It was the Kremlin’s word against the Élysée’s on Tuesday, in the aftermath of a five-hour meeting and dinner between the Russian and French presidents in Moscow.
Emmanuel Macron claimed that Vladimir Putin made a commitment "not to undertake new military initiatives", making it possible "to envisage de-escalation" of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, an official from the Élysée told journalists overnight.
The same French official said that Putin also promised to withdraw Russian troops from Belarus after the Zapad military exercises with forces loyal to the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, from February 10th-20th. There had been concern that Russian forces would stay on indefinitely in Belarus.
Yet neither leader mentioned these breakthroughs in their one-hour press conference late on Monday. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, threw cold water on the French assertions on Tuesday morning, saying the statement about no further military initiatives was "not correct" and that Putin had made no new promise concerning the departure of Russian soldiers from Belarus.
“No one ever said they would stay,” Peskov said, without giving a date for their departure.
The Élysée seemed to back-pedal momentarily. The same official explained that “these are points which [Macron and Putin] talked about” though some did not come up in the press conference.
Putin’s most positive statement on Monday night was that “certain of [Macron’s] ideas may serve as a base for shared progress” and that he was ready for “compromises”.
The Élysée stood by its story. In Kyiv on Tuesday, Macron reiterated that Putin had told him the previous evening that he had no intention of escalating the conflict.
The Élysée also interpreted Peskov’s statement as confirmation of the Belarusian troop withdrawal story. As of Tuesday evening, it remained unclear whether the advances cited by the Élysée were commitments made by Putin or had merely been subjects raised in conversation.
From Moscow, Macron travelled to Kyiv for lunch and a press conference with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, then to Berlin on Tuesday night to consult with German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish president Andrzej Duda.
The French president appears to be indefatigable, and is doubtless sincere in his desire to overcome “misunderstandings” and past “trauma”. But it was possible, Le Monde suggested, that the progress he perceived “rests less on new propositions than on the belief of the French president in the force of his determination”.
There were only four people in the room during the Moscow conversation – the two presidents and their interpreters. The quarrel over what Putin did or did not commit to seemed to echo Putin's obsession with what Nato did or did not commit to in May 1997, when Russia and Nato signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security in Paris.
By maintaining uncertainty not only about his intentions but about what he said in negotiations with Macron, Putin keeps up tension with Nato and Ukraine, while reserving the possibility of a diplomatic exit should he need one.
Tiny fissures are beginning to show in Nato's veneer of unity vis-a-vis Putin. Regarding Nato's "open door" policy, Macron mentioned non-members Sweden and Finland, saying it was "necessary not to limit the right of certain Europeans who are not a party to the present discord" to join Nato. The statement implied that Ukraine, as a "party to discord", belonged in a different category.
"Let us not be dragged by the Americans into a position which is not that of the Europeans," French minister for finance Bruno Le Maire told France Inter radio on Tuesday. "We have different interests in this Ukrainian crisis."