PARIS – In 2019, Emmanuel Macron invited President Vladimir V. Putin to the French summer presidential residence in Brégançon, declared the need for the reinvention of “a security architecture” between the EU and Russia, and later stated that NATO had undergone a “brain death”.
The French leader enjoys provocation. He abhors intellectual laziness. But even by his standards, the apparent dismissal of the Western alliance and the tilt towards Moscow were startling. Poland, among other European states with experience of life in the Soviet empire, expressed alarm.
Now a crisis provoked by Russian troops gathered on the Ukrainian border has at once set in motion a supposedly dying NATO against a Russian threat – the Alliance’s original mission – and for Mr Macron has demonstrated the need for its own intense brand of 21st century Russian commitment.
“Dialogue with Russia is not a gamble, it is an approach that responds to a necessity,” said a senior presidency official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with French government practice, Friday after Mr. Macron and Mr. Putin spoke on the phone for more than an hour.
Later in the day, Mr Macron spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a step that placed the French leader exactly where he seeks to be ahead of a presidential election in April: at the heart of crisis diplomacy on Europe’s future.
Mr. Macron goes on a fine line. He wants to show that Europe has a key role to play in overcoming 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 the United States cause to doubt his. commitment to NATO.
Understand Russia’s relationship with the West
Tensions between the regions are growing, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his claims.
“He wants to create a special role for himself and Europe, in NATO, but on the edge,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris. “The argument for modernizing the European security systems that have been in place since 1991 is convincing. But to do so with 130,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border is impossible.”
So far, it seems that Mr Macron has kept the party line. Cooperation with the United States has been intense and welcome. The president, a senior diplomat said, was involved in drafting the firm US response to Russia’s demand that the West cut its military presence in Eastern Europe and guarantee that Ukraine will never join NATO – a response that is being considered. insufficient in the Kremlin. Mr. Macron has made it clear to Mr Putin that Ukraine, as a sovereign state, has an inalienable right to make its own choices about its strategic direction.
Yet Mr Macron’s itch to shape a reshuffle of European security in the wake of the crisis, which takes greater account of Russian concerns, is to take and feel.
The French official spoke of the need for a “new security order in Europe”, partly provoked by the disintegration of the old one.
He suggested that various US resolutions had caused a “strategic disorder”, noting that at some point there had been “doubts about the quality of Article 5” – the central part of the NATO Treaty, which states that a attacks on any Member State will be “considered an attack on all of them”.
This was a clear allusion to former President Donald J. Trump’s dismissive view of NATO, an attitude that the Biden administration has made an effort to correct. For France, and to some extent Germany, however, the lesson has been that Europe must stand on its own two feet, whatever it is, because its transatlantic partner could go on tour again, perhaps as early as 2024.
Sir. Putin and Mr Macron have one thing in common: they both believe that the post-Cold War security architecture in Europe needs a transformation.
The Russian leader wants to undo the consequences of the Soviet collapse, which he has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”; pushing NATO back from former Soviet-controlled countries to its position before enlargement; and anchor the idea of a Russian sphere of influence limiting 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” involving Russia. As the French President said of this innovative scheme in a speech to the European Parliament this month: “We need to build it up among Europeans and then share it with our allies in the NATO framework. And then we need to propose it to Russia for negotiation. “
The idea that Europe is negotiating its strategic position with Mr Putin – who has threatened a neighboring country whose territory he has already annexed, without any visible Western provocation – makes European nations closer to France on the Russian border uneasy.
When Mr Macron visited Poland in early 2020 – following the scathing commentary on NATO and the delicate remarks made to Mr Putin – he was attacked at a dinner for Polish intellectuals and artists.
“Do not you know who you are dealing with?” demanded Adam Michnik, a prominent writer and historian imprisoned several times by the former communist regime, according to a person present. “Putin is a soldier!”
Understand the escalating tensions over Ukraine
Mr Macron replied that he knew very well who he was dealing with, but given the American focal point for Asia, it was in Europe’s interest to develop a dialogue with Russia and avoid a strengthened Russian-Chinese partnership. The Poles were not impressed.
Mr. Macron’s access to Mr. Putin is consistent with his relationship with other strong men. He has engaged with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia – men whose views on human rights and liberal democracy are far from his own – in the belief that he can bring them around.
Until now, the results have seemed miserable as they were when he tried to forge a bond with Mr. Trump, who turned out to be short-lived.
The French President’s own views on the critical importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights have been a constant part of his policy. His strong condemnation of the treatment of Alexei A. Navalny, the imprisoned Russian dissident, irritated Mr. Putin. He has made it clear that the annexation of Crimea will never be accepted by France. Commitment has not meant abandoning principles, although its end point is unclear.
Mr. Macron has also maneuvered effectively to use the Normandy Format, a group of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, to strengthen the ceasefire agreement that the countries negotiated in eastern Ukraine in 2015. This diplomatic format has the added attraction for him: showing Europeans, trying to solve European problems. The French goal of the crisis is clear: “de-escalation”, a word that is often repeated.
If the president can be seen to have played a central role in achieving that, he will strengthen his position in the election, where he is currently leading the polls. The negative risk of his Russian gambit was formulated in this way by Michel Duclos, a diplomat, in a recent book on France in the world: “The more it seems that Mr Macron is not achieving any significant results through dialogue, the more cuts the dialogue into his political capital in the United States and in anti-Russian European countries. “
Nevertheless, it looks like Mr Macron will continue. He is convinced that Europe must be transformed in order to take account of a changed world. A degree of mutual fascination seems to bind him and Mr. Putin.
The senior French official noted that the Russian president had told Mr Macron that “he was the only person with whom he could have such in-depth discussions and that he was engaged in dialogue.”
It will be music in the ears of the French president.