Macron and Putin Meet in Bid to Defuse Russia-Ukraine Crisis

The French president wants to assert European leadership. But he’s still got an election to win.

By , an independent journalist based in New York.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 7. SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As French President Emmanuel Macron sat down with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, he put himself forward as the latest answer to Henry Kissinger’s supposed question about who to call in Europe in the event of a crisis. The French president has spent much of his time since taking office five years ago preaching greater European strategic autonomy, which he has variously described as taking a stronger role in foreign affairs or investing in a European military force.

Now, Macron is putting his theory to the test in face-to-face meetings with first Putin and then Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Tuesday. France assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union at the start of the year, giving him some diplomatic legitimacy to speak for Europe. And he is stepping up to fill the shoes of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who performed a similar role when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Monday.

Macron has made clear the differences of opinion even within the Western alliance over how to deal with the situation in Russia and Ukraine. Over the weekend, in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Macron expressed confidence in one-on-one talks with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, which will be held with only interpreters present, to help de-escalate tensions along the Ukrainian border. On the eve of his trip to Moscow, he took a swipe at the strong and repeated warnings coming out of Washington. “For several weeks, I’ve been reading or hearing senior officials announcing imminent operations from week to week,” he told the French newsweekly.

As French President Emmanuel Macron sat down with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, he put himself forward as the latest answer to Henry Kissinger’s supposed question about who to call in Europe in the event of a crisis. The French president has spent much of his time since taking office five years ago preaching greater European strategic autonomy, which he has variously described as taking a stronger role in foreign affairs or investing in a European military force.

Now, Macron is putting his theory to the test in face-to-face meetings with first Putin and then Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Tuesday. France assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union at the start of the year, giving him some diplomatic legitimacy to speak for Europe. And he is stepping up to fill the shoes of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who performed a similar role when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington on Monday.

Macron has made clear the differences of opinion even within the Western alliance over how to deal with the situation in Russia and Ukraine. Over the weekend, in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Macron expressed confidence in one-on-one talks with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, which will be held with only interpreters present, to help de-escalate tensions along the Ukrainian border. On the eve of his trip to Moscow, he took a swipe at the strong and repeated warnings coming out of Washington. “For several weeks, I’ve been reading or hearing senior officials announcing imminent operations from week to week,” he told the French newsweekly.

While declaring Ukrainian sovereignty an absolute line in the sand, Macron described Russia as having legitimate security concerns. He said the situation was quite different than in 2008 or in 2014, referring to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014. Macron said that the “geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU.”

Moscow is demanding assurances that Ukraine will be denied admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a move that Washington and its NATO allies have refused to guarantee. Macron appears optimistic that negotiations might still prove fruitful, as Ukraine is unlikely to join the defensive alliance in the foreseeable future.

​​Speaking to Putin across the long white conference table at the Kremlin, before the doors closed for their meeting, Macron said he hoped their discussion would initiate a de-escalation on the Ukrainian border and address European collective security. As for what he called “the Ukrainian question,” he reminded the Russian president, “you recalled the importance of the Normandy format.”

Macron has been pushing to refocus on the so-called Normandy format talks, which include France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Over the years, the Normandy format encounters have put the French, Russian, and Ukrainian presidents in frequent contact. (Putin is the only one still in office who was there in 2014.) Putin and Macron have spoken by phone 16 times over the last two years, after the coronavirus pandemic limited personal meetings.

Skeptics point to weaknesses in the format. The Normandy format has focused on de-escalating the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine, and even in this limited context the talks have been at an impasse. Furthermore, the format does not include the United States and does not focus on the role of NATO, which would seem to limit its applicability to the current standoff.

In the two weeks since Biden’s video conference with several European leaders to discuss the Russian buildup of forces, Macron has stepped up his efforts to make his mission pan-European. He has had more than two dozen conversations with allies, including multiple calls with Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Over the weekend, he called each of the leaders of the three Baltic states. And he has spoken three times with Putin, twice with Zelensky, and twice with Biden, wrapping up the final call with the U.S. president late Sunday.

But Macron’s desire to become the leader of Europe might run up against his desire to remain president of France. As enormous as the stakes are in Eastern Europe, where the White House estimates that Moscow might be close to lining up the forces necessary for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Macron is facing challenges on multiple fronts two months before the French presidential election.

In Mali, a group of Russian mercenaries known as the Wagner Group has been complicating an already troubled French counterterrorism operation. Although Mali’s military junta publicly denies hiring Wagner, the general in charge of U.S. Africa Command confirmed their presence there last week; some Malians waved Russian flags at a rally to celebrate the expulsion of the French ambassador a week ago.

Clearly, the Russian troops staring across the border of Ukraine will be the “heart of the matter,” a diplomatic source at the Élysée, who spoke on condition of a background briefing without attribution, said on Friday. But he said Macron might bring up the crisis in the Sahel, long a foreign-policy priority for Paris. Macron asked Putin for “clarification” on the latest developments in Mali during a call on Dec. 21. Two days later, the French foreign ministry denounced the deployment of Wagner’s mercenary troops to the West African country. 

And indeed, Macron did raise the question several times during their conversation behind closed doors. Putin remarked on this during their joint press conference, which started at midnight in Moscow, repeatedly denying any Russian involvement in Mali.

As for the main subject on the table, Macron appeared to be trying to dial down the thermostat. He said we were not in a hot war, as in 2008 and 2014, but in a situation of extreme tension. “For me, the priority is to stabilize the military situation in the near term,” he said. He stressed the importance of respecting sovereignty, including that of countries that do not belong to either the EU or NATO, while expressing his conviction that continued dialogue would lead to a solution.

And Macron has an election to win. Sitting French presidents are notoriously late to declare their candidacy for reelection, and Macron has said publicly that he wants to run. But the French media is beginning to nag Macron to hurry up and officially declare his intentions to run in April’s presidential race. Earlier this month, Macron’s spokesman Gabriel Attal said the president was waiting to declare his candidacy on a day when he would not be hosting an EU event or dealing with a crisis. With two EU summits in the next two weeks and escalating crises in Eastern Europe and West Africa, those stars are unlikely to align before the filing deadline comes on March 4.

If Russia is a tricky issue for the would-be leader of Europe, it’s no less delicate at home; candidate Macron needs to tread carefully with the French public, which is somewhat more favorable to Russia than is the U.S. public. Supporters of populist parties in Europe tend to hold a more favorable view of Putin than the public at large, and France is no exception. Members of France’s far-right National Rally party were nearly half again as likely as the average French citizen to express confidence in Putin, according to polling by Pew Research. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen, the candidate recent polling suggests is most likely to face Macron in the second round of voting in April, echoed Putin’s talking points in a BBC interview that aired over the weekend. She objected to the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and attributed the escalation in tensions to Biden’s political weakness.

Some French politicians, at least those of Macron’s own party, appear to appreciate their president’s efforts. Nathalie Loiseau, a French member of the European Parliament and Macron’s former minister for European affairs, wrote in an op-ed that Macron was taking a risk to go to Moscow and Kyiv, but an even greater risk would be to do nothing.

But even Macron’s closest allies are signaling that hitching his reputation to two volatile conflicts means that a serious reversal in either Ukraine or Mali might negatively impact his ambitious agenda for Europe, and possibly even the election.

Correction, Feb. 8, 2022: This article has been updated to explain the context of the diplomatic source at the Élysée’s remarks.

J. Alex Tarquinio is an independent journalist based in New York and the past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Twitter: @alextarquinio

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