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What the hell does Emmanuel Macron think he’s playing at with Vladimir Putin?

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PARIS — When Emmanuel Macron welcomes European leaders to Versailles on Thursday to discuss energy and defense policy, he’ll be standing against a grandiose but familiar backdrop. After all, it was in those same gilded halls that the French president hosted Vladimir Putin in 2017 — the first step in an effort to engage the Russian leader that has continued even as Russian troops carry out a brutal assault on Ukraine.

No other leader spends as much time talking to Putin as Macron. Not only have the two men spoken 11 times in the last month — on one occasion twice in the same day — but, in a break with its tradition of discretion, the Elysée Palace has given a blow-by-blow account of the calls between them, offering a glimpse of their relationship.

Macron may have managed to keep a line of communication open. What he hasn’t been able to do is demonstrate any sign of having influenced Putin’s behavior. In February, as Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine, Macron flew to Moscow, where he sat at a very long table and tried to convince Putin to show restraint. A couple of weeks later, Russia launched its invasion. 

On March 3, Putin initiated a call with Macron to inform him that operations in Ukraine were unfolding “as planned,” according to the Elysée. Meanwhile, on the ground, Russian forces were mounting an assault on Europe’s largest nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia, sparking concerns about radiation leaks.

Putin allegedly told Macron that Ukrainians were using “human shields” and “behaving like Nazis,” just as Russian forces pummeled the cities of Mariupol and Chernihiv. According to the Elysée, Macron cuttingly told Putin, “You are telling yourself stories” and said, “What you’re telling me doesn’t conform to reality and can in no way justify the violence of what you’ve unleashed today.”

On March 6, the last time the two men spoke, the French president was forced to scramble after Russia said it would respond to a “personal demand” from Macron and organize humanitarian corridors for Ukrainian civilians to escape from the heavy fighting — but only to Russia.

Caught off-guard by press reports, the French president took to television to denounce the plan: “All this is not serious,” he said. “It is moral and political cynicism, which is unbearable to me.”

According to the Elysée, Putin agreed to Macron’s request to hold talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, but so far nothing has happened.

While Macron’s outreach has come under criticism, in particular from the Nordic and Baltic countries most exposed to Russian aggression, officials at the Elysée and supporters of Macron insist it’s important the two leaders keep talking — especially as the West ratchets up sanctions on Russia and sends arms into Ukraine.

“It’s not very useful, but we still have to do it, maybe there are some lives that can be saved,” said Michel Duclos, a veteran diplomat who once served as ambassador to Syria. “We must not give the impression that we are refusing to talk. With Putin increasingly isolated due to the sanctions, we need to play this out.”

Sunk costs

In his diplomatic outreach, Macron has sometimes appeared to be trying to compensate for past mistakes — or to draw some meager dividend from years of seeking to engage with Russia.

Macron’s wooing of Putin is in line with his other efforts on the global stage, including his efforts to keep Donald Trump on board when the then-U.S. president was taking a confrontational approach to the EU and causing some to question Washington’s commitment to NATO.

“Macron had an obsession with Trump and Putin,” said one of Macron’s former advisers. “His view was that they need to feel considered.”

In addition to the 2017 Versailles visit, the French president has hosted Putin three times. He traveled to Russia twice in 2018, but his first visit to Ukraine took place just last month.

Macron’s courting of Putin, according to the French president and his supporters, had been aimed at drawing Russia into the EU’s orbit and resolving conflicts on the EU doorstep. In 2019, Macron told Putin he saw Russia as a “profoundly European nation” with an important place in a Europe of shared values.

“His vision was that we had to offer Russia an alternative to China,” said a former Macron aide. “That’s why he invited him to Versailles … He said we need to tie Russia to the West, with European openness, with the economy.”

And yet, Macron’s efforts sometimes gave the impression he was privileging his relationship with Moscow at the expense of his ties to European partners. His hosting of the Russian leader at the presidential summer residence on the French Riviera to discuss security issues ahead of a 2019 G7 meeting in France did not go down well, said Duclos, the former French ambassador.

