Date: 18 May 2020

Emmanuel Macron and French-Russian relations in times of crisis in international alliances

Emmanuel Macron has never really taken an anti-Russian stance, even though this is the image of the French president that the Russian media have repeatedly presented. When he was Minister of the Economy and Industry, he advocated that the sanctions against Russia should be lifted, and two weeks after he became President, he invited Vladimir Putin to Versailles. The French president is also very positively viewed by the Russian minority in France. Several factors may cause his open policy towards Russia. One of them is undoubtedly the high-flown aspirations to take the lead in Europe and decide on its fate. Nowadays, Macron is falling behind Donald Trump. Another thing to his disadvantage is that Chancellor Angela Merkel has slipped into the obscurity of the European political scene, whereas she could have been of much help to her French ally otherwise. This is why the French president had to take the initiative himself and decide on measures that would attempt to make him the leader of the post-Cold War game. However, he used an open-handed strategy seeking a favorable agreement in the region rather than the rivalry that, from Emmanuel Macron’s perspective, the United States is looking for.



Emmanuel Macron’s turn towards Russia surprised the world’s milieu of experts in international relations. Almost no one had foreseen such a scenario. On the one hand, France and Germany embody the strength of the European Union today, and Germany is maintaining relations that represent a considerable advantage in its favor, see: Nord Stream 2. On the other hand, Paris had not sent unambiguous signals that would indicate the possibility of reconciliation with Russia, especially at such a difficult time for NATO and the European Union.

Interestingly, the French media indicate that as early as May 2017, Emmanuel Macron demonstrated a willingness to establish relations with Russia by announcing possible cooperation. A year later, at the Petersburg International Economic Forum, the French President showed rather considerable leniency towards Vladimir Putin. Although this was an excellent opportunity to emphasize the need to resolve the Ukrainian conflict and thus strengthen the influence of the Normandy format, the French President remained distanced and muted. He also declared that he respected the reinforced role that Russia plays in its region. He began his speech by saying that it is necessary to be telling the truth, but during the discussion, he did not make a reference to the contemporary threats in Europe.

France is exploring the possibilities of eventual international alliances. The election of Donald Trump as US President was followed by a permanent and visible split between the US policy and that of Macron. The impasse in bilateral relations created a gap that had to be filled by another superpower. As it turned out, it was an ideal moment for Russia, which showed that it is very keen to engage in cooperation with France. The uncertainty of the NATO Alliance was pointed out by Macron, who indicated that it is the current US administration that rejects the concept of the international community. He indicated that each country should take care of itself and put its own interests above those of other countries. Besides, other EU members are concerned about whether strengthening the potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization still lies in the interest of the EU member states. The situation is causing instability in the geopolitical circles, and there are more and more doubts regarding Washington’s goals. It also raises questions about how or even whether the United States can still be a dominant player in the game for European stability and what is the role of the Kremlin, which accepts France’s hand.


Diplomacy plays an essential role in the context of sanctions against Russia, which are renewed on a regular basis. There are significant differences in the approach of NATO members to the annexation of Crimea, political freedoms in Russia, or EU interference in public life in individual member states. However, it would appear, clearly to some, that France and Russia need each other for their ambitions.

Ending the War in Ukraine

France and Russia are likely to find a solution to the conflict in Ukraine. Their bone of contention is above all the legality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. However, in terms of the ceasefire, respect for human rights and humanitarianism, and the establishment of an initial agreement, the first step in the form of an exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Kyiv has already been taken. On September 7, 2019, after several months of negotiations, the breakthrough was reached. Eleven civilians and 24 soldiers with Ukrainian citizenship were exchanged for 35 imprisoned Russians and pro-Russian separatists. The exchange was supposed to mark the beginning of disarmament in the region, but it remained only one of the rare acts of goodwill in the region. It should be noted that there are still many prisoners in prisons on both sides, including Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars, who are held in prisons in Russian-occupied Crimea.

The most important thing now is to find a compromise that would restore the sovereignty of Ukraine over its eastern borders (the goal of Paris) and guarantee rights and protection for Russian-speaking minorities in eastern Ukraine – in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (the goal of Moscow). This should be done through the Normandy format as part of a long-term strategy, where it is possible Macron could be playing a significant role in the negotiations.

Moreover, a crucial aspect entails prospects orbital around ensuring Ukraine is not forced into giving up the areas occupied by Russian separatists. It is unlikely Kiev even considers this as an option at all. It does affect both Russian and French objectives in context of the Normandy format. For them, method and arguments that used to convince Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are of secondary importance. What matters here are effects that will cause a real storm of events. It is imperative to avoid a scenario which includes a surrender of Ukraine that accepts the demands of Russia, as this could trigger a process that resembles the self-deterioration of this state. No more than 30 years ago, Ukraine began to rise from its knees and build its own history and identity, and yet the country is again being dismantled. Despite Ukraine’s enormous problems with education, corruption, and, most importantly, with ensuring internal security, the authorities are trying to control Russia’s attacks and not initiate any abrupt actions. The problem, however, is that Ukraine is starting to struggle not only with Russia but also with other countries that were initially supposed to help it in its conflict with the Kremlin.


