BERLIN – Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is travelling to Moscow today for talks with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart. On Tuesday, Macron is to make his way to Kyiv for the first time since taking office, where he will meet Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader. The focus of the visits, inevitably, will be attempting to prevent a Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow has been threatening for months.
Macron is perhaps better placed than most Western leaders to talk to Putin, the only person with the power to trigger war. He has met the Russian leader several times and has repeatedly signalled relative openness to discussing longstanding Russian demands.
In 2019, Macron invited Putin to the Brégançon Fort, the French president’s official retreat, where he called for “the reinvention of a security and confidence architecture between the EU and Russia”. The creation of a “new European security architecture” has been the central Russian demand of recent talks. Last month, in an address to the European Parliament to mark the French presidency of the EU, Macron said the bloc should propose “a new order of security and stability” on the European continent within weeks.
France’s 2019 proposal failed to get anywhere, in part because of staunch opposition to accommodation with Russia from some EU member states, including Poland and the Baltics. Increased Russian assertiveness since, including the deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries to Mali, has also caused the Elysée to question the wisdom of a long-sought reset with Russia, wrote Sylvie Kauffmann, a columnist for Le Monde.
Macron has caused some jitters in an interview he gave to the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche before leaving, in which he stated that “the geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of co-existence with Nato and the EU”. In the interview, he reiterated his desire to “advance towards a new order which our Europe profoundly requires, resting on the cardinal principle of sovereign equality of states”.
Whether Macron can make any progress with Putin today remains far from clear. Russia has so far mostly preferred making its demands of the US rather than European states. In any case, its public requests – including ruling out Ukraine ever joining Nato and calling for the alliance to withdraw troops from the eastern European countries that joined after 1997 – have publicly been rejected as non-starters by Nato members.