.S. approach to Ukraine.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
French President Emmanuel Macron talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin over video in 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin over video in 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video conference in Paris on June 26, 2020. MICHEL EULER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: French President Emmanuel Macron holds a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ECOWAS nations hold emergency summit on Burkina Faso, and Argentina wavers on IMF payment.

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Macron and Putin Talk Ukraine

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: French President Emmanuel Macron holds a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ECOWAS nations hold emergency summit on Burkina Faso, and Argentina wavers on IMF payment.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Macron and Putin Talk Ukraine

It’s not quite freedom fries, but there is more than a hint of divergence between Paris and Washington on foreign policy amid Russia’s military buildup near its border with Ukraine.

Those looking for signs of cracks between the NATO allies found ample evidence earlier this month, when French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated his long-standing call for greater European military integration, saying it was “vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia.”

Since then, there have been grumblings from the Élysée Palace about the aggressive stance taken by the United States and its Anglophone partner Britain. One divide is clear: Neither Paris nor Berlin sees the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine with the same urgency as Washington and London. “We see the same number of lorries, tanks and people,” one French official told Le Monde. “We observed the same maneuvers, but cannot conclude an offensive is imminent.”

France’s quieter diplomatic approach appears to be paying dividends, with four-way Normandy Format talks between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine resulting in a renewed cease-fire in the war in eastern Ukraine.

Today’s call between Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the highest-level talks between Putin and a NATO member since he spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the beginning of January, can be seen as another attempt to take control of the issue. Macron “will propose a path towards de-escalation,” one Élysée source told the Russian news agency TASS.

So, is France going it alone? Benjamin Haddad, the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council, doesn’t think so, seeing the differences between NATO allies as a matter of tactics rather than a deeper rift: “The Americans and Brits consider that we already have to bolster our negotiating position with the Russians by matching some of their aggressions,” Haddad said, citing recent sanctions and weapons transfers to Ukraine. “Macron’s approach is to say let’s really give a chance to diplomacy. Let’s hear the Russians out. Let’s not be the ones escalating on our side.”

For Macron “there’s a desire to be able to say, if this does end up in a conflict, we want to make clear that Russia has been the aggressor,” Haddad said, “so let’s not do anything on our end that could lead to what they call a self-fulfilling escalation.”

The narrative of French exceptionalism is overblown, Haddad said, with French statements on Ukraine’s sovereignty and NATO’s open-door policy tracking closely with those of the United States. France has also not merely left the issue to diplomats, proposing to lead a NATO force in Romania as an assurance measure.

The idea of a recalcitrant Berlin has been punctured in recent days, too, with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock laying out a clearer German approach in a speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday and appearing to make a virtue of Germany’s obstructionist stance on arms transfers to Ukraine.

“A team doesn’t need 11 center forwards who all do the same thing, but 11 players who get along well and have a common game plan in mind,” Baerbock said, in remarks that also underlined that the Nord Steam 2 gas pipeline would be targeted in a “strong package of sanctions” under consideration.

Rather than being frozen out, Germany is being wooed, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expected to join U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on Feb. 7.


What We’re Following Today

ECOWAS nations talk Burkina Faso. Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) nations meet virtually today to discuss the recent coup in Burkina Faso and whether to impose sanctions on the military junta. In his first public address since taking power, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba promised to restore order and bolster security while also calling for help from the international community “so that it can emerge from this crisis as quickly as possible and resume its march towards development.”

Argentina vs. the IMF. Argentina faces a key deadline today to repay $730 million to the International Monetary Fund, although the government has yet to confirm whether it will pay the amount. It is scheduled to pay another $365 million to the IMF on Tuesday. The apparent standoff comes as the country continues negotiations with the lender on restructuring a $40 billion loan, part of a 2018 bailout package. The two sides disagree on the country’s economic and fiscal future, with the IMF calling for quicker spending cuts than the Argentine government is comfortable with.


Keep an Eye On

The Iran ballgame. A further sign of momentum toward a renewed nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran appeared on Thursday when White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment that the United States and Iran “are in the ballpark of a possible deal.” His comments come after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said this week that a revival of the 2015 deal is possible “if the other party removes the unjust sanctions.”

No one is more optimistic about a deal that Mikhail Ulyanov, the lead Russian negotiator at the Vienna talks. My FP colleague Colum Lynch profiled Ulyanov, the pact’s “one-man chronicler and cheering squad,” on Wednesday.

Portugal’s election. Portugal holds a snap election on Sunday, after left-wing allies of the ruling Socialist Party refused to support its 2022 budget this past November. Although the Socialists and Social Democrats are expected to win the bulk of seats, neither is likely to win an outright majority. The vote will also be a test of support for the right-wing party Chega, which is polling between 6 and 10 percent. Chega currently holds just one seat in parliament.


Odds and Ends

The European budget airline Ryanair has apologized and offered compensation to a family after it disrupted their travels because a member of staff maintained that Scotland was not a country and refused to acknowledge that it had coronavirus rules that are distinct from England’s.

The Ryanair staff member had initially held up the family because of their Polish nationality, despite their Scottish residency, and then forced a 13-year-old in the group to submit to a COVID-19 test, even though Scotland does not require them for entry. The family’s father, Piotr Dziedzic, complained directly to Ryanair, accusing them of “racism and lack of professional behavior.”

“Which other country’s rules could we possibly follow when entering our home in Scotland?” Dziedzic told a local newspaper.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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