Someone should inform French President Emmanuel Macron that his “trust-building dialogue” with Russia’s Vladimir Putin has failed to generate any trust. The suspected poisoning of Alexei Navalny with a banned military nerve agent was most likely the final nail in the coffin of this well-intentioned but ill-fated initiative. Yet Mr Macron seems to believe it is worth salvaging.
Just weeks before the outspoken Kremlin critic fell ill, Mr Macron tweeted that the “dialogue” he had started with Mr Putin in 2019 at the presidential Riviera retreat of Bregancon, was “moving forward . . . I will soon travel to Russia”. Mr Navalny’s poisoning and protests in Belarus are forcing him to reconsider.
What has the “dialogue” yielded? Nothing substantial for France and Europe, argues Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean, a researcher at the Ifri think-tank. The Minsk process designed to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 is at an impasse — barring some exchanges of prisoners.
Moscow has helped Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whom Paris wanted out. Now it is supporting the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko against a popular uprising. No progress of note has been made on cyber security and disinformation. With Mr Navalny’s poisoning, any claim that a public rapprochement between the two leaders would prevent a further deterioration of relations with Russia is no longer valid.
A phone call last month between the Elysée and the Kremlin must have left a bitter taste, if the account leaked to Le Monde is accurate. Mr Putin, a former KGB operative, reportedly insisted Mr Navalny could have poisoned himself and the nerve agent could have originated from Lithuania — conveniently the country hosting Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Meanwhile, the European costs for Mr Macron have been high. His uncoordinated rapprochement with Mr Putin has caused worries from Poland to the Baltic countries and Germany — frictions that the Kremlin must have relished.
The French president is visibly reluctant to scrap three years of personal investment. Shortly after his election in 2017, despite being the target of Russian hackers during the campaign, he invited Mr Putin to the Versailles Palace. There is also an influential school of thought in France that accommodation of Mr Putin is the price to pay to prevent a Russia-China axis.
So while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to condemn Mr Navalny’s poisoning, the French president took much longer. While travelling in the Baltic states this week, Mr Macron has hardened his stance on Moscow, telling Sunday newspaper JDD that Mr Lukashenko needed to go.
Mr Macron met Ms Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius on Tuesday. But a day earlier, he reiterated his view that Europe needs to keep “working with Russia” to build sustainable peace. That blurred his message of reassurance to allies on the front lines of regular Russian intrusions into Nato airspace.
The question is not whether France should cut its diplomatic ties with Russia — it should not and will not. Rather, Mr Macron should think hard about continuing to invest personally and publicly in a relationship that has borne no significant fruit and created deep unease in Europe.
Mr Macron should be more discreet: ditch the public displays of affection, co-ordinate better with Berlin and let diplomats do their work behind the scenes. One of them told me: “We are going to maintain channels, but a trip to Moscow is out of the question. Yes to dialogue, but not if it causes frictions with Poland and Germany.” It also would be politically wise for the liberal Mr Macron to distance himself from a leader who passed constitutional changes allowing him to rule until 2036.