French President Emmanuel Macron Sunday downplayed the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying in a newspaper interview that the massing of Russian forces on Ukrainian borders is likely part of a wider Kremlin strategy to secure Western concessions rather than a prelude to a full-scale offensive.
“The geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU,” he told France’s Le Journal de Dimanche just hours before boarding a flight to Moscow, where he will hold face-to-face talks Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In a bold claim, Macron said his negotiations with Russia are likely to head off a military conflict.
“The intensity of the dialogue we have had with Russia and this visit to Moscow are likely to prevent [a military operation] from happening. Then we will discuss the terms of de-escalation,” he said. “I have always been in a deep dialogue with President Putin and our responsibility is to build historic solutions.”
His remarks diverge noticeably from how the Biden administration characterizes Moscow’s military buildup and the danger of a Russian offensive.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine “could happen at any time,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday, in what would be the biggest military operation in Europe since World War II.
“We believe that the Russians have put in place the capabilities to mount a significant military operation into Ukraine, and we have been working hard to prepare a response,” Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show. Sullivan and other U.S. officials estimate that Russia has 70% of a strike force in place for an invasion.
Macron’s claim that his negotiations with Russia will prevent a military conflict prompted scorn from political foes in France who accused him of grandstanding. Some commentators and analysts warned he was putting his credibility as a negotiator on the line, cautioning that his efforts since 2017 to court the Russian leader have come up short.
French presidential elections are to be held in April and Macron's electoral opponents have accused him of seeking to weaponize foreign policy to try to boost his reelection hopes.
“Whether Macron can win anything from Vladimir Putin is another question entirely,” says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia Group, a global risk and consulting firm. “Previous attempts by Macron to reason with the Russian president have fallen flat on their face,” he tweeted.
Macron’s language “makes the rest of Europe quite nervous,” says foreign policy analyst Ulrich Speck, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin, a research group.
Macron has long called for Russia to be brought back into the Western fold, despite Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. In his 2017 campaign book “Revolution,” Macron said, “It would be a mistake to break ties with this eastern European power [over Crimea] rather than forming a lasting relationship.”
Shortly after entering office, he hosted Putin in Versailles amid talk of detente, but the trip turned sour, the two leaders didn’t meet eye-to-eye and Macron took Putin to task for a host of actions at a joint press conference. Macron criticized Russia for seeking to meddle in Western elections by spreading fake news, disinformation and falsehoods. Macron talked about “very clear lines” of behavior.
Two years later, the French president tried again with his search for detente when he hosted Putin at the French president’s summer residence on the Riviera.
In a speech, he warned about Europe being caught in the middle of a new Cold War, saying, “It’s not in our interest to be weak and guilty, to forget all our disagreements and to embrace each other again [but] the European continent will never be stable, will never be in security, if we don't pacify and clarify our relations with Russia.”
Macron has been reluctant in the past also to impose fresh sanctions on Putin’s Russia.
Some Macron critics say his attempts to reset relations with Moscow are as much about his personal ambitions and aim to boost his role in international affairs as anything else.
Much like France’s iconic post-World War II leader, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Macron sees France as a “balancing power” between Russia and the United States. His diplomatic forays alarm some of France’s European allies, notably Russia’s near neighbors.
Polish politicians have accused him of ignoring the fact that Russia hasn’t really changed its expansionist ways and they worry Macron’s efforts as a broker between Russia and the United States will lead to the Europeans placing themselves as an equidistant power between Moscow and Washington.
Last month, in a speech at the European Parliament, Macron called for the European Union to pursue its own talks with the Kremlin and said the bloc should negotiate a security and stability pact with the Kremlin. Some central European and Baltic leaders said Macron’s comments were ill-timed and risked encouraging the Kremlin to try to play the U.S. and EU off against each other.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said he was at a loss to understand what Macron meant about coming up with “a new order of security and stability.”
“These next few months rather seem to call for firm defense of the existing post-1989 order,” he said. Bildt was referencing the European security system based on NATO.
Both the United States and Britain have warned that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent, part of a bid to restore a Russian sphere of influence in eastern and central Europe.
Russia has demanded that Ukraine never become a NATO member and says NATO’s military presence should be removed from the former Communist states of eastern Europe that have joined the Western alliance. NATO officials say countries should be free to decide whether to join the alliance.
In his interview with Le Journal de Dimanche, Macron spoke again about a new European security arrangement, saying that while “the security and sovereignty of Ukraine or any other European State cannot be a subject for compromise,” it is “also legitimate for Russia to pose the question of its own security.”
“We must protect our European brothers by proposing a new balance capable of preserving their sovereignty and peace. This must be done while respecting Russia and understanding the contemporary traumas of this great people and nation,” he said.
Justyna Gotkowska of the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies, a research group, questioned who had mandated Macron to talk about a new European security system.
“What legitimacy does Macron have to propose this? Europeans haven’t agreed in NATO and in the OSCE on ‘a new balance,’ to the contrary,” she tweeted.
French officials say Macron’s trip has been coordinated fully with Western allies and told the Reuters news agency that the Élysée Palace has learned from past errors of judgment to ensure that all EU and NATO allies are kept fully informed about Macron’s talks with Putin.
Speck, of the German Marshall Fund, said it would have been better if Macron had been accompanied by other Western leaders for his trip to Moscow. It “would make Europe look much stronger and make sure that there is a united message,” he tweeted.
He added, “What we get instead: an open-ended meeting between Macron and Putin” and that nobody else is in the room “besides translators.”