European Rapprochement with Russia - Putting Interests Before Values?

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 9.3.2020 15:56

President Emmanuel Macron seems determined to give a new impetus to strategic dialogue with Russia. However, the French president’s vision of a future Europe involved with Russia is making European nations nervous, especially Central and East European countries which remain on guard following the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine. Macron’s attempt at moving Europe away from a dependence on the United States could possibly increase the risk of further dividing Europe and providing Moscow with a decisive geopolitical win over our liberal democracies. This leads many experts to believe that President Macron is treading a dangerous path towards an unavoidable cul-de-sac.

During the 2020 Munich Security Conference, which took place on February 14-16, Macron defied the US and many of his European counterparts when he expressed the need to set out a new European strategy with Russia. Macron’s overtures towards the Kremlin and his eagerness to turn Russia into a strategic partner proved controversial for many of the country’s European allies while left the American administration dumbfounded. This statement, which only brought further questions, was soon followed by renewed violence in Eastern Ukraine, thus further challenging Macron’s contentious vision.

Macron’s statement is far from being a surprise. The French government had already expressed the need to engage in talks with Russia in August 2019 when President Macron stated that “the European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia”. French diplomats were reportedly asked to be more audacious in rethinking French relations with Russia while putting an end to the previous sentiment of distrust, an attitude which led many among the Russian press to see Macron as submitted to President Vladimir Putin. The question many may ask now is why such keenness to promote a rapprochement with Russia? With recent crises involving the Russian government, can one take seriously the idea of a Europe stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok? 

Macron’s position is unsurprisingly source of quarrel. Suggesting that Europe and Russia need to open dialogue and initiate some kind of partnership is incredibly controversial in light of recent events. After all, Russia’s activities both in Europe and outside of the continent have greatly affected European Security through its numerous hostile measures and its military involvement in the Syrian civil war. As a result of these activities, Russia seems on its way to establishing itself as a Pariah State. Furthermore, Macron is hoping to dialogue with a government which disregards the simple principle of sovereignty. Russia invaded Georgia over a decade ago, and parts of the country still remain under Russian military occupation, a reality which has been echoed by the 2014 Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea.

The events mentioned above and the obvious dissimilarities between Europe and Russia in terms of values suggest that it is Russia which is distancing itself from Europe through its repressive system, its transgressions of international law and through its use of energy as a weapon against some of its former vassal states. Yet, Macron and some of his Western European counterparts still insist on looking to the East. This may be linked to a number of elements. 


"Trust is crucial and Macron’s “architecture of trust” seems to clash with Russia’s strategy of meddling in Western politics and numerous attempts at disrupting the unity of the European Union."


Firstly, what could explain the need for dialogue with Russia is the increasing distrust towards Trump’s administration seen by many as an unreliable security partner and more focused on China and Iran. Many of the United States’ questionable decisions over the past couple of years have led some European leaders to believe that Washington could no longer be relied upon for their own security hence the need to stabilise the situation and try to shape a new strategy which would include Russia, consequently allowing Europe to take the lead on decisions surrounding its security. But for this to happen, trust is crucial and Macron’s “architecture of trust” seems to clash with Russia’s strategy of meddling in Western politics and numerous attempts at disrupting the unity of the European Union.

Secondly, one could argue that easing relations between Russia and France (and possibly the rest of Europe as a result) could be related to financial interests. France has not suggested lifting sanctions against Russia although the government has made it clear they had in no way changed Russia’s behaviour. However, Paris had stated last December that it was looking for ways, with due respect for international law, to circumvent sanctions on Russia which hindered French investments. After all, France is the largest foreign employer in Russia. Executives from major companies including Total, Renault and Auchan to name a few are among many French companies involved in trade in Russia and which have long pressured Macron to mend relations with Moscow and ease sanctions. 

