August 19, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at a summer residence in Bregancon Castle on the Mediterranean coast. The meeting took place on the eve of the G7 summit in the French city of Biarritz on August 24-26. If you compare the tone of Macron’s rhetoric at a meeting with Putin in Bregancon, you will notice that it has changed dramatically. There is nothing left from the demanding and offensive line of Macron. Two years ago, Macron called the Russian media false propaganda bodies, criticized the Kremlin’s interference in the political processes of European countries, and declared that he was not going to move closer to Russia. Now, if you omit the differences between Macron and Putin over Syria and protests in Moscow, then in Bregancon the French president curtsied at the Russian leader.
Macron called Russia a great European power and called a meeting with Putin - a historical moment in international relations; he spoke about the need to build a new security architecture to create Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and even stated that the cooperation of liberal democracies with another system could give positive results. Macron accepted Putin’s invitation to attend the Victory Parade in Moscow on May 9, 2020, where leaders of foreign countries, who attach particular importance to relations with Russia, gather most often. The meeting in Bregancon indicates that France is making a foreign policy turn towards Russia due to certain circumstances, which may not bring the most favorable consequences for Ukraine.
Deicing Greater Europe
There is nothing new in Macron's discussion of Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. He simply borrowed the idea of Greater Europe, which has existed in political and expert circles since the beginning of the twentieth century. British geopolitics Helford John Mackinder and his German counterpart Karl Haushofer believed that the rapprochement of continental Europe and Russia could lead to the emergence of a powerful center of power that could successfully compete with the United States and Britain and prevail over these maritime powers. This idea came to taste to the ex-president of France, Charles de Gaulle, who was going to build Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, together with Germany, the Soviet, and the countries of the social camp.
Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev also liked to speculate about a “common European home,” which would erase the line between the socialist and neoliberal model of development and put an end to the inter-bloc confrontation. Romano Prodi, former President of the European Commission, proposed in 2001 that the EU and the Russian Federation create a common European economic space. Before the Ukrainian crisis, Prime Minister Dmytro Medvedev was interested in the idea of Greater Europe, who proposed creating a common security space from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Until 2014, the idea of integrating the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, including the introduction of a visa-free regime for Russia, was popular.
The idea of a Greater Europe was hindered by a different understanding of the goals of the project. If the Russians wanted to focus on integration in the field of economy and defense, then the Europeans in the 90s wanted to turn Russia into a liberal state of the Western type. The Ukrainian crisis and the loss of confidence in Russia in the West put an end to the alliance between Europe and Russia. Macron took a chance and was the first to meet Putin, who apparently seemed to him more predictable in relations with the EU than Trump or Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The collapse of European politics of the US and China
France’s turn towards Russia was the result of a tough US foreign policy towards Europe. President Donald Trump’s ultimatum demand from NATO partners to increase defense spending, increase import duties on European steel and aluminum, ignore Europe’s interests in the international arena, a clear manifestation of which was the US withdrawing from a nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris Climate Protection Agreement, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the refusal to sign an agreement on a free trade zone with the EU pushed the French leader to recall the idea of a Greater Europe.
The Trump administration hoped to force European partners to go in the wake of US foreign policy, as it was during the Cold War. The White House needs a consolidated West with a common position to effectively contain Russia and China. But Trump’s attitude towards European partners as lazy and lack of initiative workers at a construction company did not like Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wanted to transform the EU into a self-sufficient center of power in international relations.
US pressure did not make the French leadership more accommodating, but, on the contrary, contributed to its turn towards Russia. Macron believes that if Trump takes unilateral actions in the international arena and does not take into account the views of France and the European Union, this means that he can afford to flirt with Russia, contradicting the policy of Western anti-Russian sanctions. The first sign of Macron’s change was support for the return of the Russian delegation to PACE. US-French relations deteriorated sharply after Macron signed the law on the introduction of an additional tax on profits of foreign high-tech firms, including US companies Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon. The mistake of Trump and his team is that they underestimated Macron, who turned out to be prone to risky adventures.
