French President Emmanuel Macron this week faces the first major test of his policy of directly engaging with Russia that has disturbed some European allies, as he hosts a summit seeking progress in ending the Ukraine conflict.
Joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron will bring together Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky for their first face-to-face meeting at an afternoon summit at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Monday.
The stakes are high: this will be the first such summit in three years and while diplomats caution against expecting a major breakthrough, a failure to agree concrete confidence-building steps would be seen as a major blow to hopes for peace and also Macron’s personal prestige.
Macron, who is pressing ahead with the summit despite crippling public transport strikes at home over contested pension reforms, has invested hugely in efforts to end the conflict in the east of Ukraine that has claimed 13,000 lives since 2014.
And he has also placed his bets on a risky strategy to deal directly with Putin, based on the assumption that one day Russia will understand it is in the national interest to see Europe as its long-term strategic partner.
“It is an important test for Macron and for the Europeans,” said Michel Duclos, a former ambassador and senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne, a French think tank.
“He is already very isolated. And if he obtains nothing on Ukraine he is going to be even more isolated,” he added.
But he added the Kremlin was “astute enough” to understand that the summit had to be declared a success and Putin was gladdened by Macron’s overtures as he “sees in that a chance to divide the Europeans”.
‘Threat but also a partner’
Macron has adopted an increasingly assertive presence on the international stage in recent months, at a time when Germany is a less imposing diplomatic player as Merkel prepares to leave office.
His thoughts were summed up in an explosive interview with The Economist last month, when he declared NATO was brain dead and said Europe needed to have a strategic dialogue with Russia.
Examining Russia’s long-term strategic options under Putin, Macron said in the interview that Russia could not prosper in isolation, would not want to be a “vassal” of China and would eventually have to opt for “a partnership project with Europe”.
Macron notably described ex-KGB agent Putin as a “child of Saint Petersburg”, the former Russian capital built by Peter the Great as a window onto the West.
His comments disturbed newer EU members that want a tough line against their former master Russia like the Baltic States and, in particular, Poland. And they added to a raft of growing tensions between France and Germany.
But after a summit of NATO leaders in England earlier this month, Macron was unrepentant and categorical about his strategy of cultivating Russia.
“Who is NATO’s enemy? Russia is no longer an enemy. It remains a threat but is also a partner on some subjects. Our enemy today is international terrorism and in particular Islamist terrorism,” he said.
‘Being a nuisance no strategy’
A French diplomatic source argued Russia could not forever pin its strategy on being a “power of disturbance” with policies like its military intervention in Syria to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power or its alliance with NATO member Turkey which has rattled the West.
“If having a capacity to be a nuisance is your only lever it is not a lasting and viable strategy,” said the source, adding there was also a “profound Russian concern about being locked into a rivalry with China”.
Konstantin Kalachev, director of the Moscow-based Political Expert Group, warned “it would be naive to think Emmanuel Macron can exercise any kind of influence on Vladimir Putin with the aim of bringing Russia closer to the EU.
“There is only one person who can influence President Putin. And that is President Putin himself.”
In a glimmer of hope for Macron he added: “Mr Putin has no interest that this (Ukrainian) conflict worsens. But he wants any solution to be drawn up according to his conditions”.