French people

How Macron approaches the situation in Ukraine

PARIS — In 2019, Emmanuel Macron invited President Vladimir V. Putin to the French presidential summer residence in Brégançon, declared the need to reinvent “a security architecture” between the European Union and Russia, then declared that the nato had suffered “brain death.”

The French leader loves provocation. He hates intellectual laziness. But even by his standards, the apparent rejection of the Western alliance and tilt towards Moscow was surprising. Poland, among other European states with experience of life in the Soviet empire, expressed concern.

Today, a crisis caused by Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border immediately galvanized a supposedly moribund NATO against a Russian threat – the alliance’s original mission – and, for Mr Macron, demonstrated the need for its own intense brand of 21st century Russian. commitment.

“Dialogue with Russia is not a bet, it is an approach that responds to a necessity,” a senior presidential official said on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with the practice of the French government, after Mr. Macron and Mr. Poutine spoke on the phone for more than an hour.

Later in the day, Mr Macron spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a move that put the French leader precisely where he seeks to be ahead of a presidential election in April: at the heart of crisis diplomacy. on the future of Europe.

Mr. Macron walks a fine line. He wants to show that Europe has a central role to play in defusing the crisis, demonstrating its own European leadership to its voters, ensuring that Germany and several skeptical European states support its ambitious strategic vision and avoiding giving states States have reason to doubt its commitment to NATO.

“He wants to carve out a separate role for himself and for Europe, in NATO but on its periphery,” said Nicole Bacharan, researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “The arguments in favor of modernizing the European security arrangements in place since 1991 are convincing. But doing it with 130,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is impossible.

So far Mr Macron appears to have toed the party line. Cooperation with the United States has been intense and welcome. The president, a senior diplomat says, was involved in drafting the tough US response to Russian demands that the West cut its military presence in Eastern Europe and guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO – a response deemed inadequate in the Kremlin. Mr. Macron made it clear to Mr. Putin that as a sovereign state, Ukraine has the inalienable right to make its own choices about its strategic direction.

Yet Mr. Macron’s itch to fashion from the crisis a realignment of European security that takes greater account of Russian concerns is palpable.

The French official spoke of the need for a “new security order in Europe”, brought about in part by the breakdown of the old.

He suggested that various US decisions had caused a “strategic mess”, noting that there had been “doubt at one point about the quality of Article 5” – the essential part of the NATO treaty which stipulates that an attack on one Member State be ‘seen as an attack on all of them’.

It was a clear allusion to former President Donald J. Trump’s dismissive view of NATO, a stance the Biden administration has worked to rectify. For France, however, and to some extent Germany, the lesson has been that come what may, Europe must stand tall because its transatlantic partner could start walking again, perhaps as early as 2024.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Macron have one thing in common: they both believe that Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture needs to be rethought.

The Russian leader wants to undo the consequences of the Soviet collapse, which he called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”; pushing NATO back from formerly Soviet-controlled countries to its pre-enlargement position; and consecrate 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 “stability order” that involves Russia. As the French president said of this innovative arrangement in a speech to the European Parliament this month: “We have to build it among Europeans and then share it with our allies in NATO. And then we have to offer it to Russia for negotiation.

The idea of ​​Europe negotiating its strategic position with Mr Putin – who has threatened a neighboring country, part of whose territory he has already annexed, without any apparent Western provocation – makes European nations closer uneasy than France from the Russian border.

When Mr Macron visited Poland in early 2020 – after the scathing commentary on NATO and the flattery towards Mr Putin – he was attacked at a dinner party for Polish intellectuals and artists.

“You don’t know who you’re dealing with? asked Adam Michnik, a prominent writer and historian imprisoned several times by the former communist regime, according to a person present. “Putin is a brigand!

To which Mr Macron replied that he knew very well who he was dealing with, but given the American pivot towards Asia, it was in Europe’s interest to develop a dialogue with Russia and to to avoid a strengthened Russian-Chinese partnership. The Poles were not impressed.

Mr. Macron’s approach to Mr. Putin is consistent with his dealings with other strongmen. He spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia – men whose views on human rights and liberal democracy are far removed from his own – in the conviction that he can move them forward.

The results so far have appeared paltry, as they were when he tried to forge a bond with Mr Trump that proved short-lived.

The French president’s own views on the crucial importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights have been a constant in his politics. His strong condemnation of the treatment of Alexei A. Navalny, the imprisoned Russian dissident, angered Mr Putin. He made it clear that the annexation of Crimea would never be accepted by France. The commitment did not mean the abandonment of the principle, even if its outcome is not clear.

Mr Macron has also maneuvered effectively to use the Normandy format, a grouping of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, to reinforce the ceasefire agreement the countries negotiated in eastern Ukraine in 2015. This diplomatic format has the added appeal of featuring Europeans trying to solve European problems. The French objective in the crisis is clear: “de-escalation”, an oft-repeated word.

If the president can be seen as having played a pivotal role in achieving that goal, he will strengthen his position in the election, where he currently leads in the polls. The downside risk of his Russian bet was presented as follows by Michel Duclos, a diplomat, in a recent book on France in the world: “The more it appears that Mr. Macron does not obtain any substantial result through dialogue, the more this dialogue cuts off its political capital in the United States and in anti-Russian European countries.

Nevertheless, Mr Macron seems certain to persist. He is convinced that Europe must be remade to take account of a world that has changed. A certain mutual fascination seems to link him to Mr. Putin.

The senior French official observed that the Russian president had told Mr Macron that “he was the only person with whom he could have such deep discussions and that he was committed to dialogue”.

It will be music to the ears of the French president.