“It’s normal to invite foreign leaders to the Elysée… but the private residence of the French president is an intimate environment,” Duclos said. “He hadn’t warned the Germans and the other EU states, so they were vexed. And the theme, he chose to discuss a ‘new architecture of security’ [with Putin], so everyone got suspicious because for them that means NATO. And you don’t discuss NATO with Putin.”

Some have pointed out that Macron has sometimes echoed Kremlin talking points, referring to Russia’s “contemporary traumas” or describing in 2019 the existence of a Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a concept Putin had sketched out in an article nearly 10 years earlier.

At one point, the French president appeared to sideline his own foreign affairs ministry, dressing down diplomats accusing them of “deep-state” resistance to engaging with Russia. Many think Macron has preferred to listen to politicians who were nostalgic for past French global influence and who were too soft on Russia, such as former ministers Hubert Védrine and Jean-Pierre Chevènement.

“There was perhaps the temptation to think we understood Russia’s intentions,” said Marie Dumoulin, director at the European Council on Foreign Affairs. “We no doubt underestimated how much Russians wanted to take control of Ukraine. There was an assumption of rationality, that invading Ukraine would be very costly, and not a rational decision … But there’s a different rationality in Russia.”

Macron also missed opportunities to draw red lines, according to Nicolas Tenzer, an expert on French-Russian relations at Sciences Po. “Germany and France gave the impression they were pushing Ukraine into accepting concessions during the renegotiation of the Minsk agreements in 2019,” he said. “Overall, it looked like France … was in favor of appeasement.”

Franco-Russian winter

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the scales fell from Macron’s eyes.

Putin doesn’t seem to engage much with Macron. “One of the great difficulties talking to Putin is that there isn’t much dialogue,” said a former French diplomat, who took part in the negotiations for the Minsk agreements in 2014.

He described conversations with the Russian president as one-sided. “Vladimir Putin would go back over Russian history, with his narrative of the great Russian empire and later Stalin’s communism. It’s terrible … He repeats more than he tries to convince. With him, your point of view does not matter.”

The Elysée’s accounts of the conversations between the two leaders have come with a stream of photos showing the French president unshaven, tense and focused as he speaks to his Russian counterpart, sparking speculation in Paris that he is playing up his role for domestic consumption ahead of a presidential election in April.

But allies of the president say the output is merely an effort to shape how the calls are perceived.

“We push out very, very quickly accounts of the conversations, sometimes including verbatim [text] of the exchanges [between Putin and Macron],” said Anne Genetet, an MP for Macron’s La République En Marche party and a representative for French citizens living in Eastern Europe.

“We need to control the narrative to prevent the opposite side from giving an inexact version,” she said.

After Macron’s failed trip to bring Putin back from the brink of war, Elysée officials said that the French president had found a changed man in Moscow, who drowned him in “long monologues” and “historical revisionism.” Russia watchers say Putin has always behaved the same — Macron just hadn’t been willing to accept it.

With Russian troops in Ukraine, Macron is now talking tough and pushing for harder sanctions, almost as if to “compensate for his past enthusiasm,” said one civil servant. France has supported sweeping sanctions including excluding banks from the SWIFT system, and has taken swift action at home, freezing Russian assets and seizing yachts belonging to oligarchs close to Putin. The French president “has been and is in constant contact with all his allies” throughout the crisis, said one of Macron’s advisers.

Macron isn’t the only leader to be talking with Putin. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Putin in Moscow last week and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also exchanged calls with the Russian president.

But despite the battle of briefings raging between the Elysée and the Kremlin, Macron is unlikely to break off talks with Putin anytime soon. The view in France is that the French president is the person best-placed to keep the lines of communication open — even if he doesn’t have much to show for his effort so far.

According to a March 6 briefing by the Elysée, Macron is still talking about organizing “talks that have to take place between the Russians and the Ukrainians.”

“France has to play this role; it’s a member of the U.N. Security Council and it is one of the European countries that matters now that the U.K. has left the EU,” said a former junior foreign affairs minister.

“I’ve had to deal with a lot of crap in my time, but one thing I can tell you is that you always need to keep a line of communication open,” he added. “Because you never know when your opponent will want to seek a way out.”

Maïa de La Baume contributed to reporting.


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