Emmanuel Macron’s very big idea on Russia

Negotiations with Russia over a new European security order would have huge – to many, alarming – implications for Ukraine, the EU, and the NATO alliance

Emmanuel Macron is a man with a lot of big ideas about how Europeans should step up their game on foreign policy. Perhaps his biggest so far is for Europe to engage in negotiations with Russia on a new European security order, reflecting his belief, expressed last month, that “the European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia.”

More deeply, Macron’s effort reflects a belief that the Americans will no longer defend Europe or engage meaningfully on European security, and that the Germans are unwilling to step up to help fill the void. Worse, he is also afraid that Donald Trump might sell Europe out to the Russians, or that Russia will fall into China’s hands – either of which would leave France and Europe out in the cold. The first step in avoiding that outcome is to probe what the Russians want.

Many European and French officials – as well as much of the French foreign policy community – have serious doubts about this outreach and about the willingness of Russia to engage constructively with the West. Anticipating this opposition, Macron warned France’s ambassadors not to work through “the deep state” to sabotage the initiative. The subtext of their critiques is that there is no bargaining with a Russia that did not respect the old order and that will not abide by a new one: engagement will therefore just provide an excuse to end sanctions and ignore Russia’s multiple sins.

Macron denies that he is naive about Russia’s malign actions in Europe. He recognises its use of frozen conflicts to gain leverage, its invasion of Ukraine, its threat to nuclear stability, its involvement in assassinations, organised crime, and money laundering, as well as its political interference and information manipulation. But he feels the need to relaunch the process with Russia, if only because no one else will, and because the consequences of inaction – a Europe that left out in the cold by a US-Russia deal or confronted by a Russia-China axis – are so dire.

If he does manage to jumpstart a negotiation with Russia on European security, it will have important implications for NATO and the EU, as well as for the Ukrainian conflict.

What does it mean for NATO?

For NATO members, the key notion in Macron’s initiative is that Europeans should structure overlapping system of “concentric circles” of European integration, with each inner circle implying closer relations. In order to do this, one would need to: find new ways of providing reassurance to European Union and NATO members located close to Russia; create a new, more productive relationship between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union; and agree a way to at least manage the various frozen, and unfrozen, conflicts in the region, including in Ukraine.

Macron’s “concentric circles” phrase set off alarm bells in eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and south-eastern Europe. Some wonder if it means there will be second-class members of NATO or EU, or whether some states will become expendable or indefensible. In theory, if a new agreement with Russia put a limit on NATO troop deployments in the eastern part of the alliance or gave Russia greater visibility into NATO manoeuvres, Russia might be able to more easily build up military pressure on its neighbours (through ‘little green men’, manoeuvres on the borders, or temporary occupations). Russia might then be able to use this military pressure, or just the threat of such pressure, to demand concessions from these states, while the West was either too paralysed or too divided to act. These fears show that, even if France feels safe from direct Russian military threats, the cold war game of counting missile launchers and scrutinising military exercises remains a real one in eastern Europe.

What does it mean for the EU and the eastern neighbourhood?

Macron’s ideas might also have important implications for the EU and the former Soviet states of the Eastern Partnership. The core of Macron’s approach is about taking Russian concerns seriously – something the Germans have been pushing for too. But, in terms of their purported economic concerns, for example, the Russians often deploy these as weapons in geopolitical disputes. Taking such grievances seriously thus risks missing the main point.

Macron denies that he is naive about Russia’s malign actions in Europe

To illustrate: the Russian government has claimed that the EU’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine effectively cuts Russia out of its neighbour’s economy through discriminatory product regulation. There is considerable reason to doubt this claim, and it seems clear that Russia’s opposition to the DCFTA was fundamentally geopolitical, not economic. The Russian government has, however, continued to push the issue and has sent the EU a list of 2,200 Russian complaints, a process that seems set only to confuse the issue rather than help reach agreement. The slow progress of trilateral talks (between Ukraine, the EU, and Russia) on Ukraine’s DCFTA implementation shows how difficult it is to make progress on these types of issues.

What does it mean for Ukraine?

On Ukraine specifically, Russia and Europe remain far apart. Moscow wants to use the decentralisation of Ukraine called for in the 2015 Minsk agreement to entrench Russian influence in Ukrainian politics. It therefore seeks to ensure that, even in the event of Minsk implementation, that the administrative structures and personnel of the separatist territories in Donbas will remain intact. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, want to provide the Russians with an honourable way out of Donbas. They are willing to grant autonomy and reintegrate the enclaves in Donbas, but only if an internationally monitored and organised transition government and justice system takes over, with new authorities and representative bodies elected under international supervision and according to Ukrainian laws. Amnesty may be granted to facilitate the current cadres to leave their posts – but they need to leave. 

The nature of decentralisation remains a divisive issue within Ukraine. Accepting Russian demands, particularly under pressure from France or the EU, might create considerable domestic conflict in Ukraine or even threaten Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.

What does Russia think?

It is not easy to say what Moscow makes of Macron’s initiatives overall – partly because, for now, Macron’s big idea is short on details. The thinking remains sketchy and he has not consulted with important allies. For the time being, this is not policy, but the thinking of one leader. This might be the reason the Russian government – which has long expressed its dissatisfaction with the European order and wanted to discuss a new one – has done little more than welcome the initiative.

On the issue of Ukraine, however, one sees more willingness to engage. Here, a political process has been in place since 2014, and the new Zelensky presidency in Ukraine has provided it with fresh momentum. It is likely that, after a hiatus of three years, a Normandy format summit will convene again this autumn, possibly in October.

But, even on this issue, it is unclear whether Moscow is willing to make a deal, particularly over Ukraine’s control of its own eastern border. More charitable sources in Moscow claim that, if the Ukrainian side is ready to go ahead with the thorniest of political questions (such as special status for the separatist territories and decentralisation of power), then Vladimir Putin might engage seriously with the process, partly motivated by a dawning understanding that Russian policy in Ukraine is failing.

Indirectly, this interpretation finds some corroboration from one interesting detail that has largely escaped notice: days after Macron and Putin met in France in August, Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, turned up in Moldova, wanting to discuss how to destroy munitions in Transnistria. The last time Russia was willing to engage in such a discussion was in 2003. This might indicate some seriousness in Moscow about cooperating with the West over neighbourhood issues.

Contacts in Moscow with a less charitable take on the Kremlin’s thinking suggests that Russia intends to make use of Macron’s over-eagerness and Zelensky’s inexperience to impose its own version of the Minsk agreement on Ukraine. “One country, two systems is Moscow’s goal,” says one source in the Russian capital. “Kiev’s control in Donbas would only be nominal – a Ukrainian flag at a border checkpoint manned by Moscow, controlled by people from Donbas. We will not dismantle the ‘republics’, we will not fully relinquish control of the border. Zelensky will get two very different Ukraines under the deal. In Macron we trust to force the Ukrainians to accept our terms of the deal. We sense Zelensky may not fully understand the implications for the future of the Ukrainian state and may just yield to pressure.”

Go with care, Emmanuel

Moscow’s view highlights the pitfalls in Macron’s approach. The idea of building a shared concept of European security with Russia is an attractive project, and talking with the Russian government about the subject is clearly an important step in any such effort. But for that effort to be more than just distracting talk, it will have to cut through the thicket of Western-Russian disputes to get to the larger geopolitical issues that often lurk behind Russia’s intransigent positions. This, in turn, will require attention to some of the difficult details Macron has so far avoided, as well as greater buy-in from key allies and from regional partners.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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