French President Emmanuel Macron heads to St. Petersburg Thursday for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, whose support is key on matters ranging from salvaging the Iran nuclear deal to securing steady European gas supplies.
Business also is high on the agenda of Macron's two-day visit, which coincides with a key economic forum in St. Petersburg.
Some observers say Macron's trip comes within a broader context of thawing European relations with Russia, as seen in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Sochi last week, and deepening differences with Washington.
But as he pursues a policy of engagement with Putin — like he did with U.S. President Donald Trump — France's 40-year-old leader has said repeatedly he is not naive.
"I do believe we should never be weak with President Putin," he told Fox News in an April interview. "When you are weak, he uses it."
Still, a number of analysts doubt Macron will make much headway during his Russia visit. Some say the growing divide between the European Union and Washington will weaken his hand with the Russian leader during discussions that also are expected to include Ukraine and Syria.
Even boosting trade ties with Russia first demands "overcoming political obstacles, and they are numerous," wrote economic journalist Jean-Marc Sylvestre in Atlantico.
"I think the Russians will do whatever they can to use Macron's visit to their advantage, to their propaganda ends, and try to break the Atlantic alliance," said political history professor Anton Koslov of the American Graduate School in Paris, referring to broader EU-US ties.
Tense Russia-EU landscape
Macron's trip comes a year after hosting Putin at Versailles palace, shortly after his election, which was marred by claims of Russian interference. Since then, EU relations with Moscow, already tense over Ukraine and Crimea's annexation, have sunk even lower.
In March, France joined the U.S. and nearly two dozen EU countries in expelling Russian diplomats in response to a nerve attack in Britain on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Even so, Macron kept his Russia visit on his agenda. Both Skripals have since left the hospital and are at an undisclosed location.
On Syria, the EU and Russia remain far apart. While Russia supports the Syrian regime, Macron joined Washington and Britain last month in striking Syrian military targets. The action followed a suspected chemical weapons attack, which Paris said it had "proof" took place.
The EU and Russia also remain key rivals closer to home, notably in the Balkans, where the Europeans worry about growing Russian influence. Yet the EU is divided over ramping up membership talks with six Balkan nations, promising only closer ties for now during an EU-Balkans summit last week in Bulgaria.
And while Russia is a close ally of Iran, France and other EU members separate their backing for the nuclear deal from their many differences with Tehran.
Washington's pullout of the Iran agreement, however, is scrambling the diplomatic landscape. The Europeans will need Russian and Chinese support as they race to save the agreement.
Still, Koslov, of the American Graduate School, is skeptical Macron will make headway with Putin. "I don't think he'll be able to secure anything on Iran," he said.
In an interview earlier this month with France's Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Macron described establishing a 'strategic dialogue" with Putin and strengthening "Russian ties to Europe and not leaving Russia to fold in on itself." The spread of Russian media propaganda in France, which Macron denounced last year, has lessened, he said.
Those ties also appear to include business deals. Bilateral trade has picked up since the EU first imposed sanctions in 2014, and the French business leaders accompanying Macron to St. Petersburg include the heads of energy company Total, food giant Danone, and Societe Generale bank.
Today, France is Europe's second largest investor in Russia after Germany, and bilateral trade reached a reported $15.5 billion in 2017— up from $13.3 billion the year before.
Paris is not alone in its business overtures. Earlier this week, the EU's energy chief Maros Sefcovic said he had reached out to Ukraine and Russia to resume stalled gas talks that also would help secure European access to Russian gas beyond 2019.
And after her own talks with Putin in Russia last week, Germany's Merkel said despite their differences, the two sides need to "come closer to discuss the facts."
"Merkel wanted to let Washington know that Germany does not wholly depend on the U.S. for international issues," Josef Janning, Berlin office head for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Britain's Independent newspaper.
Still, a recent ECFR study finds EU nations still consider Russian actions destabilizing — or potentially so — both at home and abroad, and the bloc is broadly united in pushing back, including by maintaining sanctions.
"By trying to exploit Europe's domestic divides and weaknesses," wrote author Kadri Liik, "Russia has created urgent incentives to address them."