French President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing a poisoned peace plan, say critics in Europe, who fear the outcome of his talks this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin could be to strengthen Moscow’s hand in the crisis over Ukraine.
A backlash is building to Macron’s visits this week to Moscow and Kyiv among fellow European leaders. They worry the French leader strayed from an agreed script and that his mooting of new security guarantees for Russia risks encouraging Putin in what they see as a Kremlin effort to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence over neighboring European nations.
The details of the five hours of face-to-face discussions the French leader held with Putin Monday have not been made known publicly, but Macron has hinted at shifts in NATO’s position — including Ukraine shelving its hopes of joining the Western alliance — that alarm the leaders of some member states. They worry Macron risks encouraging Russian brinkmanship and warmongering and is handing the Russian leader too many opportunities for maneuver and chances to split NATO.
FILE — French President Emmanuel Macron (R) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, in Moscow on Feb. 7, 2022, for talks in an effort to find common ground on Ukraine and NATO.
Macron flew between Russia and Ukraine on a mission to calm tensions and find a diplomatic solution to avert war at a time of growing Western concern that Russia is planning to invade its neighbor, along whose borders it has deployed an estimated 140,000 troops, according to Ukrainian authorities.
The Kremlin denies it has any intention to invade, saying talk of war is alarmist. French officials say Macron has coordinated fully with France’s allies, kept to an agreed script, and is taking on the role of the friendly cop, leaving it to U.S. President Joe Biden to be the tough cop with Putin.
The canvassing to reporters before and after Macron’s talks with Putin by French officials of the idea of Ukraine remaining a neutral country is causing unease especially in the capitals of eastern Europe and the Baltic States. French officials have raised to reporters the possibility of the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine.
FILE — Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto speaks during a conference in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, Nov. 2, 2021.
Finland chose in 1947 not to become a NATO member and signed a treaty with Russia that included limiting the size of its army and other constraints restricting national sovereignty. Ironically, the current and growing crisis over Ukraine has prompted Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö, to float the idea of his country joining NATO.
Ingrida Šimonytė, Lithuania’s prime minister, has been publicly skeptical about the French president’s diplomatic mission to Moscow and is wary of offering concessions to Russia. She warned this week, ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor and never the victim.’
Macron’s advocacy for the implementation of the Minsk peace protocol of 2015 is also causing unease, especially in Kyiv. Ukraine’s president notably refrained Tuesday from re-committing fully to the agreement, which outlined a final settlement in the country’s eastern Donbass region, parts of which have been under Russian occupation since April 2014, and where an estimated 32,000 Russian troops are currently stationed.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Kyiv Tuesday with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Macron announced the leaders of both Russia and Ukraine had committed to honoring the Minsk accords. ‘We now have the possibility of advancing negotiations,’ Macron said.
FILE — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and French President Emmanuel Macron attend a news briefing following their talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 8, 2022.
Zelenskiy did not directly mention the Minsk agreement, which is highly unpopular in Ukraine, saying instead he hoped a scheduled meeting of German, French, Ukrainian and Russian officials in Berlin later this week might pave the way to revive the stalled peace process.
’We have a common view with President Macron on threats and challenges to the security of Ukraine, of the whole of Europe, of the world in general,’ Zelenskiy said. ‘I do not really trust words, I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps,’ he added.
Trust about Russia’s intentions is in short supply in Ukraine, and the Minsk accords, agreed to by Kyiv at a time it was losing the war in the east and had little option but to sign, is seen as a means for the Kremlin to restrict the country’s sovereign rights and dominate its neighbor.
The agreement was meant to bring fighting to a halt in the Donbass and proposed that the two ‘breakaway republics’ in the region be reintegrated into Ukraine but retain considerable powers of self-government. Moscow, Kyiv, and Western governments have all said they believe in the deal, but it has never been implemented and fighting has continued in eastern Ukraine, where more than 14,000 people have been killed since 2014.
FILE — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits positions of armed forces near the frontline with Russian-backed separatists during his working trip in Donbass region, Ukraine, April 8, 2021.
Selling the Minsk deal now to Ukrainians would prove an uphill struggle, says former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. There would be considerable public resistance, and debate over the accord would exacerbate political divisions in Ukraine, which the Kremlin would seek to worsen. Ukrainian politicians have long argued the Minsk accords amount to a capitulation and would undermine Ukraine by giving the Donbass considerable scope to weaken the capacity of Kyiv to enact policies. It would also force constitutional changes.
Kyiv and Moscow also interpret the agreement differently; Moscow believes it would give pro-Russia Donbass a veto over Ukraine’s foreign policy. Ukraine’s current foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, last week ruled out the Donbass being given any special status.
Author and University of Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash, a noted authority on central Europe, has been critical of the deal since its signing. Ash says it amounts to a ‘major concession from Kyiv to Moscow, as it largely gives Moscow what it wants, which is autonomy for the Kremlin’s so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic — the Russian-controlled areas of eastern Donbass in Ukraine — and a veto in effect on Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation.’
Bruno Macaes, a Portuguese politician and former European affairs minister, says the Minsk agreement isn’t a solution. ‘It was dispiriting to watch how Macron insisted on the Minsk protocol as a solution to the crisis. A solution it cannot be since Putin’s desire to impose Minsk on Ukraine is what created the crisis in the first place.’
In a commentary, he warned, ‘Yet President Zelenskiy might not be able to shake off the pressure. Ukraine is highly dependent on financial and military support from the West. If leaders such as Macron or Biden decide to exert all their influence to force the Ukrainian president’s hand, can he stand firm? We will soon find out.’
The Elysee Palace says the Macron trip has provided breathing space and will help the West, Ukraine and Russia find a way to resolve differences by diplomatic negotiations.
Asked whether Macron’s shuttle diplomacy was useful or getting in the way of NATO, Anders Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister and onetime NATO secretary general, told British broadcaster Sky News, ‘I think all kinds of dialogue is positive, but I don’t think we should be naive.
’We should realize that appeasement with dictators does not lead to peace, it leads to war and conflict, and that’s exactly the case with President Putin. After his meeting with President Putin, Macron declared that Putin had promised no escalation of the military conflict, but immediately after, the Kremlin denied that Putin had made that pledge. So it shows that you shouldn’t be naive.’