Disenchantment with Washington’s foreign policy and financial interests alone may not explain Macron’s position vis-à-vis Russia. Instead, it could have more to do with shaping a Europe “à la Française”. France could be seizing the opportunity to reinforce its status, increase its influence and lead the EU while overtaking a weakened and passive Germany which remained surprisingly silent during the Munich Security Conference, an illustration of the current situation. Are we seeing in Macron a rebirth of Gaullism whereby France would   explore new paths in its foreign policy to include Moscow while distancing itself from the US? After all, Macron’s vision of a Europe spreading from Lisbon to Vladivostok seems to echo de Gaulle’s Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. Some argue that such references are obsolete today but when looking back, France and Russia have always had a peculiar relationship. Additionally, since his election, the French President has worked hard to ensure that his country would be at the centre of international affairs and would act as a leader and no longer as a declining follower. As the UK remains Brexit-obsessed and Germany faces its past evils, France is eager to fill the leadership vacuum in Europe. But such approach could have the opposite effect of uniting some European countries not behind French leadership but against it instead.


"What one can expect if Macron pursues his master plan is the emergence of two competing views where an out of touch Western Europe is opposed by younger EU members that bear the scars of the USSR and will seek reassurance from NATO."


This could be especially relevant with regard to Central and Eastern European countries. Understandably, President Macron’s position is creating a sense of unease in the community and especially among Eastern European nations, and might also spark further apprehension in Ukraine. While there are a number of Central EU Member States - Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Czechia for instance- which increasingly question the need for sanctions against Russia due to unachieved expectations, they are met with resistance from a cluster of CEE States which still favour these punitive measures. It is therefore not a surprise that Macron still has a long way to go before he can convince the Baltic countries, Poland, and Romania of the benefits of his geopolitical vision. Many of these countries still remain concerned about Russia since they broke free from Soviet rule and accuse Moscow of seeking to divide NATO and the EU and of pursuing an aggressive foreign policy based on neo-imperialism and neo-nationalism. With the exception of Romania, the Baltic States and Poland all share a direct border with Russia which only further exacerbates their feeling of vulnerability. Such degree of perceived exposure to Russian aggression is however not shared by other European nations. Another source of concern for those in favour of maintaining sanctions is the lack of efforts from Moscow to improve its behaviour towards its European neighbours and to halt its interference in Donbass, a malign conduct which should not be rewarded by lifting punitive economic sanctions.

It is too early to say how things will play out in the East but some fear that Macron and his acolytes could expect concessions from Ukraine in the future in order to bring peace in the Eastern parts of the country and establish friendlier relations with Moscow. What one can expect if Macron pursues his master plan is the emergence of two competing views where an out of touch Western Europe is opposed by younger EU members that bear the scars of the USSR and will seek reassurance from NATO. Divisions within the European Union will not only further weaken the community but could also greatly impact the Western-backed block’s willingness to support Ukraine.


"Defending Europe’s democratic values over oligarchic rule is our best act of defiance towards Russia and it should remain as such."


To conclude, Macron further reiterated a call for closer dialogue with Russia in order to resolve conflicts and ease tensions due to the unwillingness of his European allies to directly confront Moscow. “I hear the defiance of all our partners, I’m not mad, but I know that being defiant and weak … it is not a policy, it’s a completely inefficient system” he said as a response to an apparent weakening West. However, this is where visionary Macron is wrong. Defending Europe’s democratic values over oligarchic rule is our best act of defiance towards Russia and it should remain as such. Our liberal democracies, our values – human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law – remain imperishable to this day, and Europe has a duty to defend these moral principles, and not to the detriment of our Eastern partners by accepting Putin’s illegitimate interests and Moscow’s hostile activities. Improving relations with Russia is indeed necessary and would benefit both Europe and Russia, but as long as Russia does not change its behaviour, any future attempt to open dialogue will only collapse as quickly as it began. Lowering our standards and liberal-democratic values for the sake of geopolitical requisite and interests would only result in a win for Putin and the collapse of the European community as we know it today. 


About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy


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