Putin banks on Macron (Poutine mise sur Macron)

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After several years of tensions following the annexation of Crimea, marked by the cancellation of the sale of Mistral naval vessels to Russia, the Paris-Moscow axis seems to have been relaunched.

On May 29, at Versailles, the tsar – for it was him— Emanuel Macron received his Russian opposite number in the palace of Louis XIV! To impress Vladimir Putin, the French president added to the values of the republic those of royalty, the pose of the Sun King to that of Jupiter. When the press conference began, Macron became all military. Uninhibited in front of the dean of international relations (the Russian president has been in power over the past 18 years and the French one approximately 18 days), he denounced violations of the rights of homosexuals in Chechnya, threatened to bomb Syria should Bashar el-Assad use chemical weapons, blasted the digital media of Sputnik and the RT TV channel, both financed by Kremlin: “Means of propaganda, means of influence, means of lies – no more, no less!” Macron bawled at his guest, implacable. “This is the world backwards: Macron being Putin!” laughs Michel Eltchaninoff, the author of a very informative essay, Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine (Inside the head of Vladimir Putin). “The French president did not mince his words. Without a doubt he believes that firmness is the way to make himself be respected by Moscow.” Not wrong.

Even before this Franco-Russian meeting, Macron-la-Baraka was served by perfect timing. Taking up his post officially on May 14, he met around thirty heads of states ten days later, when the Nato summit in Brussels began. The very next day, he participated in the G7 summit in Sicily. Appearing at these events reassured the media that he is an international figure. Right away, Macron now can talk as an equal to Putin, who could not resist to the invitation to Versailles sent by the Frenchman a few days earlier. “First of all, the maître of Kremlin wanted to sniff Macron’s ass; he wanted to judge the phenomenon for himself,” a French diplomat who specializes in Russia comments under cover of anonymity. For Moscow, isolated from the international scene since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the opportunity to reintegrate into the concert of nations not to be missed. The result? “It is a win-win situation,” decides our official. “Macron gains in credibility; Putin in respect”.
Will it be the start of a honeymoon? It is too early to say. “But, in any case, Emmanuel Macron has erased in one afternoon the memory, which is still vivid, of Putin’s cancelled visit to Paris to meet Hollande in October 2016”, cheerfully notes, in perfect French, the Soviet ex-diplomat Youri Roubinski, who closely follows Franco-Russian affairs. “Without disqualifying his predecessor,” the alert octogenarian alert continues, “Macron has indicated that what was valid six months ago is no longer the case today”. The line between Paris and Moscow is restored.

For more than a year, Russian media had not stopped strangling Emanuel Macron. Full of insinuations and hints, Komsomolskaya Pravda described him, for example, as “a psychologically fragile man under influence of a woman of a certain age.” Before the meeting at Versailles, the media amused itself with his image – somewhat ridiculous, it is true – of the French president driving his Russian counterpart through the valleys of the chateau’s park in a golf cart. “The Sun King of today…” scoffed the Russian daily.
Except that … needs must: In the West, the French President became the only available interlocutor. With Angela Merkel, with whom Putin has been working for the past twelve years, relations ended up somewhere between sour and frosty. To say it all, the divorce was complete after the “Ukrainian affair”. Teresa May? She is engulfed by the consequence of Brexit and presides over the destiny of a country that has had cold relations with Moscow for a good decade. Finally, the hopes for establishing good diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow that were briefly imagined after the victory of Donald Trump seem to have vanished: with the FBI suspecting Russia of meddling in the presidential elections, the president avoids being perceived as a Russophile. In addition, the Republican party is not in favor of rapprochement with Moscow. Finally, on the banks of the Moskva river, Trump passes for an unpredictable and erratic interlocutor. Only Macron is left.

“Beyond the case of France, it is Putin’s view on Europe as a whole that is evolving,” believes Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “Formerly, the Old Continent was perceived as a US annex, with leaders who blindly followed Washington’s policy. But considering Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change and Trump’s criticisms of NATO, the Europeans understand that they have to fully rely on their own forces. Russia would not be angry if Paris, in a Gaullian posture, freed itself from Washington and formed a military leadership in Europe comparable to the one that Germany occupies in the economic space.”