The latest meeting of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France took place in December 2019 in Paris. The commitments made at the meeting included: a complete ceasefire by the end of 2019, giving the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe full control over the areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, implementing the ‘Steinmeier formula’ in Ukrainian law, and enabling the free movement of people, goods and services between Ukraine and the Donbas region. The next meeting is scheduled to take place in April 2020.

The formation of the Consultative Council certainly deserves attention. It will include ten representatives of Ukraine and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR), each with the right to vote and representatives, each delegated by the OSCE, from France, Germany, and Russia (one from each of those countries). The latter will have an advisory role.  All Council members will have to be accepted by the OSCE, France, Germany, and Russia. At this point, it is very difficult to decide whether this could really be a breakthrough in Ukrainian-Russian relations. It is worth pointing out, however, that the representatives of both DPR and LPR have joined the new body, which was accepted by Ukraine. What will be decisive in this matter is the attitude of France and Germany.

Maintaining the Iran nuclear deal

France and Russia may also come closer together through the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 between Iran and the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, and Germany. Trump’s Administration condemned this agreement and stopped the lifting of sanctions against Iran. Since then, Tehran has resumed its nuclear activities, destroying the status quo, to maintain its balance of power. Things have developed to such an extent that the U.S. had even been considering the possibility of direct military action. In this situation, France and Russia should have the same vision. It could then be argued that agreement should be maintained to avoid nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, an area already exposed to many conflicts and tensions. Quite simply, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Iran, and France did not seem to care at all. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who is an ally of Russia, has found another partner in Europe – where Macron offered Iran a $15 billion ‘credit line’ plan to encourage Iran to reverse its largely declaratory breaches of the JCPOA. The idea is subject to approval for waivers from the US to avoid potential repercussions from US sanctions.

Finding a solution to the Syrian conflict

The prolonged civil war in Syria is already posing a threat not only to the country itself, to other countries in the region, but also to Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and continue to be killed because of these battles, not to mention the continual displacement of several million people, many of which have headed for Europe. Russia’s role in this conflict is important, considering that it has decided to intervene away from its borders and has been accused of helping the Bashar al-Assad regime to use chemical weapons. Today, Russia is actively seeking agreement with Turkey and Iran. Potential French efforts in discussions or measures to help bring the end of the destructive war in which Syrian citizens suffer most of the losses could be useful, if they are not obstructed by geopolitical ambition in the region.

Turkey is also trying to draw France and Germany into further engagement in Syria. The thousands of migrants who can enter Europe represent the main bargaining chip of President Erdogan in the process of putting pressure on the European Union, as was displayed with the latest tensions on the Greek-Turkish borders. He aims to attain the political and diplomatic commitment of the EU and NATO with regard to the situation in Idlib. If France maintains its relatively out-of-conflict position, it will somehow support Russia, which is seeking to isolate Turkey. In the worst-case scenario for Erdogan, some 4 million Syrians will enter Turkey. The Kremlin is thus once again observing clashes between Turkey and the European Union, showing that it does not care about almost anything that happens on Syrian territory. Even the loss of its own troops.

Achieving stabilization in Central Africa

Several international observers have pointed out that private Russian military contractors are playing an increasingly active role in the ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic. France is permanently present in the area, and Russia is returning to the continent, and whether they find a modus vivendi or not will have a real but limited impact on the ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic which involves a complex array of factions. The region of Central Africa may constitute a relevant point in relations between Paris and Moscow that could provide a basis for further discussions on other issues. It could serve as an indicator (or warning) to other states of what French-Russian cooperation in conflicts looks like, whether there are contributions to stabilization or whether it could rather be argued as opportunistically taking advantage of conflicts to pursue geopolitical interests, and what it could mean for their country or situation.

Investing in Russia

It should be noted that Russia’s economic cooperation with individual EU countries, including France, has been good. More than 500 large Russian companies use French capital; trade between the two countries increased by 16% and amounted to 14.2 billion USD, and at the end of 2018, France was the second-largest foreign investor in Russian shares after Germany.

Currently, the total value of French investments in the Russian economy amounts to about 15 billion USD. In addition, more and more companies with French capital seem open on operating on the Russian market. Active cooperation is particularly visible in the energy sector, the aviation and automotive industries, rail transport, infrastructure projects, the pharmaceutical industry, the food industry, and joint investments in third countries. French investment in Russia could prove to be a considerable support for Emmanuel Macron’s policy.

Rebuilding collective security in Europe

Shortcomings on the part of the OSCE to be able to thoroughly verify compliance with the arms control treaties and conflict prevention in Europe, as well as the withdrawal of the United States from the Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) on the total elimination of intermediate-range missiles, could in effect make France one of the main negotiators, if not the main negotiator, with both Moscow and Washington. If Macron wishes to cooperate with Russia, he must choose between solidarity with its Eastern European allies (Poland and the Baltic States) and Ukraine-related issues or finding compromises with Putin. The Russian president likely feels that too many concessions to any of the NATO members, even France, may contribute to Russia’s isolation in Europe and the loss of its influence. Whether both Marcon and Putin can demonstrate ability to formulate deals that avoid such cold trade-offs remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it would seem that we are entering a new era of international relations in which France will strive to play an increasingly decisive role.

