The Kremlin is the first destination for frightened European leaders
PARIS (AP) – Rarely in recent years has the Kremlin been so popular with European visitors.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrived on Monday. The Hungarian Prime Minister visited last week. And in the days to come, the German Chancellor will be there too.
All are hoping to reach President Vladimir Putin, the man single-handedly shaping the course of Russia amid its military buildup near Ukraine and whose designs are a mystery even to his own inner circle.
“The priority for me on the Ukraine issue is dialogue with Russia and de-escalation,” Macron said this week as reporters asked about a possible face-to-face meeting with Putin. “I am very worried about the situation on the ground.”
There are some signs that the relationship might be unfreezing.
“From Putin’s perspective, he’s had something of a win already, because he has our full attention and part of the exercise was clearly to focus on him,” said former intelligence officer Fiona Hill. American on Russia and Eurasian affairs. testified last week in a congressional hearing.
Sergei Ryabkov, a senior Russian diplomat who led Moscow’s delegation to last month’s security talks with the United States in Geneva, said recently that Russia was now setting “the agenda that the United States and the so-called “collective West” are now following. We have seized the foreign policy initiative.
Macron insists that Europeans must have their say in the crisis that threatens the stability of the continent. Macron and Putin have already spoken three times by phone in recent days – with inconclusive results.
The French president has shown skepticism of NATO in the past, and in 2019 said the organization was “brain dead”. On Saturday, this skepticism was nowhere to be found, when Macron spoke by telephone with the NATO secretary general and underlined “France’s commitment within NATO for the security of its allies”.
France has also offered to send troops to Romania as part of NATO, which has regained a sense of unity in recent weeks.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian about efforts by NATO, the European Union and others to address the increased Russia’s continued military on Ukraine’s borders.
European diplomacy has helped ease tensions in the past. French and German mediation in 2015 helped end large-scale hostilities in eastern Ukraine, which erupted in 2014 when Moscow threw its weight behind separatist rebels in the east of the country after the annexation by Russia of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula.
Paris organized on January 26 a meeting of presidential advisers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. They agreed to meet again soon in Berlin, but Russian officials said any new four-party summit would only make sense if the parties agreed on next steps to give special status to pro-Russian separatists.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, warned against insisting the country meet the obligations it was forced to take after a series of military defeats, arguing that this could trigger internal unrest that would work in favor of Moscow.
“When they were signed under the Russian gun – and the Germans and the French watched – it was already clear to all rational people that it was impossible to implement these documents,” Danilov told The Associated Press. .
The French president is going to Kiev on Tuesday. New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited the United States on Sunday, is planning a trip to Moscow in a week.
Russian expert Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, from the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), said: “We can at least recognize (Macron) the merit of having maintained the dialogue… It is useful to have a channel to express European concerns directly to Putin. ”
“It’s not because (Macron) is going to Russia that he is abandoning Ukraine,” she added.
Macron recently acknowledged “a discussion with Russia is always difficult”. He has repeatedly attempted to establish personal ties with Putin, inviting him to the lavish Palace of Versailles and, in a rare honor, his summer residence at Fort de Bregancon to give a boost to peace talks. with Ukraine in 2019.
Putin had reciprocated with an invitation to Russia for Macron, but the coronavirus pandemic has prevented the trip so far.
In Ukraine, Hill said, 70% of the population sees Russia as a hostile force.
And in Europe, “what has he (Putin) achieved?” testified retired Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges. “NATO is stronger today than it probably has been for the past 20 to 25 years.”
Hodges noted that Russia was kicked out of the G-8 after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, which left it with less direct contact between the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether one-on-one meetings with these same leaders will be enough to persuade Putin that he has more to lose than to gain.
“Every move so far has been on his schedule,” Hill said. “Ultimate decision-making in Ukraine rests with Vladimir Putin and the small group of people around him who share his views.”