Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe.
“Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war,” noted one of Britain’s most pugnacious leaders, Winston Churchill. That seems to be the principle motivating France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi in their ongoing engagements with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, the phone conversations infuriate both Ukrainians and Central European countries neighboring Russia. They are uneasy, fearing the Kremlin is using the talks to play Western allies against each other and that Macron is pursuing a poisoned peace plan, which would result in Ukraine ceding territory in a sell-out.
But French officials say Macron is getting unfairly pilloried by leaders for his outreach — and in their dismissal, there are real risks being discounted.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba rounded on the French leader on Saturday, after Macron suggested it’s imperative that Russia not be humiliated and argued the door should be left ajar, “so that the day the fighting stops, we can build a way out through diplomatic channels.”
Macron noted he’s had around 100 hours of talks with his Russian counterpart since December, adding, he was putting “time and energy” into ensuring the conflict doesn’t escalate into a wider war. His point about humiliation is wrapped up in an idea he’s outlined before — namely, that the West shouldn’t be vengeful and aim for a total subjugation of Russia. But it was a clumsy formulation.
“Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it,” tweeted Kuleba in response. “Because it is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives,” he added.
Other phone calls and meetings between Macron and Putin have drawn sharp condemnation as well. In April, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki mocked the French leader, saying, “Mr. President Macron, how many times have you negotiated with Putin, what have you achieved?”
But circling back to Churchill, are Macron and Draghi right to engage with Putin, regardless of the opportunities it might give the Russian leader to maneuver?
Morawiecki maintains that talking with dictators is an exercise in futility — and, indeed, all too often it has been — but above all, Macron fears nuclear risks, and he worries the risk of miscalculation is being discounted too easily, one French diplomat told me. “We have four nuclear armed powers involved,” he said. “Yes, we should be talking.”
Pointing to the Cuban missile crisis as a cautionary tale, he noted how Washington and Moscow established a hotline in its wake, after getting dangerously close to all-out nuclear war, which, at the time, dumb luck, as much as anything else, played a significant role in averting.
It’s a startling comparison, but others also fear nuclear risks are being overlooked and that there has been a numbing effect from Russia’s scattershot threats, leading to such a menace being discounted. Graham Allison, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently made a comparison with the Cuban missile crisis too, adding: “The Vladimir Putin who bombed the Russian city of Grozny into rubble in order to ‘liberate’ it, and who joined Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in razing Aleppo, certainly has no moral reservations about mass destruction.”
“Moreover, the war in Ukraine is now unambiguously Putin’s war, and the Russian leader knows that he cannot lose — without risking his regime and even his life. So as the fighting continues, if he is pushed to choose between making an ignominious retreat and escalating the level of violence, we should prepare for the worst,” Allison warned.
Last month, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen also urged United States officials to consider the possibility of Russia using a nuclear weapon — most likely tactical — amid its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “It’s very difficult to know what Putin is thinking at any particular time. He’s obviously spoken to this. I think we need to make sure that we consider it as a possibility,” the retired navy admiral said.
“He’s pretty well cornered and boxed in, so we would certainly have to consider … it’s a possible action he can take,” he added.
Mullen and others worry that Russia’s president has already upended the nuclear status quo with the inflation of his saber-rattling threats. But what is unclear is whether the use of tactical nuclear weapons is baked into Russian military thinking.
“While unlikely, it is not inconceivable that Putin could decide to use nuclear weapons to stave off defeat,” noted Alexander Vershbow, a former deputy secretary-general of NATO and former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “In that scenario, I would expect him to limit his initial use to a demonstration strike using a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon against a Ukrainian military target in order to minimize the scale of civilian casualties,” he said.
While most reckon the likelihood of Putin firing off a nuclear weapon is low, prudence would dictate communication lines stay open, as they were during the Cold War, at least to ensure that misunderstandings and miscalculations are minimized and red lines drawn. Because despite proxy wars and tense confrontations, talking had worked — the West and the Soviet Union never came as close to trading nuclear missiles again, until now.
Talking with Putin understandably sticks in the craw of Ukrainians. Their country has been devastated, and evidence of Russian war crimes are piling up. Macron’s clumsy warnings against humiliating Russia are particularly infuriating — they seem coldly unjust. “Some countries are proposing not to ‘humiliate’ Russia. At the same time, we are being shelled: our cities, people,” fumed Andriy Yermak, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, on Sunday.
But wars are extremely unpredictable — they can escalate all too rapidly. And as Macron underlined, he’s only trying to avoid the conflict escalating into a wider and even more catastrophic war.