Politics

Macron is visiting Moscow and Kyiv because he reads Russia differently


French president Emmanuel Macron will travel to Moscow and Kyiv on Monday and Tuesday to meet his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

An interview given by Mr Macron to the Journal de Dimanche makes it clear that his reading of the Russian threat is radically different to that of the US president Joe Biden and UK prime minister Boris Johnson. Mr Macron apparently does not believe Russia is about to invade Ukraine. “The geopolitical goal of Russia today is clearly not [to seize] Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with Nato and the EU,” he told the JDD.

Mr Macron called for “respect” for Russia and said one must understand “the recent trauma of this great people and this great nation”. Though Ukraine’s security and sovereignty were not negotiable, he said, “it is legitimate that Russia pose the question of its own security.”

One of Russia’s current demands is that US weapons not be placed on its borders. The now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty ensured that former foreign minister Hubert Védrine, whom Mr Macron appointed to head a commission on the future of Nato, told the JDD. “We must nudge Putin from unacceptable demands towards such negotiations, which are difficult, but which offer a way out. That is what Emmanuel Macron is attempting.”

Mr Macron believes that France’s six-month presidency of the EU gives him a mandate to act as Europe’s diplomat-in-chief

Mr Védrine noted that the US statesmen Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski advocated a form of neutrality for Ukraine.

The Élysée stresses that Mr Macron constantly consults France’s European partners and Nato allies. In the past week he has spoken to Mr Biden and the leaders of Canada, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK, as well as the head of Nato and the president of the European Council. He is likely to meet German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish president Andrzej Duda – the so-called Weimar format – following his talks with Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy.

Putin whisperer

Mr Macron believes that France’s six-month presidency of the EU gives him a mandate to act as Europe’s diplomat-in-chief. He is the only partner whom Mr Biden spoke to bilaterally about the crisis, an aide noted. (Mr Scholz will see Mr Biden at the White House on Monday.)

The same adviser vaunted Mr Macron’s skill as a Putin whisperer, saying: “President Putin told [Macron], ‘I’m waiting for you. I want to have a substantive conversation. I want to get to the bottom of things’.”

Mr Macron is not alone in beating a path to Moscow and Kyiv. Last Tuesday the leaders of the Netherlands, Poland and the UK visited Mr Zelenskiy, while Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, travelled to Moscow. Mr Scholz will visit both capitals on February 14th.

The perception that their president is a privileged interlocutor of the world’s great powers may please French voters, but there is also a risk

Kyiv apparently finds the geopolitical junkets – and weapons transfers from the Baltic states, Poland, the US and UK – reassuring. “The flow of foreign delegations visiting Ukraine prevents Russia from further poisoning the security situation,” the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday.

The Élysée believes Mr Macron’s diplomatic mission strengthens Europe. “Putin and Russia constantly say that the US is their interlocutor,” says Mr Macron’s adviser. By talking to the French president, Mr Putin shows “a form of flexibility, a degree of willingness to engage in dialogue with France and the Europeans, which is new”.

It is too early to know if Mr Macron’s efforts will bear fruit. The perception that their president is a privileged interlocutor of the world’s great powers may please French voters, but there is also a risk that Mr Macron, who is up for re-election in April, will be seen to have failed, or to have neglected domestic issues.

New order

The French and Russian presidents will discuss the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow supports pro-Russian separatists. The stalled Minsk accords foresaw a special status for the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in Donbas. Mr Putin’s minimum demand would appear to be autonomy for Donbas within Ukraine. Kyiv refuses to negotiate with the separatists.

True to his motto of “en même temps”, Mr Macron appears to be at the same time a hawk and a dove in the Ukraine crisis

Mr Macron also intends to discuss his concept of a “new European security order” with Mr Putin. The Élysée insists the “new order” would be “in perfect conformity with our commitments to the Atlantic Alliance”.

True to his motto of “en même temps”, Mr Macron appears to be at the same time a hawk and a dove in the Ukraine crisis. The Élysée boasts that France is “the first contributor to Nato operations today, after the US, through operations in Estonia and Lithuania”. France is sending troops to Romania, which has a border with Ukraine and conducts patrols in the Black Sea.

But France has refrained from sending weapons to Ukraine because it “believes that a clearer [military] investment would diminish its chances of playing an important role in de-escalating the crisis”, Bruno Tertrais of the Fondation Pour la Recherche Stratégique told France Info radio.



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