A lesson in Putin-omacy.
Since Russia started ramping up its military activity along the Ukrainian border region, European NATO states have been unable to formulate a unified stance and policy. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Moscow did little to ease this disunity.
This is because Macron’s trip was not only about attempting to prevent war in Ukraine; it should be read as part of a larger French strategy to establish European autonomy from the US. The visit served as a tactical victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin in driving a wedge into the NATO alliance.
A truly NATO-minded response, which centres around the idea of preserving Ukraine's sovereignty, would have required Macron to visit Ukraine and discuss a negotiation strategy with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Instead, Macron visited Putin first and agreed to deliver Russian demands to Kiev.
He went so far as to discuss matters relating to the sovereignty of Ukraine without consulting with Kiev. Macron also promoted the Minsk agreement – which foresees political special status for the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and an end to military violence – as the solution to the crisis without problematising the Russian role. This policy of appeasing Putin can only aid Russian propaganda, which casts Ukraine as the source of the problem.
This is not the first time Macron has sidelined NATO while ignoring Russia’s wrongs. The French president has long argued that independent dialogue and closer ties with Russia and a European army would help assert European autonomy from NATO. What he actually ends up doing is pushing his European counterparts to ignore Russian aggression in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria, as well as its assassination attempts. Macron’s remarks that NATO is brain dead were well-received in Moscow, which soon after tried to pressure Türkiye in Syria and drive millions of Syrians towards the Turkish-Syrian border.
So why is Macron doing this? The idea behind these French neo-Napoleonic policies aims to give certain concessions to Moscow to limit American influence and assert French leadership in Europe. For the French president, Russia commanding Ukraine’s foreign policy choices is a small price to pay in this regard. Macron is also getting revenge for the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact by sabotaging the policies of the US and the UK vis-a-vis Ukraine and Russia.
These steps could pave the way for France to become the kingmaker of Europe – if Macron’s strategy succeeds, that is.
But that seems unlikely. Neither the history of appeasement as a strategy nor the current status quo suggest that he may accomplish this.
On the contrary, Putin made sure to score a goal during the most recent visit by presenting himself as the strongman. The now-iconic picture of the long table at which both leaders sat, the overall power balance in the press conference, as well as the lack of diplomatic gestures from Putin to Macron, were all pre-planned moves.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Paris’ assertions that President Putin had promised his French counterpart that Moscow would not carry out new military initiatives around Ukraine were "not right" for the time being. He continued, stating: “It’s impossible, because France is a member of the EU, and of NATO, where it is not the leader. A different country in that bloc is the leader. So how can we speak about any ‘agreements’?” In short, Putin has Macron over a barrel. He humiliated him and discredited the French position inside NATO.
But this situation is mainly a result of Macron’s mistakes. He was so focused on his ambitions to lead Europe and limit the US that he went to Moscow with a weak hand.
In comparison, the Turkish president visited Moscow just months ago. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Turkish president was received as usual and succeeded in preventing a new escalation in Syria. The difference in the Russian president’s attitude to both leaders is grounded in Turkish experience working with Moscow.
Over the years, Türkiye has learned to negotiate with Russia. The key takeaway is that one needs some leverage – without which Putin will exploit the situation.
Türkiye has built up this leverage through confrontations with Russia in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine; and with cooperation on significant projects like the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant and the TurkStream gas pipeline.
When Erdogan invited Russia and Ukraine to Türkiye to negotiate a peaceful solution to the situation, Moscow’s initial response was negative. Afterwards, rumours reached the media that Türkiye may sell its new model Akinci drones to Ukraine. Shortly after, Putin agreed to the Turkish invitation. Instead of appeasing Russia – and despite Moscow’s discomfort – Türkiye went ahead and signed several deals with Ukraine. Among them, the most notable one was the production of the Turkish TB-2 drone in Ukraine.
Maybe Macron should learn from Türkiye before his next meeting with Putin.
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