Starting all over again

The French approach towards Russia sometimes looks like a diplomatic tabula rasa – one forgets about the past and starts adventurous cooperation from the beginning, i.e. a “reset” of relations. This was the case in 2009 when President Barack Obama tried to improve relations between the United States and Russia. On March 6, 2009, in Geneva, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red button with the word “reset” and the Roman alphabet transliteration of the Russian equivalent of this word. It was intended that this would be перезагрузка [“perezagruzka“], but, instead of the correct transliteration of “reset,” it actually was the word for “overload” – перегрузка (“peregruzka.”)


An important fact is that the then renewal of the relationship was preceded by the Russian-Georgian war in 2008. Therefore, this, together with the aforementioned conflicts and policy conundrums, it could be argued French-Russian relations are more shaped by recent conflicts in other countries than they are by anything else. It seems that, from the Russian-French perspective, the contemporary situation in Donbas is very similar to that in South Ossetia. Russia is occupying eastern Ukraine, and France is engaging in the Normandy format to resolve the conflict. There are no concrete results that can be confidently described as tangible from meetings between representatives of France, Russia, Germany, and Ukraine, which – after six years of talks – leads to stagnation.

For this reason, given Macron’s policy towards Putin, a scenario in which more normalized relations between France and the Russian Federation are resumed is likely to be pragmatic from the perspectives of Paris and Moscow in these contexts. In such a hypothetical situation, potential outcomes include that the occupied territory of Ukraine could de facto remain in the hands of Russia whilst French-Russian relations would be renewed. Russia’s attacks on other countries, sending Russian troops there or there, and pursuing an anti-Western policy could be part of the daily agenda, as a result of newly attained confidence.

What would be the responses or reactions of other countries in Europe – such as Poland, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Bulgaria, and Romania  –  to the “reset” of France’s relations with Russia? Not to mention the USA, which aspires to be the guarantor of security in Europe. What would happen to European solidarity and the strategy to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank?

It is possible that a part of France’s calculus is that on the other hand, if the US administration was able to try to renew relations with Russia, whether or not it was an authentic attempt, why could not France do the same? In this, the issue is what concessions that Macron decides to make in order to develop a clear relationship with Russia, as it would appear that concessions appear to be a central trade-off in this – hence, possibly, the engagements in other conflicts. The core problem would be, then, to what extent such actions could harm other countries in Europe, especially the ones sharing borders with the Russian Federation. If a relationship reset could be accomplished twice (at the expense of Georgia and later Ukraine), it seems likely that in a few years, it will be possible to press the reset button again. The question arises, however, at the expense of whom this time?


No wonder Russia sees great potential in its cooperation with France. Putin believes that once he reaches an agreement with Macron, other countries may be encouraged to follow the same path – forget about the recent past and look for cooperation opportunities. As Françoise Thom points out, this would be the ultimate culmination of the Kremlin’s long-standing policy based on information warfare and the strategy of testing the waters. Russia is moving forward in achieving its goals to the extent within its own reach. Policy-makers ought to continue to try to figure out what it would take for Moscow to stop striving to increase its influence in Europe.

Observing from the side, it would appear that in the view of France’s calculus, improving relations with the Kremlin to a noticeable extent would be a way for the French President to liberate himself from American geopolitical control. Emmanuel Macron is fighting for a more sovereign and independent foreign policy, and, with no German involvement, he is making progress towards becoming a leader of the West – with what could be interpreted as the long-term desire to overtake Trump. Macron is now talking about adopting a new strategy towards Russia that may attract many supporters. He is well aware of the crisis of Russia in Europe after the annexation of Crimea – and may use this knowledge in negotiations. Furthermore, it seems that the improvement of relations with Paris is essential for the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin would like to prove to the Western elite that a healthy partnership with Russia would be beneficial. The question is whether such cooperation could be fruitful or outright detrimental to Europe as a whole, noting of course, the precarious situation of states in Eastern Europe.

Another essential factor to consider is the danger posed by the novel coronavirus. Can the ongoing pandemic have a real impact on the international situation and affect French-Russian relations? Macron does not seem to be ready for yet another catastrophe – other than those already having a negative impact on the situation in France, and already posing a threat to his candidacy in the presidential elections in 2022. The attempts to build relations with Russia are part of the French strategy of testing the NATO–EU alliance and a way to increase influence in Europe and Africa. In addition, the possibility of an idea that Italy may become relatively more closely aligned to Russia in the future is concerning, yet the publicity of the Russian army’s help in fighting COVID-19 against the help from the EU does factor into this. In this kind of game, the parties in Europe would have to be redefined. What is certain is that the whole situation related to both the strengthened French-Russian relations and the coronavirus epidemic is very important for Poland. From now on, it is necessary to look not only at the East’s vulnerability, but also at the West.

Author: Aleksander Ksawery Olech

This article was originally published on The Warsaw Institute Review.

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