Macron hosts Putin: Is it back to realpolitik?

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Last Monday, Emmanuel Macron received for the first time Vladimir Putin in the pomp and gilding of the Versailles castle. Their meeting was highly anticipated for several reasons.

First of all, Putin had not hidden his preference for a victory of Marine Le Pen at the recent French Presidential elections. For several years, her party – the National Front – has lived under financial perfusion from Russian banks and Macron’s campaign was victim of a massive leak of alleged internal emails thought to emanate from Kremlin-backed hackers just days before the ballot.

But this meeting was also the opportunity to evaluate the capacity of the young French President to stand up to, and negotiate with, a head of state known for his ability to baffle and crush his opponents. Many remember the 2007 G8 summit when Nicolas Sarkozy addressed journalists stunned and haggard after his first face-to-face conversation with the Russian leader.

This first encounter had discredited an ill-prepared Sarkozy in the eyes of the Kremlin and relations barely improved with Francois Hollande whose constant focus on building compromise was perceived as elusive and spineless by Putin. The Russian president never hid the fact that he enjoyed dealing with strong heads of states and French representatives over the last ten years severely lacked leadership.

Europeanist strategy

A week after engaging with Donald Trump at the NATO and G7 summits, Macron received a Russian president whose foreign policy objectives clash in many ways with Macron’s Europeanist strategy. The French president used the pretext of the inauguration of an exhibition on Peter the Great – the most pro-European Russian tsar – to invite Vladimir Putin to celebrate an era of mutual cooperation.

Yet, even if Putin had expressed his will to “overcome mutual distrust,” certain disagreements remained insurmountable, especially on the thorny issues of the support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or the interventions in Ukraine, two topics which already plagued the relationship between Paris and Moscow during the Hollande administration.

If Macron intends to maintain a regular dialogue with the Kremlin, his diplomatic approach is marked by a steadiness and fortitude uncharacteristic of his predecessors.

Emmanuel Macron did not spare his interlocutor on the most difficult subjects, including both human rights in Russia and major international issues. He advocated for a “frank and sincere agreement” as a sine qua non condition to achieve lasting peace in Ukraine and Syria. While Vladimir Putin had hoped to curb the French support to economic sanctions against his country, he faced the determination of Macron.

Defining priority

Indeed, for the French president, the priority is to revive the February 2015 Minsk accords on Ukraine and protect a cease-fire much too fragile because of the absence of political solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Sanctions will remain until this objective is achieved.

On Syria, the disagreement were also blatant as Macron reaffirmed the French willingness to strike Bashar al-Assad if chemical gases were used yet again, while Russia still clears Damascus of any responsibility. Progress have been achieved however on the Russian proposal of de-escalation zones considered as a welcome incremental step towards a negotiated truce.

Although Macron met with the Syrian opposition the next day, the priority of the new French administration seems to have slightly shifted as Macron gave indication that his main objective was to eradicate ISIS not to achieve a power transition in Syria.

Despite disagreements, the assertiveness of Macron’s position was well received by Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is eager to find a rational counterpart in Europe to build a needed balance of power to negotiate on. Putin’s relationship with Angela Merkel has always been bitter and the British foreign policy is fueled by a visceral mistrust and antagonism towards the Kremlin.

A sparring partner?

In the eyes of Moscow, France is therefore the only remaining European country with the needed tools of power (nuclear, diplomatic and economic) to negotiate conflict resolutions. As Putin realizes the inaptitude of Donald Trump as a world leader and his incapacity to theorize international diplomacy or develop a constructive geopolitical understanding, the emergence of a young and brilliant European leader in Macron offers him a relevant sparring partner, worthy of engaging in diplomatic exchanges.

Building respectful cooperation despite profound disagreements has traditionally been a key feature of the relationship between France and Russia. Both countries were at the forefront of intellectual exchanges during the enlightenment of the eighteenth century initiated by two of the greatest figure of European history Peter the Great and Louis the XIV. The fact that the encounter was staged in Versailles only made the parallel more obvious.

In modern times, the General de Gaulle was also the first and only western leader to visit Moscow and work with Stalin despite both countries being on opposite side of the Cold War. This first meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin has opened a new page of Franco-Russian history.

Despite clear antagonistic positions, both have the international stature and intellectual training to achieve a much-needed diplomatic cooperation towards the resolution of conflicts left in a stalemate for too long.