President Macron’s Russian Initiative

By Mark Leonard

French President Emmanuel Macron is one of those leaders who wants to bend the arc of history. Having upended French politics, he has secured positions for his preferred candidates at the head of the European Commission and the European Central Bank, and is now trying to improve Europe’s relationship with Russia.

French officials are comparing Macron’s Russia strategy to US President Richard Nixon’s opening up to China in 1972. But Macron’s diplomatic overture is more like Nixon in reverse. Rather than wooing China in order to contain the Soviets, Macron wants to ‘ease and clarify [Europe’s] relations with Russia’ in order to prevent Russia from cosying up to China.

In so doing, he hopes to secure Europe’s control over its own future.

Macron launched his bid for a new security architecture in a typically grandiose fashion, mirroring the urban planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s project to redesign Paris in the 19th century. His first move was to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Fort de Brégançon near Toulon before the August G7 summit in Biarritz. But the French ministers charged with implementing the plan have since turned it on its head.

Now, rather than starting with a top-down agenda, they are trying to build European security from the bottom up, while pursuing improved relations with Russia one brick at a time.

The French roadmap focuses on five key areas: disarmament, security dialogue, crisis management, values and common projects.

In late August, Macron delivered a speech outlining his vision of a system of ‘concentric circles’ comprising varying degrees of European and Eurasian integration. Such an arrangement would have to secure NATO and EU member states’ borders, allow for a more productive relationship with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and offer ways to manage regional conflicts, not least the one in Ukraine.

The timing of the initiative makes sense. Like Macron himself, Ukraine’s recently elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, created a political party out of nothing and came to power on the promise of sweeping away a discredited ancien régime. More to the point, Zelensky has made resolving Ukraine’s security situation a top priority.

Macron believes that Russia’s gravitation towards China is at least partly the result of Western mismanagement. He is not naive about the Kremlin’s territorial aggression and election interference. But any country in a position to pose such threats to Europe, he believes, must be engaged face to face.

As one French official explained to me, ‘What is true of Iran and North Korea is also true for Russia. We won’t be able to influence it and lead it to more responsible behaviour if we just hide behind a wall of sanctions.’

Adding further urgency to Macron’s efforts is US President Donald Trump, who has confirmed France’s Gaullist suspicions about America’s unreliability as a guarantor of European security. As the US escalates its conflict with China, it inevitably will pay less attention to Europe and the surrounding neighbourhood (the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa). Worse, the French fear that Trump might pursue a grand bargain with Russia, leaving the European Union hemmed in between the US and China.

Macron’s biggest concern is Europe itself.

The EU will never become a global player in the 21st century if it continues to be divided and boxed in by other powers. In Macron’s view, recasting Europe’s relationship with Russia is the first step towards securing European sovereignty. ‘If you don’t have a seat at the great power table’, one French official tells me, ‘it’s because you’re on the menu’. To be sure, the French understand other Europeans’ support for the sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine; but they fear the flimsiness of Europe’s broader security policy.

Ideally, the EU should pursue a two-pronged approach to Russia, combining sanctions and NATO’s deterrence with engagement. The French complaint is that there are no meaningful channels for such engagement, and that sanctions don’t address the overall threat that Russia poses. ‘What would happen to European unity’, French officials wonder, ‘if Moscow made a move on Ukraine or Syria and some member states decided to block sanctions renewal?’

Most likely, it would spell the end of the EU’s Russia policy.

Still, Macron’s initiative raises many questions.

Whether Putin has any interest in resolving the Ukraine conflict remains to be seen.

And even if Europe is capable of detaching Russia from China, it’s unclear whether the Trump administration would stand by and let the European initiative play out.

But the biggest questions are on the European front.

Many Central and Eastern European countries worry that they will be second-class citizens in Macron’s framework of ‘concentric circles’.

Others fear that Macron will sell out Ukraine by forcing it to settle the conflict on Russia’s terms.

And it doesn’t help that Macron launched his initiative without first consulting other Europeans, many of whom are already anxious about America’s waning commitment to EU security.

French officials pointed out that Nixon didn’t consult US allies before embarking on his mission to China. But Nixon’s credibility as a security hawk was unquestioned, whereas France is regarded suspiciously by some in Central and Eastern Europe, who fear that their interests, too, might be sacrificed in a neo-Gaullist attempt to claim a spot on the world stage.

If Macron is to succeed, he will have to prove that he’s committed to the sovereignty and security not just of Central and Eastern Europe, but also of ex-Soviet countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.

He will also have to pursue deeper collaboration with the Nordic and Baltic states, as well as with the relevant EU institutions and its new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell.

Above all, Macron’s initiative must create a credible platform for a common approach to security.

If it is seen as favouring some countries over others, it and its author will end up on the menu, rather than in the history books.

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article is presented in partnership with Project Syndicate © 2019.

This article was first published by ASPI on October 4, 2019.