Is it too late for Emmanuel Macron to engage with Moscow?

Strategic dialogue has been at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s political vision with Russia. Never short of self-confidence, two weeks after becoming president he invited Vladimir Putin to Versailles.  This marked the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s visit, whilst initiating  common ground on international security issues. This political position was brought back into focus days before the 2019 Group of Seven summit in Biarritz at the Fort de Brégançon, the French presidential summer retreat.

This backdrop stems from a strategic context in which transatlantic relations have been marred by ex-President Donald Trump’s erratic and neo-isolationist foreign policy. During his time in office, Donald Trump repeatedly castigated NATO’s core principles, including the concept of collective defence, and even withdrew 1,200 U.S. troops from Germany – a long-time U.S. ally in the Atlantic Alliance. Convinced that the Americans will no longer engage meaningfully in European security, President Macron, days before NATO’s 70th anniversary meeting in London, set the stage by calling the alliance “brain dead” and called on European allies to invest in European strategic autonomy.

Moscow’s recent malicious actions in Europe may call this demarche into question. In Belarus, President Putin offered strategic support to his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, to quell an unprecedented protest movement. The Kremlin leader sent his most prominent opponent, Alexei Navalny, to a notoriously brutal penal colony east of Moscow. Interestingly, earlier this year, President Putin withdrew Russia from the Open Skies Treaty.


Common Ground Remain

While Paris and Moscow strategic interests in the Middle East diverge, both powers have a strong interest in expanding cooperation to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State in the Iraq/Syria zone. Indeed, 2020 has seen a sharp resurgence in IS activity in both countries – nearly 600 IS attacks were recorded in the first quarter of 2020 alone, while in Syria, deaths are reported almost daily in eastern Syria, notably in Deir ez-Zur. Both France and Russia have succumbed to deadly attacks by the terrorist group on their territory at the height of its activity. Against this turbulent offshoot, the question now is whether the two powers could take this issue to the United Nations Security Council to bring about necessary change.

Achieving lasting peace in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine has also been a major area of cooperation between President Macron and Vladimir Putin. After peace talks were frozen for more than three years, the French leader succeeded in convincing President Putin to restart negotiations with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky at a joint Franco-German summit at the Elysée Palace in December 2019.  The leaders of Russia and Ukraine notably pledged to exchange all remaining prisoners of the conflict and enforce a ceasefire agreement in the conflict-ridden region.

While a ceasefire has been in place since last July, recent tensions between Russia and the European Union have stalled progress in bringing peace and security to the Donbas. Since the beginning of 2021, there has been an upsurge in violence, with an increase in the number of casualties among military personnel and civilians. The Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists regularly exchange artillery and machine-gun fire on the front line,  while Europe’s most prominent capitals grapple with a third wave of coronavirus infections.

Against this volatile backdrop, President Putin has a vested interest in preventing tensions from escalating further in the Donbas. Rising poverty and recent revelations of corruption by Alexei Navalny have left Russians angry and disenchanted with the Kremlin leader. Paris and Berlin have maintained a common position that if Russia implements the Minsk Protocol, sanctions against Russia will be lifted. Pursuing this policy would bring significant relief to Russia’s resource-dependent economy, which has been hit hard by the fall in crude oil prices over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – Russia’s crude oil exports in particular fell by 11% in 2020. While the IMF forecasts crude oil prices just above $50/b for 2021,  the emergence of new COVID-19 variants and a further surge in global infections are likely to complicate this recovery.


The Biden Position

In the first months of Joe Biden’s presidency, his administration has sought to leverage its political capital against China and Russia’s strategic manoeuvres. Senior figures in Biden’s diplomatic apparatus have been urging NATO’s European allies to step up cooperation against Russia’s strategic advances. This was recently conveyed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at NATO headquarters last month.  President Biden’s top diplomat notably voiced transatlantic support against Moscow’s growing grip on European energy security, with particular reference to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which aims to link Russian gas directly to Germany across the Baltic Sea and thus bypass Ukraine. Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has always placed European security at the centre of his foreign policy discourse and naturally shares the US concern about Europe’s energy dependence with Russia.

Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s competitive approach to Russia escalated into direct insults to the Kremlin leader, returning US-Russian relations to Cold War levels. President Biden’s characterisation of Vladimir Putin as a “killer” led the Kremlin to recall its ambassador to Washington; a move unprecedented in the history of US-Russian relations. This latent feud clearly risks undermining the prospect of mutually beneficial cooperation between the two nuclear powers. So far, Washington and Moscow have cooperated in the field of arms control by extending the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) for another five years. The two permanent members of the UN Security Council have a mutual interest in expanding their security cooperation – mitigating nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific region, combating the resurgence of IS, and building lasting peace in the South Caucasus.

The Elysée would not like to see this escalation spiral further. France fears that burning all bridges with Russia will increasingly induce Moscow to deepen its ties with Beijing, especially in terms of security cooperation. The two neighbouring countries have significantly deepened their relationship in recent years holding large-scale joint military exercises in the Mediterranean in 2015 and in the Baltic in 2017. Given recent Sino-European tensions, China may well participate with Russia in this year’s Russian military exercise (Zapad) in Russia’s Western Military District this summer.

In an increasingly volatile geopolitical juncture, the challenge for President Macron lies in defusing tensions between the US and Russia. With Ukraine being the frontline of geopolitical tensions between Russia and the United States.  President Putin recently massed Russian military troops along the Ukrainian border to test the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine.

Consequently, the Elysée should seek to calm emotions on both sides. French diplomacy should insist to Moscow that any further attempt to destabilise the fragile regional security situation will lead to further isolation of Russia on the international scene with the possibility of joint US and EU sanctions. In particular, last month’s US sanctions caused the Russian national currency to lose 3% of its value against the US dollar, adding to domestic inflationary pressure. With the price of basic necessities rising, new Western sanctions will inevitably affect living standards and trigger further social discontent at the Kremlin. Similarly, Paris should call on Joe Biden to withdraw from any further personal quarrel with President Putin, as this would only strengthen the hard-line arguments of the Russian diplomatic circle which may undermine the prospect of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Author: Kareem Salem

Kareem Salem holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of New South Wales. He is bilingual in English and French and has written for a number of international bodies. His main interests lie in transatlantic relations, the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy and international trade and cooperation within the international system. Kareem firmly believes in multilateralism and considers it an important mechanism to support international peace and cooperation between nations.

April 10, 2021