Emmanuel Macron’s remarks on Russia set alarm bells ringing

Domestic critics of Emmanuel Macron, Nato hardliners and the leadership in Ukraine will be suspiciously examining the French president’s late-night remarks at his Moscow press conference on Monday for signs of freelancing.

At one level, Macron, three months from a re-election campaign, stuck pretty faithfully to the script he had exhaustively agreed with his Nato partners before his meeting with Vladimir Putin, but at another level his particular view of Russia as a European nation, and lofty talk of a new security guarantees, will have set alarm bells ringing.

The specifics of the five hours of discussions between the French and Russian leaders, and points of convergence, were kept from the world at the press conference, but that did not stop Macron hinting at shifts in Nato’s outlook that some members say should never be made in response to military intimidation.

The French president started by stressing the historically unacceptable presence of Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders. He also faithfully repeated the offers made by Nato and the US concerning mutual limitation of military deployments, more transparency for military activities or even a limitation of the deployment of short-range and intermediate missiles. He said in these areas Moscow and the west had the same demands. Moscow has already said it is ready to discuss these points but considers a commitment from Nato to cease all enlargement its primary demand.

Here, Macron hinted at the need to acknowledge Russian concerns. He states: “There is no security for Europeans if there is no security for Russia”, a formulation of respect but one that also legitimises Moscow’s demands for a new security architecture based on the Russian concept of “indivisible security”. But what Macron meant was unclear.

He said he firmly opposed repeating “the mistakes of the past about spheres of influence”, but then said “Russia is European. Whoever believes in Europe must know how to work with Russia and find the ways and the means to construct the European future among Europeans.”

French officials at briefings spoke about the “Finlandisation” of Ukraine, a form of neutrality, an idea that has been floated before. Speaking in Ukraine on Tuesday, Macron denied that he had uttered the word either to journalists or political leaders.

Finland, which shares a 830-mile (1,335km) border with Russia, chose in 1947 not to become a Nato member and signed a “friendship treaty” with Russia that included limits on the size of Finland’s army, and other restrictions on its sovereignty. The so-called Paasikivi doctrine – named after Juho Kusti Paasikivi, its president at the time – nevertheless created a political consensus in Finland until the issue was ironically reopened by the current Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, concerned by what Russia was doing to threaten national sovereignty.

But there is a critical difference between Ukraine and Finland. Ukraine would in effect be required by outside powers to take up the status of a neutral state. Given Ukraine’s stormy relationship with Russia, and the violence in the east of the country, it seems unlikely that Ukraine could ever be willing to become Finland 2. A lesser alternative would be that Ukraine’s right to join the defence pact of its choice could be restated but in practice shelved.

Such a formulation could be squared by Macron’s assertion at the press conference that a new security architecture in Europe should not be created by cancelling the right of states to join the Nato alliance.

Ukraine’s possible Nato status is something of a mirage since the country is nowhere near the opening stages of Nato membership, and the discussion of the topic probably obscures the true point of conflict – Russia’s desire to bring Ukraine not to a form of neutrality but back into its sphere of influence on the basis that the Kyiv government is illegitimate.

Macron’s final proposal was “the strict and total” implementation of the Minsk accord, the 2014-15 agreement that contains the groundwork for a final settlement in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, parts of which have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since April 2014. Since the separatists and Kyiv disagree on what Minsk requires, especially over sequencing, “strict implementation” clarifies only to the extent that it signals world powers are going to put renewed pressure on both sides to reach an agreement on the withdrawal of forces, free elections and the constitutional status for the rebel regions.

The Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, last week ruled out special status. Russia by contrast would like special status to include a veto over national foreign policy, something Kyiv would see only as a western-endorsed dismemberment of its country by force. But Macron at the least may try to pin the Ukrainian government to a set of steps on how local elections in Donbas and the withdrawal of forces could occur. But it is an issue that has frustrated diplomats since 2015.

Macron, as he himself concedes, may find it is not just Putin’s absurdly large table that is keeping the west and Russia so far apart.

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