PARIS — The showdown with Russia over Ukraine is entering a critical phase this week. The United States caught NATO’s eye and moved its forces east. Moscow has prepared even more forces on the Ukrainian border. But under these tensions, diplomatic avenues are feverishly explored and the outlines of potential solutions, still amorphous, could emerge.
President Biden is meeting Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday, and French President Emmanuel Macron, at the same time, will visit his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, in Moscow before heading to Kyiv.
While the Biden administration is toeing a hard line, Germany is keeping a low profile and Mr. Putin seems determined to impose a solution to Russia’s security grievances, it is Mr. Macron who has positioned himself at the center of diplomacy in Europe. For Moscow, he is a “quality interlocutor”, as Mr. Putin said Mr Macron called, according to a senior French presidential official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with French government practice.
For Mr Macron, the chance to lead the effort to create a new European security architecture has put him front and center on perhaps the greatest stage of his presidency, just two months away from the election. This gave him the opportunity to take on a broader leadership role for all of Europe and to realize his sometimes grandiose visions of a Europe allied to the United States, but more independent of it.
“Do we want a Russia fully aligned with China or somewhere between China and Europe? Bruno Le Maire, France’s economy minister, very close to Mr Macron, said on Friday that Russia and China declared “no limits” to their friendship and called on NATO to “abandon its ideologized approaches to the Cold War”.
For France, the choreographed embrace of Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Beijing was a demonstration of the wider and disturbing ramifications of the Ukraine crisis, as Mr. Macron begins several days of intense diplomacy.
The risks are as great as the potential benefits for Mr. Macron. Solutions to the crisis seem devilishly elusive at the moment, even if Mr Putin has appeared less directly threatening to Ukraine over the past week.
The French president has a double objective: to stop the war threatened by a massive concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border; and to assuage the festering Russian grievances that NATO’s eastward expansion in 1999 and 2004 provoked, with the eventual aim of integrating Russia into a new European security system that offsets its lurch toward China.
It’s a tall order, but Mr. Macron has never lacked audacity. He will have to be careful. “There is frustration in European countries, including Germany, with Mr. Macron’s tendency to go ahead and yell at them for doing nothing,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former civil servant. from the State Department who is now director of research for the European Council on Foreign Affairs. Reports. “It weakens him.”
French officials outlined the two-pronged approach Mr. Macron would take when meeting with Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The first is to use the Normandy format – a grouping of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia – to bolster the 2015 Minsk 2 agreement, a deeply ambiguous document that secured a ceasefire. fire in eastern Ukraine but which has proven largely ineffective, not least because no one agrees on its meaning.
Could an interpretation of the deal, involving the possible powers of the breakaway Donbass region over national politics, help satisfy Mr Putin’s insistence that Ukraine never join NATO, a demand that the United States and its allies, including France, are adamant in rejecting?
The second, in close consultation with Mr. Biden, is to get a concrete de-escalation signal that reverses Russian military build-up and, as a way to do that, to explore what Mr. Putin’s ultimate ‘red line’ is. in confrontation. .
The senior French presidential official said that the core of the Western conflict with Mr Putin lay “in the extension of NATO and the inclusion within it of countries from the former Soviet space”, which created “an area of volatility that needs to be reduced.” He added that Mr Putin told Mr Macron he wanted “a substantive conversation” that gets “to the heart of the matter”.
Indeed, France seems to say that Mr. Putin’s demands, which include the withdrawal from NATO of countries formerly controlled by the Soviets, can never be met, but that getting “to the heart of the problem” implies recognizing that the expansion of NATO has created permanent grievances. with Russia even as it guaranteed the freedom of 100 million central Europeans.
No one believes that Romania, Lithuania and other states that have joined an enlarged NATO will ever leave, or that NATO will ever repeal its 2008 Bucharest declaration that Ukraine will “become” a member of the covenant. But, as Turkey’s nearly 60-year flirtation with the European Union illustrates, there are ways to turn an application for membership in an organization into an indefinite waiting pattern.
“We can take a step towards Putin, recognize that he is not completely wrong,” said Justin Vaïsse, the former head of policy planning at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs who now heads the Paris Forum on the peace.
The senior French presidential official said: “Ukraine is not a member of NATO and, as far as I know, will not be for some time.”
Mr Macron wants to explore whether last month’s US offers could be complemented by new confidence-building measures to get out of the crisis.
The US proposal involved more transparency on the deployment of missiles in Eastern Europe and a call for reciprocal commitments by the United States and Russia to refrain from deploying missiles or troops to Ukraine. Mr Putin dismissed the US response to his demands as inadequate.
“It is conceivable that the arms control offers of the other day could be combined with some sort of advisory mechanism for NATO status changes, or some sort of moratorium on NATO expansion, or a creative interpretation of the Minsk agreement that gives a Constituent Assembly in Donbass veto powers over what the government will do,” suggested Shapiro, the former State Department official.
None of this seems likely, however, given Mr Putin’s unprovoked direct threat to Ukraine, his annexation of Crimea, his invasion of Georgia in the short war of 2008 and his history of treaty-breaking. when it suits him. The Biden administration, with brawny proactive diplomacy, has signaled that it is in no mood to compromise.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
Mr. Putin, it often seems, is only the latest representative of what Joseph Conrad called the “almost sublime disregard for truth” on the part of the Russian administration.
Despite this, Mr Macron, who knows that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would send gas prices skyrocketing at a time when the French electorate is angry at the loss of purchasing power, sees potential in the Normandy format. A first meeting last month ended with limited progress, a second meeting is scheduled soon and a summit of French, German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders has been suggested.
The Minsk 2 agreement calls for a ‘decentralization’ of Ukraine which gives a ‘special status’ to the eastern areas now controlled by the separatists, with ‘specificities’ to be agreed ‘with representatives of these areas’ .
Russia, in a creative interpretation of these “specificities”, argued that they should include granting elected representatives in these areas veto power over Ukrainian foreign policy decisions, including membership in NATO. In this way, Ukraine would effectively be part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
“That won’t happen,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said last week. “Never.”
Mr. Zelensky, the chairman, seemed more ambivalent. “If not NATO, then point to other security guarantees,” he said last month. What he had in mind was unclear.
The “security guarantees” offered by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s existing borders and sovereignty, have proven to be worthless.
In the absence of other ways, the Normandy Format brings together at least the parties. Mr. Shapiro argued that this could help forge stability.
“Instability is Russian strength. Stability is our strength,” he said. “NATO and the enlargement of the European Union have been a very powerful means of guaranteeing democracy in the countries of Eastern Europe. But we got what we could out of it. If you believe in the superiority of the western economic and political model, like me, stability makes that obvious, and spheres of influence are a pretty good way to establish that.
Mr Putin, the French official said, “wants long-term visibility” on Ukraine and Europe. This appears to leave Mr Macron playing a potentially dangerous game, trying to balance the “new European security order” he has said he seeks with his commitment to the United States and the NATO alliance.