PARIS. In 2019, Emmanuel Macron invited President Vladimir Putin to the presidential summer residence in France in Bregançon, spoke of the need to rethink the “security architecture” between the European Union and Russia, and later said that NATO had undergone “brain death”.
The French leader loves provocations. He hates intellectual laziness. But even by his standards, the apparent rejection of the Western alliance and the bias towards Moscow was striking. Poland, among other European states that had experience of living in the Soviet empire, expressed alarm.
Now, the crisis, fueled by Russian troops amassed on the border with Ukraine, immediately galvanized a ostensibly dying NATO to fight the Russian threat – the alliance’s original mission – and demonstrated to Mr. Macron the need for his own intense 21st-century Russian brand. engagement.
“Dialogue with Russia is not a gamble, it is an approach that meets the need,” a senior presidential official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with French government practice, said Friday. Putin spoke on the phone for more than an hour.
Later that day, Mr. Macron spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which placed the French leader exactly where he wants to be ahead of the April presidential election: a fulcrum of crisis diplomacy over the future of Europe.
Mr Macron is walking a fine line. He wants to show that Europe has a key role to play in resolving the crisis, demonstrate to his constituents his leadership in Europe, ensure that Germany and a few skeptical European states support his ambitious strategic vision, and give the United States no reason to doubt his commitment to NATO.
Understand Russia’s relationship with the West
Tensions between the regions are rising, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and defend his demands.
“He wants to give himself and Europe a special role in NATO, but on its edge,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at the Paris branch of Sciences Po. “The case for modernizing the European security mechanisms in place since 1991 is compelling. But to do this with 130,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine is impossible.”
So far, Mr Macron appears to have stuck to the party line. Cooperation with the United States has been intense and welcome. The president, according to one senior diplomat, was involved in crafting a firm American response to Russian demands that the West reduce its military presence in Eastern Europe and ensure that Ukraine never joins NATO. The Kremlin considered this response inadequate. Mr. Macron made it clear to Mr. Putin that, as a sovereign state, Ukraine has an inalienable right to choose its own strategic direction.
Nevertheless, Mr. Macron’s desire to build on the crisis a kind of European security restructuring that is more responsive to Russia’s interests is palpable.
The French official spoke of the need for a “new security order in Europe”, partly caused by the decay of the old one.
He suggested that various American decisions had caused “strategic confusion”, noting that “at a certain point there were doubts about the quality of Article 5” – a key part of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on any one member state will be “regarded as attack on them all.
It was a clear nod to former President Donald Trump’s snub of NATO, a stance that the Biden administration has done its best to correct. However, for France, and to some extent for Germany, the lesson was that no matter what happens, Europe must stand on its own two feet because its transatlantic partner could be out for a ride again, perhaps as early as 2024.
Mr. Putin and Mr. Macron have one thing in common: they both believe that the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe needs to change.
The Russian leader wants to eliminate the consequences of the collapse of the USSR, which he called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”; push NATO out of countries formerly under Soviet control into its pre-enlargement state; and perpetuate the idea of a Russian sphere of influence that limits the independence of a country like Ukraine.
What Mr Macron wants is less clear, but it includes the development of a strong European defense capability and a new “order of stability” in which Russia participates. As the French president said of this groundbreaking agreement in his speech to the European Parliament this month: “We need to build it among Europeans and then share it with our allies within NATO. And then we need to offer it to Russia for negotiations.”
The idea that Europe is coordinating its strategic position with Mr. Putin, who is threatening a neighboring country he has already annexed, without any obvious provocation from the West, worries European countries closer than France. to the Russian border.
When Mr Macron visited Poland in early 2020 — after making a scathing comment about NATO and being cajoled by Mr Putin — he was attacked at a dinner for Polish intellectuals and artists.
“Don’t you know who you’re dealing with?” asked Adam Michnik, a prominent writer and historian who was imprisoned several times under the former communist regime, according to one of those present. “Putin is a robber!”
Understanding Escalating Tensions Around Ukraine
To which Mr. Macron replied that he knew perfectly well who he was dealing with, but given America’s pivot to Asia, it was in Europe’s interests to develop dialogue with Russia and avoid strengthening the Russian-Chinese partnership. The Poles were not happy.
Mr. Macron’s approach to Mr. Putin is in line with his relationships with other powerful people. He contacted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — men whose views on human rights and liberal democracy are far from his own — in the hope that he could convince them.
So far, the results have seemed meager, as they were when he tried to mend a relationship with Trump that proved short-lived.
The French president’s own views on the critical importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights have been constant in his policies. His harsh condemnation of the treatment of Alexei A. Navalny, a jailed Russian dissident, irritated Mr. Putin. He made it clear that the annexation of Crimea would never be accepted by France. Participation does not mean abandoning a principle, even if its ultimate goal is unclear.
Mr Macron has also effectively maneuvered to use the Normandy Format, which brings together France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, to support a ceasefire brokered by the countries in eastern Ukraine in 2015. This diplomatic format has the added attraction of showing Europeans trying to solve European problems. The aim of the French in the crisis is clear: the oft-repeated word “de-escalation”.
If the president can be seen to have played a central role in achieving this, he will solidify his position in the election, where he currently leads the polls. The downside risk of his Russian gambit was described by Michel Duclos, a diplomat, in a recent book on France in the world: “The more Mr. Macron appears to be not achieving meaningful results through dialogue, the more that dialogue cuts into his political capital in the United States.” and in anti-Russian European countries.”
However, Mr Macron looks set to press on. He is convinced that Europe must be remade to take into account the changed world. There appears to be some degree of mutual infatuation between him and Mr. Putin.
A senior French official noted that the Russian president told Mr Macron that “he was the only person with whom he could have such deep discussions and that he was ready for dialogue.”
This will be music to the ears of the President of France.