The Kremlin appears to be hoping it can revive the interest of France’s President Emmanuel Macron in thawing the European Union’s frosty relations with Moscow, hoping that in turn could lead to a lifting of sanctions on Russia, say analysts.
This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a courtesy call to his French counterpart to discuss the cease-fire in the disputed central Asian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, where Russia brokered a truce following a fierce flare-up of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh enclave is run by ethnic Armenians but located in Azerbaijan.
The Kremlin readout of the conversation emphasized friendliness, saying the two leaders concluded their talks by “wishing each other happy holidays and agreed to continue contacts at various levels.”
That is a far cry from the tense phone encounter between the pair in September when Macron demanded an explanation for the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who fell gravely ill late August and was evacuated to Germany for life-saving treatment. The French press reported that Macron was furious when Putin suggested Navalny probably had poisoned himself to make Russia look bad and denied the Kremlin was behind the attempted assassination.
Western diplomats say it is noteworthy that Kremlin officials, as well as Russia’s state-controlled media outlets, have been restrained in their language in recent weeks about France, while firing off broadsides at Germany, accusing Berlin of being eager to do Washington’s bidding.
The Kremlin also held back from echoing criticism of French policies toward Islam by Chechnya’s governor, Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally, who lashed out at Macron over his proposals to combat radical Islam. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov publicly said the Chechen leader shouldn’t comment on international matters.
“Befriending France is important to Russia as another point of leverage to reverse the European Union’s sanctions policy toward Moscow,” according to Valery Dzutsati of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, a research institution. “Bilateral relations, marred by the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Aleksei Navalny in August, could still see a revival,” he suggested in a Jamestown commentary.
Other analysts say Russia’s apparent wooing of Macron is in anticipation of the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House. Biden has dubbed Russia “an opponent.” Biden also bluntly blamed Navalny’s poisoning on Moscow. “Once again, the Kremlin has used a favorite weapon — an agent from the Novichok class of chemicals — in an effort to silence a political opponent,” he said last year. “It is the mark of a Russian regime that is so paranoid that it is unwilling to tolerate any criticism or dissent,” Biden added.
Four years ago, Macron was widely seen as among the most outspoken of Western leaders when it came to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s fomenting of violent separatism in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. At a joint press conference at the palace of Versailles and fresh from his election victory in 2017, Macron took Putin to task for a host of Russian actions.
Standing beside an uneasy-looking Putin, Macron criticized the Kremlin for seeking to meddle in Western elections by spreading fake news, disinformation and falsehoods. He condemned the tactics, including the use of chemical weapons, allegedly employed by the Moscow-partnered Syrian government to regain control over rebel territory in the war-torn country.
By 2019, however, the French president was launching a push for detente, saying Russia should be brought back into the fold. “Pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error,” Macron said, adding, “The European continent will never be stable, will never be in security, if we don't pacify and clarify our relations with Russia.”
His about-turn prompted unease in London and some other western European capitals. Some critics argued Macron’s attempted reset was wrapped up in personal ambitions to boost his role in international affairs.
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz warned that Macron was returning to the days of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the iconic French leader, who attempted to act as a broker between the Soviet Union and the United States. Czaputowicz said he feared Macron’s initiative could lead to a weakening of EU unity and would do nothing to persuade Russia to tamp down its newfound assertiveness.
The French leader persisted with his bid for a rapprochement for much of 2020. In June, after a video conference call with Putin, his spokesperson said Macron remained “confident that we can make progress with Russia on a number of subjects,” citing “a common interest in the stabilization of Libya and the reunification of its institutions.”
Navalny’s poisoning prompted a shift. Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly shortly after Navalny fell ill in September, Macron warned that Paris would not allow its red lines on the use of chemical weapons to be crossed. “We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Europe, in Russia or in Syria,” he said.
Whether Paris will be ready to forgive and forget the Navalny poisoning is unclear. “I hope Macron will recognize that Putin is more interested in sowing divisions in Europe than in cooperation,” said David Kramer, who was an assistant secretary of state in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. He added, “How much more does Putin need to do, how many more people does he need to poison, how many more countries does he need to invade?”
Navalny says he intends to return to Russia from Germany, possibly Sunday. How the Russian authorities handle his arrival could well determine Macron’s appetite for pursuing detente.
Macron’s post-Navalny cooling on Putin also coincides with Biden’s pending arrival in the White House. And analysts suggest the French leader may be keen to position himself as the new U.S. administration’s key interlocutor in Europe, much as at one time he offered himself to Trump in the same role, courting him with a dinner atop the Eiffel Tower and a Bastille Day military parade.
French officials have fulsomely welcomed the incoming Biden team, buoyed by the appointment of fluent French speakers to top foreign policy positions, including Tony Blinken, Biden’s nominee as U.S. secretary of state. Blinken spent much of his childhood in France, and France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said he was “particularly happy” about Blinken’s selection.