Macron has an important opportunity to influence Putin's views on the European Union.
President Putin’s upcoming visit to Paris is intriguing for two reasons. Firstly for the irony of Putin choosing to meet with President Macron, whose candidacy Moscow overtly opposed. Secondly, even the seemingly bland official excuse for the visit is curious. Putin comes to open an exhibition dedicated to Peter the Great’s visit to France 300 years ago, but this visit comes at a time when Moscow loudly promotes its “pivot to Eurasia” in terms that suggest the unravelling of Peter the Great’s legacy of Russia’s European identity.
Moscow’s official rhetoric emphasises new partnerships in Asia, remains cautiously open for a cooperative relationship with the US, but treats the EU as irrelevant – an entity that lacks political independence, is shackled to America, and is mired in internal upheavals that signal its imminent demise. This stance is not just posturing: Russians really tend to view the EU as a rigid ideological supranational entity, vulnerable to rising nationalism, stagnating economies and structural dysfunction – much like the Soviet Union.
This attitude has a direct bearing on Europe’s ability to influence Russia on the questions of Ukraine, Syria, and the international order in general. Russia has no incentives to accept terms from an entity whose fate is uncertain. If Europe can persuade Russia of its “staying power,” then that will change calculations in Moscow.
Russia’s much-talked about “meddling” in European domestic politics is probably not guided by a precise strategic plan. Rather, it is an improvised collection of activities linked together by an ideological background that sees the West as an adversary. In Moscow, experts often characterise “meddling” in European elections as just trying one’s luck: “You walk into a casino, play at one table, lose, walk to a next one and try again”, as one Moscow-based Russian expert described to me recently.
In this sense, Macron’s victory is not a heavy blow to Moscow (as is often thought), nor is Putin’s visit to Paris comparable to a guilt-ridden walk to Canossa. Still, Macron’s victory from a pro-European platform, and France’s calm dismissal of the e-mail leaks must have shaken Moscow’s preconceived views a little bit. Europe – embodied by Macron – can now try fill this confused space with a message of its own.
The fist component of such message should focus on the future of the EU, reaffirming France’s commitment to the union and desire to make it work. But this needs to be done modestly. President Putin may live “in a world of his own,” as famously stated by Angela Merkel, but he is certainly not gullible. With Putin, therefore, saying less, but meaning it more, is the best way to be taken seriously and gain respect.
In the current European context this means admitting the difficulties that the EU now faces – from migration crises to Brexit and everything in between – but emphasising his (and Europe’s) willingness to address them. From Moscow, the European crises are highly visible, but a lot less visible is the new pro-European hands-on energy that the crisis has produced in several key capitals. Macron is well placed to give Putin this sense.
On Ukraine, Moscow currently thinks that time is on its side. The expectation is that, even if implementation of the Minsk agreement fails to grant Moscow the veto rights it seeks over Kyiv’s decisions, Ukraine is headed towards the collapse of the Poroshenko government. In the ensuing chaos, it is thought, the West will give up on its romantic vision of Kyiv and agree to co-manage the “failed state” together with Moscow. Here, the message should be that the EU does recognise the dysfunctionality of Ukrainian politics, but remains committed to defending the country’s right to sovereignty.
On Syria, Moscow is openly interested in involving the EU in reconstruction of the devastated country. “They really are good in fixing what others have broken,” said the deputy foreign minister Meshkov at a recent seminar in Moscow. For the EU, this opens up some space for setting its own conditions. That space is admittedly tiny (demanding the immediate departure of Assad is untenable), but creating certain conditions for a future transition may be achievable.
Macron can also pass a message about Russia’s interference. Here, the key is to be calm and not to overplay the threat. The current American paranoia, for example, bewilders Moscow and certainly does not add to its respect towards Washington. But a calm message indicating that “we are watching, and if we spot underhand activities we have means to retaliate” will be understood by Putin.
And finally, the question of Peter the Great. Even though “Eurasia” is the theme of the day in Moscow, Asia is still not seen as a model to emulate. Without Europe, Moscow will lose a historical sense of direction: “I used to think that liberal democracy and social capitalism were the natural ends of a journey,” confessed one influential “Eurasianist” in Moscow. “But now I think – Greece had democracy, it died. Rome had democracy, it died”, suggesting an expectation of collapse of the West. But then he added quietly: “Of course, you have to overcome your problems, because otherwise it will be very hard for us to overcome ours.”
Macron can assure Putin that on this account, Moscow needs not worry – we will do our best.