by Pierre Tran
Paris – President Emmanuel Macron’s Feb. 7, 2022 flight to Moscow could be seen as the doves’ diplomatic attempt to defuse the crisis over Ukraine, a counterbalance to the hawks dispatching troops and weapons to warn off Russian forces massed on the border with its neighbor.
Macron spent five hours in talks behind Kremlin closed doors with Russian president Vladimir Putin, with the French head of state flying the next day to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and then on to Berlin to see German chancellor Olaf Schulz.
The French aim was to “de-escalate” the crisis rising from Russia gathering some 130,000 troops and armor on the border with Ukraine, previously part of the former Soviet Union.
Moscow may have denied any plan to invade Ukraine, but there is deep concern Moscow will order a military move, such as seen in 2014 by seizing the Crimean Peninsula and Donbas region, eastern Ukraine.
Macron had assumed the role of peace broker, carrying the badge of French political leader, as he may hold the six-month rotating presidency of the council of the European Union, but he knew he had no mandate to speak for the 27-strong EU. And France may be a NATO member, but Paris also had no remit to speak for the transatlantic alliance.
Macron had actively taken up the role of the nation’s top diplomat, spending precious political time in search of a peaceful solution to a perceived Russian threat on an East European nation. France is due to go to the polls in April, and Macron has yet to declare candidacy in the election for the five-year tenancy of the Elysée president’s office.
That diplomatic whirlwind may well have been a French drive, but it may also be seen as part of Macron’s wider mission of boosting the role of Europe in world politics, his pursuit of the concept of European strategic autonomy, including a military capability, separate from NATO and Washington.
Among the points Macron and Putin agreed at the Moscow summit was resumption of talks over the territorial dispute in Donbas under the 2015 Minsk agreement. Officials from France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia met Feb. 10, but the four members of the Normandy format came away with little to show for resolving the low-level conflict in the region.
Macron also discussed a new security order for Europe at the Moscow summit, as Russia has demanded a roll back of the NATO membership and missiles deployed around Russia. France has urged grave caution but has not advised French nationals to leave Ukraine, pointing up a distinct approach from at least 30 other nations, which afternoon daily Le Monde reported Feb. 14 have told nationals to leave the country.
Paris insists on an independent verification of threat, a cornerstone of its pursuit of strategic autonomy. France has its own intelligence gathering means on land, sea, air and in space, and will have access to intelligence gathered and shared by NATO partners. That independent approach could be seen in the decision by the then President Jacques Chirac to stay out of the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, a decision which bruised relations between Paris and Washington for years.
After the Moscow meeting, the Russian spokesman disputed media reports that Putin had assured Macron that there would be no further military moves around Ukraine.
Russian intelligence agencies reportedly have a common practice of recording events, perhaps prompting the question whether there is a recording of that high-level exchange of views, perhaps resolving who said what and when.
Reinforcing Eastern European NATO States
The UK defense minister sparked controversy after the Sunday Times reported Feb. 13 that Ben Wallace said there was a “whiff of Munich in the air.” British authorities sought to play down that remark, which implied Russia might play the role of Adolph Hitler, the BBC reported the following day.
NATO was undergoing brain death, Macron told The Economist in 2019. But the crisis seems to have sparked something of a cerebral recovery, with NATO members rallying around to show support for Ukraine, which seeks to join the military alliance.
A first batch of U.S. airborne troops landed Feb.4 in Germany, part of a 2,000-strong deployment to Poland and Romania, with 1,000 soldiers moving from Germany to Romania.
The UK was sending 350 Royal Marines to Poland, adding to the 100 army engineers already there, helping to strengthen the border with Belarus.
Germany was sending 350 more soldiers to Lithuania, reinforcing the some 600 German troops already there and accounting for around half the battle group.
Russia has drawn a red line against NATO ever accepting Ukraine as a member, and it remains to be seen whether the alliance will accept Kyiv’s application, which would pledge collective defense in the event of an attack. Russia has demanded a NATOretreat from its borders, with weapons and troops pulled out of former Soviet bloc states which joined the Atlantic alliance after 1997. Moscow has also called for the NATO withdrawal of intermediate-range missiles from Europe, and recognition and autonomy of the Donbas region.
Russia has issued Russian passports to Ukrainians in the region, underlining its territorial claim.
