On May 24, 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with French President Emmanuel Macron in St. Petersburg. Both sides seem to be satisfied with results of the talks. Yuri Rubinsky, Professor at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics and Head of the Center for French Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute for European Studies, spoke in an interview with www.valdaiclub.com about the premise for the meeting, its agenda and bilateral cooperation.
The visit of French President Emmanuel Macron happened one year after Vladimir Putin's visit to France. For this year, relations between France and Russia have experienced different ups and downs. Among the problematic issues there were consequences of the “Skripal affair” in Britain, the expulsion of diplomats, so-called chemical weapons and air strikes against Syrian targets, where the United States, France and the United Kingdom took part. It did not improve the relations, but fruitful work continued at the bilateral level.
During the meeting in the Konstantinovsky Palace, Presidents Macron and Putin examined in detail the issues related to the Syrian settlement. Macron, in contrast to his predecessor, was more flexible: if Hollande tried to make Bashar Assad's departure a condition for any settlement, Macron admitted his participation in the political process. In St. Petersburg Macron said, that "since 2017, France's political course has changed." "We want to find an inclusive political solution that will allow the Syrian people to work out a new constitution and choose their government," French president said at the press conference following the meeting. The question is what to do next. Obviously, the two sites – Astana/Sochi process and the so-called "small group", led by the United States, need to look for a compromise.
During the St. Petersburg dialogue between the two leaders, a preliminary outcome was found: to bring the work of both sites closer together and create a working group on a parity basis in Geneva (where the UN talks on the Syrian issue were launched), so that it would deal with the most important problems - drafting a constitution and holding free and inclusive elections. Shortly before the meeting with Macron, Putin met with Assad in Sochi on May 17, where possible solutions were agreed. All this is a very important progress.
The Ukrainian problems played a significant, albeit smaller role in the dialogue between the two leaders. They stressed, that there is no alternative to the Minsk agreements and the "Norman format". Vladimir Putin said that there are no other tools to resolve the current situation and Russia is ready to "meet at all levels." "Of course, each of these meetings should be well prepared and should end with something positive. In any case, dialogue is always better than confrontation," he said.
The leaders of the two countries also talked about cooperation in cyberspace. The notorious "Russian hackers" are accused of interfering in the internal political processes of other countries in order to destabilize the elections campaigns. The question is delicate, and no one has real evidence. Both sides recognized that this is a serious problem. Vladimir Putin stressed that cyberspace is the most important sphere of life for millions of people and suggested working together in this field. To this end, he said, it is necessary to agree on common rules and develop monitoring mechanisms. Macron also added that cyber attacks threaten the economy and security, so the initiative to work together "will be useful for all and will support other areas of cooperation."
As to trade and economic relations, the expectations were quite positive. Following the meeting of the two leaders, several serious documents were signed, including a new Russian-French partnership for the economy of the future. Since the meeting took place on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Macron was accompanied by a large group of French entrepreneurs. Several agreements were signed between Russia and France for almost a billion euros. So the overall outcome of the meeting can be considered positive by both sides.