Dialogue with Russia: A Path to a New Europe?

On August 19, Emmanuel Macron met with Vladimir Putin in the summer residence of the French president. The format was unusual, with press conference held at the beginning, rather than at the end of the summit. The most important statement made on the French side was Macron’s words about the need to “bring Russia back to Europe” and that such a return is in Europe’s own interests. Arno Dubien, director of the Franco-Russian Observo analytical centre, discusses how this proposal should be evaluated, and whether this outlook could be shared by other EU countries, as well as the possible impact of the Putin-Macron meeting on the upcoming G7 summit.

Nothing is known about the concrete results of the meeting: all that we saw was a joint press conference even before the talks and answers to four questions. The most surprising was the emphasis that Emmanuel Macron made on the European security issue: he proposed the creation of a “new architecture of European security and trust”, which would include Russia. Every word is important here. Interestingly, being a convinced Europeanist himself, the French president does not believe that Europe is limited and identified only by the European Union. Previous French leaders – Charles de Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand, Chirac, and even Nicolas Sarkozy (although it was more difficult with him) also understood that in a Europe without Russia or against Russia, equilibrium was impossible.

Therefore, we can talk about the revival of the Franco-Russian vision of relations, which was popularised in the 1960s under de Gaulle as well as in the very beginning of the 90s under Gorbachev and Mitterrand. Unfortunately, these ideas were not realised, and the main question now is how to come up with something new and return the opportunities for the development of relations between Europe and Russia that were missed immediately after the end of the Cold War. This question is a very complex one, but the fact that it was voiced by the French president with such conviction is important.

It may sound like a cliché, but this point of view is rarely agreed upon in Washington, in Brussels and in other European capitals. Therefore, the words of Emmanuel Macron are significant, because they can help many European countries that want to improve relations with Russia, but for some reason could not go against the consensus and have reluctantly voted for the continuation of sanctions. The question here is how other European countries will react – although Moscow’s reaction is also important; how the Russian authorities will understand this proposal. So far, these are words that are likely to reflect sincere aspirations, but much will depend on the specifics. The president of France was certainly pleased with the words of Vladimir Putin about the importance of combating climate change. Of course, Russia has long signed an agreement and has declared that it is committed to the Paris agreements, but in the past, the president of Russia always demonstrated a certain degree of scepticism. Now, probably, there is no doubt that we need to act together.

On the other hand, disagreements over Syria were quite expected. France emphasises human losses and risks posed to the civilian population, whereas Russia, for its part, focuses on the fight against terrorism. Another interesting point is the “skirmish” between the two presidents over the “yellow vests” protests and civil liberties. It seems that in fact neither really wanted to discuss this publicly: President Macron, as it seemed to me, felt that he spoke harshly, and Vladimir Putin specified that in Moscow there were also authorized rallies. 

There were a lot of issues that could affect the G7 summit, as well as Russian-European and Russian-American relations in general. First of all, Iran, with the “nuclear deal” and the dilemma as to whether we can take any real action to save the agreement. Russia in this regard expects concrete gestures and evidence from France that its intentions are serious and Paris is ready at some point to defy the will of the United States. Another question is Syria again: here the positions of Russia and France since the departure of François Hollande have converged, and even a Franco-Russian humanitarian operation in Syria took place last year. There is an attempt to bring two vehicles for diplomacy closer together: the “small group” and the Astana process. Idlib remains a considerable problem, but here we only have to wait for concrete solutions.

However, Ukraine remains the main problem, because it is the key to many other issues – including the European security issue. Without progress in Ukraine, we cannot expect a qualitative and global improvement of the situation. Here, however, there was some, albeit moderate, optimism. A Normandy format meeting will bring together diplomatic advisers soon, and a summit is likely to take place in September-October. In Paris and Moscow there is an understanding that with the election of Vladimir Zelenskiy as president of Ukraine, the picture is changing. True, if in the coming weeks there’s no improvement on the Ukrainian issue, then we will have to forget about it for a long time – but this is not profitable for either the EU or Russia. The only question is who will take the first step so that no one loses face. In other words, this is classic diplomacy.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.