U.S. president Joe Biden has clearly said there would not be armed conflict with Russia, which would spell another world war. The Western partners, including the European Union, have pledged to take severe economic sanctions if there were a Russian invasion.
Europe vs Putin
After the Kyiv meeting, Macron flew to Berlin, allowing a late working dinner with Scholz and the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, bringing together the three leaders of the Weimar Triangle, the cooperative group of France, Germany and Poland. “Our common goal is to avoid a war in Europe,” Scholz said.
Scholz was just back from meeting Biden in Washington for talks. Before Macron flew to Moscow, he twice called Biden, and called Duda, UK prime minister Boris Johnson, Putin, Scholz, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, and Zelenskiy, clearing the ground for the meeting with Putin, The Economist said on social media.
That was a departure from Macron’s previous meetings with Putin, notably in 2019 at the Brégançon medieval fort, the French official holiday retreat on a Mediterranean island, and in 2017 at the Versailles palace, west of the capital. The Elysée reportedly did not brief Western allies before those meetings.
“These more than five hours of talks make us realise how different the Putin of today was to the Putin of three years ago,” said a French source briefed on the Moscow talks, Reuters reported. The Russian leader spent most of the time “rewriting history from 1997 on.”
Putin told the BBC that he had been forced to moonlight as a taxi driver in the 1990s as he earned so little after the collapse of the USSR.
“Sometimes I had to earn extra money,” Putin said. “I mean, earn extra money by car, as a private driver. It’s unpleasant to talk about to be honest, but unfortunately that was the case.”
Putin’s remarks were in the BBC documentary film, Russia, Latest History, which aired Dec. 12 2021.
Putin worked for the KGB intelligence service and resigned after the 1991 coup against president Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin went on to work with Anatoly Sobchak, mayor of St Petersburg.
Putin reportedly used the familiar French “tu” rather than the more formal “vous” form of address when he saw Macron at the meeting. Macron had declined to agree to give a Russian request for a DNA sample for a Covid test, which meant the meeting was held at a long table, sparking many visual jokes on social media.
A View from Latvia
The Latvian deputy prime minister and defense minister, Artis Pabriks, told Feb. 7 the German Marshall Fund of the United States, that while the US informed Latvia and the other Baltic states on US negotiations and plans with Moscow, it was not clear the Latvian government had been informed of Macron’s “talking points” before he flew to Moscow.
Macron made a call Feb. 5 to Latvian prime minister Krisjanis Karins, before the meeting with Putin, the list from The Economist on social media shows.
Are those who are negotiating with Putin “representing the West or are they mediators between the West and Moscow?” Pabriks said, adding that Russia’s demands extended beyond Ukraine, and Moscow was seeking expansion against the West, Europe, the U.S. and Canada.
Pabriks evoked the then UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain and the 1938 Munich agreement – and referred to the film Munich: The Edge of War which recently started showing on Netflix. Macron should have flown to Kyiv first and discussed the “concessions” before going to Moscow, Pabriks said.
France has strong links with Russia. That can be seen in the then leader of the Free French forces, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, sending French pilots to fly alongside the Russians on the Eastern Front in the Second World War.
Those French air force pilots formed a squadron, dubbed Normandie-Niemen, flew Yakovlev Yak 1 fighter planes 1943-45, and supported Russian troops in the battle of Kursk. Moscow awarded the French squadron the distinction of Hero of the Soviet Union.
The present Normandie-Niemen squadron flies Rafale fighter jets from Mont-de-Marsan air base, southwest France.
In 2011, the then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, backed a controversial sale worth €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) of two Mistral class helicopter carriers to the Russian navy, with options for two more.
The Baltic nations, the U.S., Ukraine, and other central European allies criticized that deal, which stood to boost Russian force projection.
Sarkozy’s successor, François Hollande, cancelled the Mistral carrier deal in 2015 and repaid Russia €948 million, comprising €893 million for building the two warships and €55 million for adapting Russian equipment for fitting on the vessels.
The French authorities declined to pay the French shipbuilder, Naval Group, an estimated €200 million payment for building the two warships, Vladivostok and Sevastopol, which were later sold to Egypt.
Featured Photo: Flags of France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. Normandy Format meeting on eastern Ukraine. Credit: Bigstock
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