»Clinically Cold« But Still Talking Emmanuel Macron Is the Last European Leader Putin Speaks With

Advisers to Emmanuel Macron say his conversation with Vladimir Putin on Monday was frank and tough. The French president managed to get a few promises from the Russian leader, but Paris is doubtful they will hold.
By Britta Sandberg in Paris
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video call with French President Emmanuel Macron (a screenshot from 2020)

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a video call with French President Emmanuel Macron (a screenshot from 2020)

Foto: Mikhail Klimentyev / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO

The phone conversation on Monday afternoon between French President Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin lasted 90 minutes. The may sound promising, since an hour-and-a-half discussion is hardly a given when one participant has declared war on Ukraine and the other has joined the European front that is imposing tough sanctions on Russia. But the mood in the president’s office, Élysée Palace, on Monday evening wasn’t overly optimistic.

A Macron adviser said that evening that it had been a very open, but also robust, discussion – which likely means, when translated from the diplomatic vernacular, that the conversation was rather confrontational and harsh. As had been the case during Macron's previous visit to Moscow, the adviser said, the French president found himself faced with a Russian leader who had become a prisoner of his own worldview.

"We keep trying to point out to Putin that there are options other than war," said the close adviser to Macron. "And that our allies are encouraging us to do so." He said the French president had demonstrated his deep concern and solemnity and that Macron pointed out to Putin everything that is at stake geopolitically. He said the Russian president had responded to Macron in a very "clinically cold" manner.

What Promises from Putin Can Still Be Trusted?

Nevertheless, Macron managed to extract a handful of promises from Putin, but Élysée officials aren't certain they are worth much, adding that the situation will have to be watched closely in the coming days. Macron called on Putin to cease attacks on civilians and residential areas, to avoid damaging civilian infrastructure and to refrain from attacking Ukraine’s main transport arteries, particularly the road leading from the south to Kiev. According to the official communiqué from the Élysée, the Russian president confirmed his readiness to comply with all three points.

Destroyed homes in northern Ukraine

Destroyed homes in northern Ukraine

Foto: Ukrinform / dpa

Both parties agreed to maintain contact in the coming days - a pledge that makes Macron the only European leader Putin is still speaking to. The two presidents last telephoned with each other on Saturday.

From the very start of his presidency, Macron has tried to build a special relationship with Putin. Just a few weeks after his election in May 2017, he received the Russian president in the magnificent halls of Versailles. Two years later, without first consulting other European leaders, he invited Putin to the presidential vacation home at Fort Brégançon on the Côte d’Azur. A G-7 summit took place a few days later in Biarritz - an event Russia has been excluded from since annexing Crimea in 2014. At the time, many viewed the meeting on the eve of the summit as a deliberate provocation.

Macron responded by saying: "The more we do to get Russia closer to Europe again, the better it will be. I am convinced of that." Russia is part of Europe and cannot be left to China’s influence, he told critics.

But Macron, too, has noticed in recent weeks that the Putin of 2022 is quite a bit different from the Russian leader he invited to Versailles barely five years ago. After an almost six-hour conversation with the Russian president in Moscow on Feb. 7, Macron told journalists traveling with him on the return flight that he had witnessed a changed man in the Kremlin. He said Putin had become more unyielding and rigid. He said Putin had seemed isolated.

Pursuing Dialogue at the Request of Ukraine

Still, the Élysee remained optimistic for quite some time, counting on the success of Macron’s persistent diplomatic efforts until Feb. 21, the day Putin officially recognized the self-proclaimed "people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Just a day before that recognition, a Macron adviser had said that they were slowly, step by step, changing the course of events. "We are creating a diplomatic prospect the Kremlin will accept.” That, though, quickly became moot.

Diplomats at Élysee Palace also emphasized that the ongoing discussions were being held at the request of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who Macron speaks with on a regular basis. France supports Ukraine financially, logistically and with arms deliveries, even though the French government so far hasn’t disclosed which weapons are involved.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Macron to talk to Putin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Macron to talk to Putin.

Foto: Uncredited / dpa

Two things are especially important to the French: They stress repeatedly that all of Macron’s initiatives are closely coordinated with France’s European partners and the United States. And under no circumstances does the French president want to be suspected of exploiting the war in Ukraine in the midst of an election campaign to raise his own profile on the international stage.

Macron also feels that the current crisis, as well as the pandemic that preceded it, is affirmation of his demands for a more self-confident, sovereign Europe that has sufficient security resources. Macron’s foreign policy advisers say that the current crisis will permanently change Europe’s relationship with Russia. The basic strategic conditions on European soil are in the process of undergoing massive change, they say.

The result is that, with around 40 days left before the presidential elections on April 10 and 24, Macron’s old demands for greater European sovereignty, along with greater coordination on foreign and security policy, are more pressing than ever. "One lesson from this crisis will be that we need to regroup and reorganize within Europe,” a presidential adviser to Macron said on Monday.

Closer to His Goals

As absurd as it may seem, shortly before the election in France, it is a war that is now promoting the European policy goals Macron first set out in his speech at the Sorbonne in the autumn of 2019 – and not some understanding on the part of other Europeans. And it is true that the "strategic autonomy of Europe” he has repeatedly called for, along with the new security architecture for the continent, have come closer to reality in recent weeks than ever before.

The situation is serious, and it could change or even escalate at any moment, officials at Élysee Palace said on Monday evening. A few hours earlier, Putin had dictated his terms for a cease-fire while speaking to Macron. They included Ukraine’s renunciation of any prospect of membership in NATO, recognition of annexed Crimea as part of Russia as well as Ukraine’s demilitarization and neutrality.

On Twitter afterward, foreign policy expert Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, asked: Why didn’t Putin just go ahead and wish for a pony too?

Macron rejected each point.