Paris, France – An hour before announcing to the world his decision to recognize the independence of the two secessionist Ukrainian provinces of Luhansk and Donestk on Monday, Vladimir Putin called Emmanuel Macron.
It was a courtesy visit to inform him of his intentions – and a drag on the French president, who was quick to condemn the Russian president’s decision.
The day before, the Elysée had proudly announced that France had managed to negotiate a summit between the American and Russian presidents, “if Russia did not invade Ukraine”.
The French president is the de facto leader of Europe in January since he holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Most of his days in recent weeks have been spent consulting with his European and American allies, as he engages in shuttle diplomacy between the Kremlin and the West.
“For several weeks, Macron has appeared as a bridgehead for European diplomacy,” said Carole Grimaud Potter, professor of geopolitics at the University of Montpellier. “However, he does not put too much emphasis on the European dimension of his approach because Vladimir Putin despises the European Union and favors bilateral relations.”
Since the 44-year-old French centrist came to power in 2017, he has been trying to forge a personal relationship with the Russian leader.
Lately, he has exploited the relative vacuum created by Angela Merkel’s departure from power last December. The former Russian-speaking German chancellor, who governed Europe’s largest economy for 16 years, was Putin’s privileged interlocutor in the EU.
A week into his presidency, Macron invited Putin to a pompous meeting at the Palace of Versailles, signaling his ambition to “reset” France-Russia relations. Two years later, he receives the Russian president in his holiday residence on the Côte d’Azur.
At the time, Macron hoped to “restore a close relationship between Russia and Europe”; a move criticized by some in the European Union, particularly in the East where hostility towards Russia is high.
France and Russia, a long history
France and Russia have long had close ties.
In 1892, the Russian Empire and the French Republic forged an alliance – the first for France with another European nation since the collapse of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire in 1814 – which lasted until the Revolution of October 1917, in the middle of the First World War.
During the Cold War, two months after leaving the NATO command structure in 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle signed a series of cooperation agreements with the USSR during a 10-day visit that l drove from Moscow to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where he was the first Western head of state to witness the launch of a Soviet satellite.
When Russian forces invaded Georgia’s South Ossetia region in August 2008, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to Moscow and Tbilisi to broker a ceasefire.
Like Macron today, he held the presidency of the European Council at the time.
“The coincidence was noted on the Russian side. They recalled Sarkozy’s role in mediating the 2008 crisis. France holds a special place in the hearts of many Russians, and the two countries have deep historical and economic ties. Macron played that card well,” said Grimaud Potter.
What is Macron trying to achieve?
When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his American counterpart Antony Blinken in Geneva last month to discuss Europe’s security architecture, many Europeans were both shocked and worried that they had no seat in the table.
He also visited Moscow and Kiev at the beginning of February and has multiplied phone calls with all the main players in the crisis in recent weeks.
“He wants to take ownership of a de-escalation in eastern Ukraine, if not a resolution to the crisis,” said Grimaud Potter.
But the Kremlin’s decision to recognize the “republics” is a serious setback in this fight.
Russia’s move renders the Minsk II agreements, brokered by France and Germany in 2015 to resolve the situation in eastern Ukraine, moot, even though they were never fully implemented .
The EU, US and UK quickly imposed limited sanctions to keep the door open for diplomacy and prevent an all-out war in Ukraine.
“Macron’s goal is to start a dialogue on the role of NATO in Europe and Ukraine, and potentially a new arms control treaty, a kind of Helsinki 2.0 agreements. He knows that it will take time and that NATO and the EU will have to give in to certain demands from Russia, which wants to guarantee its security and restore the power it lost with the demise of the USSR,” he said. Grimaud Potter.
This crisis is unfolding as Macron faces an unpredictable re-election campaign for a second five-year term in April.
He has yet to declare his candidacy, but is widely expected to do so soon.
“The tensions in Ukraine come at the right time,” said Rémi Lefebvre, professor of political science at the University of Lille.
“Macron had originally planned to use the French presidency of the Council of the EU to restore his presidential stature before the elections, to project strength and political will. Now the situation in Ukraine allows him to “stand above the fray” and play a key role on the world stage.
Overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the French presidential campaign hasn’t really begun: the left is in disarray, the far right is locked in a leadership race between Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, and the conservatives are s out of breath.
“All of this and the Ukraine crisis allow Macron to run a very short campaign, in ‘blitzkrieg’ mode, which is precisely what he was hoping for,” Lefebvre said.
The French president’s diplomatic activism projects the idea that the country still holds its own on the international stage – and that only he can protect the country’s best interests.
“So far he has benefited politically from the situation in eastern Ukraine. But if for some reason, and there are many, this crisis turns into some kind of war, he could be blamed for it,” Lefebvre said.
Just hours after Russian forces entered the Donbass, Macron’s most serious political opponents were already mocking the French president’s “naivety” in his relationship with Putin and accusing him of “weakening” France.