Macron prepares for ‘difficult but necessary’ Putin meeting
French and Russian leaders to focus on Iran nuclear deal and ending war in Syria
Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in in Versailles, May 2017: at that press conference, Mr Macron said he would retaliate if Mr Putin’s protege, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons. Photograph: Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
No one expects displays of affection like those between Macron and US president Donald Trump last month. Russia and France are not close allies. Relations between Macron and Putin got off to a bad start when the Russian leader supported Macron’s rivals in last year’s presidential campaign.
Putin was nonetheless the first foreign head of state invited to France by Macron. At their press conference in Versailles on May 29th, 2017, Macron denounced “defamatory” reports about him in Russian media, and said he would retaliate if Putin’s protege, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons.
France joined the US and UK in attacking Assad’s force on April 13th, after Assad apparently used chemical weapons in eastern Ghouta. They avoided Russian targets in Syria, but the strikes nonetheless brought Russia’s relations with the West to a new low. In March, the poisoning in Salisbury of Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, and his daughter, almost led to the cancellation of Macron’s visit.
Analysts say relations between Russia and the West are the poorest they’ve been since the end of the cold war. The decline started with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. On May 15th, Putin drove a lorry across the Russian-built bridge to Crimea. It was hardly a show of contrition in the run-up to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to Sochi on May 18th and Macron’s arrival on the 24th.
But the tone has changed, mainly because Russia, like the western Europeans, wants to save the July 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which Trump renounced on May 8th. Under that deal, Iran committed to curbing its nuclear programme in return for an easing of sanctions.
Putin greeted Merkel with a bouquet of white roses and a Russian official told Le Monde that Putin was receiving Macron as “the leader of the western world”.
“I want a strategic and historic dialogue with Vladimir Putin, to anchor Russia to Europe, so it doesn’t turn inward,” Macron told the Journal du Dimanche. Macron’s symbolic gestures in St Petersburg will include remembering the million Russians who died in the Nazi siege of Leningrad, and attending an homage to Marius Petipa, the dancer from Marseilles who directed the Russian imperial ballet in the 19th century.
Macron’s discussions with Putin will focus on saving the Iran deal, the war in Syria and Ukraine. “We are conscious of how difficult it will be to reach points of agreement and go forward together,” said an adviser to Macron. “At the same time, we are determined to do so, because it is absolutely necessary.”
On Iran, the adviser said, “The question will be: can we go farther together to preserve the nuclear accord, and for Iran to respect its commitments?” That will mean finding ways to protect European companies who trade with Iran from retaliatory US sanctions.
Putin is a past master at getting around sanctions. Europeans show no inclination to challenge extraterritorial US laws in the World Trade Organization, but Macron may brief Putin on the possibility of conducting trade with Iran in euro, through the European Investment Bank.
There is, however, one major difference between Paris and Moscow regarding the nuclear accord. Macron wants to expand it to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme, military activities beyond Iranian borders and the question of what happens after the accord expires in 2025. Moscow, like Tehran, likes the accord the way it is.
Putin is in a position of strength on Syria. France closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012, and Macron is eager to restore influence in the former French mandate. His repeated proposals to form contact groups or hold peace conferences have failed. Putin could give Macron a say in a renewed political process in Syria, if Macron can convince him that Russia needs a western partner in the conflict.
On May 10th, Iranian forces in Syria exchanged fire with Israel. “We need to prevent present tensions in Syria that are not inherent to the Syrian conflict from aggravating tensions between regional powers, resulting in an even more dangerous escalation,” another Macron adviser said, hoping that Russia would agree.
It is unlikely that Putin, who has just been re-elected for a fourth term, will make concessions to Macron. The Minsk accord on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which was brokered by France and Germany in February 2015, has yet to enter into force, and fighting sputters on. Russia has agreed to allow peacekeepers on the ceasefire line between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, but not on the Russian-Ukrainian border.
Macron will spend Friday at the St Petersburg Forum, a large annual trade fair. Despite European and US sanctions over Crimea and Ukraine, and retaliatory Russian measures against European food imports, trade is thriving. Franco-Russian trade amounted to €13 billion last year, and French companies employ 160,000 Russians.