For his part, while not being as Russophile as François Fillon or Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron is far from being Russophobe. To be convinced of this, it is enough to read some lines dedicated to Russia in his program book, Révolution (XO): “We have to reanimate our relations with Russia. […] We will not find a solution for Crimea swiftly. But we have to collaborate with Russians to stabilize their relations with Ukraine and work for the mutual and gradual removal of sanctions. Certainly, Russia’s vision does not correspond to ours. But we would be making a mistake by burning the bridges with this power of eastern Europe rather than fostering long-term relations.” The French president’s interest in Russia is not something new. A year and a half ago, while still serving as Economy Minister, he reactivated the Franco-Russian Economic, Financial, Industrial and Commercial Council (Cefic), a “machine” that had lain dormant for two years which has the main idea of stimulating exchanges and cooperation. And that was in the époque when Russia was hardly in fashion at the Élysée Palace …

“France has still a card to play with Russia, and vice versa,” says political scientist Alexander Rahr in Berlin, an analyst with the Germany-Russia Forum think tank and a political consultant for Russian company Gazprom. “Vis-à-vis Moscow,” Rahr continues, “Paris finds itself in a much better position than Berlin. Since the Napoleon episode and the Crimean War under the Second Empire, both countries have never confronted each other. They found themselves in the same camp during the global conflicts of the 20th century”. This is what counts for the Russians, who behind their apparent hardness can also be sentimental. “In any case, this favors a climate of trust, which has never been established between Russia and Germany,” says Rahr. “Don’t forget that Angela Merkel has totally changed the German attitude of the 1970s and 1980s, which consisted of extending a hand to Moscow in order to coax it. The Chancellor prefers her ‘near abroad’ (Poland, the Baltic countries, etc.) to her relations with Russia. A fundamental strategic mistake.”

From the French side, after years of mutual mistrust under the governance of François Hollande, the chance of reconciliation with Russia is real. And this partly reflects the internal context of Russia. After almost twenty years of being in power, Vladimir Putin finds himself at a turning point of his reign. In 2018, he has to make his reelection happen in March, in June-July Russia hosts the football World Cup, an important event for his image. He is facing several challenges, like an economic slowdown, international sanctions and a new wave of debates started by charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is calling on the younger generation to protest. “After years of patriotic hysteria which following the annexation of Crimea, Putin has to invent something new. He can’t play on the string of nationalism anymore. This narrative is losing steam and beginning to fade”, says our French diplomat who wished to remain anonymous.

So what will the last mandate of tsar Putin look like? Who will be celebrating his 65th birthday next October? Some hope that there will be a dose of political easing, a zest for liberal economic reforms, led by the progressive Alexei Kudrin. The latter, a former Finance Minister, is more and more frequently being consulted by Putin, who could make him his next Prime Minister. On the other hand, the head of Kremlin needs to turn to Europe to counterbalance the growing weight of China on Russia’s eastern side. “I was not there, but I can tell you what Putin told Macron in private during his visit to Versailles,” in Berlin, the Russia specialist Alexander Rahr continues. “The Russian president tried to convince him that Europe means a lot to Russia but at the same time France has to make its national interests count, especially because it is often left behind by European institutions, which prevent it from establishing a frank and constructive dialogue. ‘We want your country to take a leading place in Europe again; a strong France is in Russia’s interest,’ he has probably added.” The young French president will no doubt have got the message. While all the time keeping his guard up…

Vladimir Yakunin:
“In politics, there is no such thing as friendship”
The former head of Russian Railways, a confidant of Putin who is on the US sanctions list, runs the Dialogue of Civilizations think tank in Berlin.
L’express: Is the age difference between Putin, who is 64 years old, and Macron, who is 39, an obstacle to their mutual understanding?
Vladimir Yakunin: The quality of interpersonal relations is a chemical reaction. It either exists or it doesn’t. The age difference certainly does not help. However, let’s be serious: there is no true friendship in politics, only interests.
L’express: Do you believe that the European sanctions will be lifted under Macron’s government?
V.I.: In Russia, we are tired and we expect nothing regarding this topic. The sanctions are a problem for the people who choose to introduce them, but not to us! These sanctions do not lead anywhere. They should be lifted for the good of everyone.
L’express: What should Franco-Russian cooperation focus on?
V.I.: On terrorism. It is the biggest danger of today. Fighting it is the main priority. On the other hand, we should work on developing our commercial relations.