OPINIONS

Date: 4 September 2019

French Reset

SOURCE: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Paris’s ambition is to take over from Germany as Moscow’s top political partner in Europe. The first step consists in taking the lead in the so-called Normandy format. What seems to foster this move is the election of a new president of Ukraine. Seen to have been far closer to Germany, Petro Poroshenko was replaced with Volodymyr Zelensky, a politician said to be more France-oriented. What is the Kremlin’s reaction? Well, this seems to be to Putin’s liking; he can play both Berlin and Paris, with his ultimate goal leading to – apart from the Ukraine case – lifting EU restrictions. So if Angela Merkel failed to do it, maybe Macron will prove more effective?

Located on the Côte d’Azur, Fort de Brégançon is a summer retreat of the French president, which was where he received his Russian counterpart for talks on August 19. High on the agenda were all major international issues, with most attention having been paid to chances of bringing the Ukrainian turmoil to a halt. Also, Macron confirmed his willingness to participate in celebrations in Moscow on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in World War II to be held in May 2020. The meeting was full of many other warm gestures. Macron referred to Russia as a “great Enlightenment power,” praising it for its “political liberalism,” somewhat an astonishing remark delivered amid the Moscow rallies, with state-controlled National Guard (Rosgvardia) violently dispersing the crowd. When commenting on the meeting, French media outlets spoke quite unanimously about Putin’s warm welcome at Fort de Brégançon, recognizing what took place in Macron’s summer residence as France’s efforts to “reach out to Moscow.”

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Is Ukraine Likely to Become Reset’s Proving Ground?

France seeks to replace Germany in the role of the top European participant in the Donbas peace talks. This is how recent events can be interpreted, with both a meeting between Macron and Putin and trilateral phone calls on Donbas held between French, Russian and Ukrainian leaders. This topic was brought up in the talks between French and Russian prime ministers in late June this year. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called on Medvedev to “take advantage of the new political context in Ukraine” after Volodymyr Zelensky’s election as Ukraine’s new president. Paris is now believed to exert pressure on newly elected authorities in Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements that could act to the detriment of Ukraine if entered into force. Not surprisingly, while at Fort de Brégançon, Putin voiced support for the Normandy format, a negotiating body bringing together Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia. Recent months have brought some changes to the format, making it much more advantageous for the Kremlin. First of all, Ukraine has now a new president who seems determined to bring about peace, possibly by making some concessions to Russia. In doing so, Macron may offer his help while Germany’s authority over the format is gradually relaxing.

In his bid to gain the most critical position in Europe, Macron seeks to emerge as an author of a peaceful solution to the Russian-Ukrainian clash. The Kremlin seems to have nothing against, hoping that Macron’s decisive participation and Zelensky’s stance, eyed as much softer than that signaled by his predecessor, will altogether lead to bring about peace in Donbas, albeit on Russian terms. With both Poroshenko and Merkel in office, such an option remained impossible. Bringing a conflict in Ukraine’s east to a halt could facilitate Russia’s return to the G7 elite club after it had been kicked out over its annexation of Crimea. And this would make Europe take a step towards lifting sanctions on Russia.

De Gaulle’s Spirit

Recently, Paris has stepped up efforts to make a rapprochement with Moscow, and the latest summit in the Côte d’Azur is far from being the only example of such a tendency arising in its foreign policy. Back in June this year, France’s Prime Minister held talks with his Russian counterpart in the Normandy port of Le Havre while in Strasbourg, Paris actively lobbied for Moscow’s return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). A vast majority of French politicians are likely to give the nod to the opinions voiced by France’s former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. In an interview for a French daily Le Figaro, he said that sanctions are highly ineffective while saying that “U.S. appetite for extending NATO to Ukraine” is to be blamed for the annexation of Crimea.

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When receiving his Russian counterpart a few days before the G7 summit in Biarritz on France’s Atlantic coast, Macron saw himself as Europe’s top leader and a mediator at the very middle of the international stage while, most importantly, taking advantage of the recent weakness of both London and Berlin. France’s president used both Berlin’s problems at home and the aftermath of last May’s European elections. Macron’s goal may even consist in stripping Berlin off status of Moscow’s key European partner. Naturally, the French president has his own calculations, with his widely known ambitions to emerge as a top European leader and an informal EU representative in talks with Russia, China, and the United States. Macron intends to go down in history as a politician who set a new international deal. This is how his words about the urge to transform Europe’s security architecture should be read. Macron said that “Europe does not fit in what the West is and should make a push for discovering its sovereignty.” Macron’s belief makes a reference to De Gaulle’s third pillar policy, albeit the problem is that it means a breakup of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, a body that has for decades guaranteed security and development. What Macron has suggested is equivalent to Europe’s door wide open, inviting Putin – who plays an arsonist – to feel at home.

Putin’s arrival in France is highly likely to boost his belligerent stance. France is yet another country to reach out to Putin in an effort to “normalize” relations, or de facto make unilateral concessions to Russia, even though Moscow has failed to meet Western conditions it had faced back in 2014 in retaliation for the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Neither has Russia given the peninsula back to Ukraine, nor does it have an intention to do so, while Russian passports are issued to Ukrainian citizens living in Donbas. With Putin’s popularity no longer sitting pretty in the polls, the fact of inviting him to Macron’s summer retreat is already being used as a proof of the end of Russia’s isolation on the international stage and its actual comeback to the narrow club of the world’s top playmakers. But it is also important to keep in mind Russia’s strategic objective, which is to weaken ties in the Euro-Atlantic allies. The Kremlin can therefore deliberately shift the focus of European policy towards relations with France. Germany may remain the main economic partner, but the prospects for strengthening bilateral relations are no longer as rosy as they were a year ago. While the Nord Stream energy pipeline project has encountered some obstacles, the political future in Berlin remains unclear, with the declining importance of both the Christian Democrats and the SPD party. Berlin has also failed to meet Moscow’s expectations regarding the Ukrainian problem, and Merkel has not put enough pressure on Kiev to implement the Minsk agreements. Alongside the defeat of Petro Poroshenko, German influence in Ukraine can be considered as weakening. Not incidentally, Zelensky spoke on the phone with Macron – and not with Merkel – as the fights in Donbas escalated.

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