Macron needs an alliance with Russia to restrain China’s growing influence. It is not surprising why Macron emphasizes that Europe needs to maintain a dialogue with Russia so that it does not go closer to China. In recent years, Russia has drawn closer to China as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, supplying the Chinese military with modern weapons, including Su-35 fighters and S-400 missile defense systems. China is taking protectionist measures against the European Union. Europeans are annoyed by Chinese technology transfer laws in exchange for foreign companies getting permission to work in China.
Business vs. security
France’s desire to move closer to Russia in the context of an unsettled armed conflict in eastern Ukraine near the EU borders suggests that Europeans has not learned a lesson how to adequately assess the threat of its eastern neighbor to international security. Macron is following in the footsteps of former US President Barack Obama, whose policy of "resetting" relations with Russia shortly after its aggression in Georgia did not lead to positive results. The Kremlin perceives reciprocal steps from the West and unilateral concessions as a manifestation of weakness, as appropriate conditions for the implementation of foreign policy adventures. The annexation of Crimea and the occupation of half of Donbas, interference in the Syrian conflict are precisely the negative consequences of Obama's "reset" policy.
However, Macron treats Russia and Putin not a threat to the security of France and the EU, but as a country with wild capitalism, led by an aged authoritarian leader, which is interesting only as a raw material base and production site. In terms of the confrontation with the US and China, Macron expects to form an informal triumvirate with Merkel and Putin, tied to the mutual economic interests of Europe and Russia. Russians can offer Europe almost all the elements from the periodic chart and skilled labor on their territory, while Europeans can bring investments and technologies to the Russian economy. Russia remains interesting to Europe as a source of affordable natural gas and oil. The construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is ongoing. At the end of 2018, Russia ranked 4th among the largest trade and economic partners of the EU. Until 2014, France has been developing military-technical cooperation with Russia and planned to deliver its Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy, but sanctions prevented the deal. Due to restrictive measures, Europeans cannot fully unleash the full potential of business relations with Russia. From 2013 to 2018, trade between Russia and the EU fell from $ 326 billion to $ 254 billion, and foreign direct investment in the Russian economy fell from $ 60 billion to $ 8.8 billion.
Macron’s decision to come closer to Russia and restore former trade and economic ties fits into the interests of French business and also coincides with the position of statesmen of several European countries. Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Czech President Miloš Zeman see no sense in the anti-Russian sanctions. For five years, the sanctions did not force Moscow to return annexed Crimea to Ukraine and withdraw troops from Donbas. Europeans do not want to lose opportunities in the field of business development with Russia due to the Ukrainian crisis and are working on options for moving from opposition to cooperation. Macron believes that the rapprochement between Russia and Europe will occur after the settlement of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Consequences for Ukraine
The meeting of Putin and Macron might entail negative consequences for Ukraine. Both leaders agreed to hold a meeting of the Normandy Four format (France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia) in the coming weeks. According to Macron, a new meeting should be held subject to significant results, and not just for the sake of meeting. Putin did emphasize the fact that he agreed to participate in the Normandy Four meeting, provided that Ukraine grants special status to Donbas and fulfills the political part of the Minsk agreement.
In this case, the law "On the special procedure of local self-government in certain regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions" temporarily enters into force on the day of local elections in Donbas. If the OSCE observers do not find any violations and confirm the transparency of the vote, this law will gain permanent effect. This means that Putin wants to hold local elections on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics, grant special status to Donbas, hold an amnesty for militants in parallel with Russia’s fulfillment of its part of the Minsk agreements and transfer to Ukraine control of the state border.
Putin is counting on unilateral concessions from Ukraine, and Macron can support his position. Macron believes that electing Zelensky as a president is a move to resolve an armed conflict, and Putin notes that his presence in power inspires some optimism. President Zelensky does not mind resuming the Normandy Four negotiations, but it all depends on the conditions for resolving the conflict.
Earlier, Zelensky did not support the idea of the special status of Donbas. He believes that it is necessary to conduct an information campaign and convince residents of the occupied territories that Ukraine needs them and it makes sense to return. Apparently, Ukraine should prepare for serious pressure from other countries of the Normandy Four format.