Where Macron sees an essential neighbor, other leaders see a menacing bear.


By David M. Herszenhorn

June 25, 2021


French President Emmanuel Macron thinks his fellow leaders from Poland and the Baltics are Russophobic, and that they insist on an unnecessarily tough policy toward Moscow out of misplaced paranoia.

Leaders in Warsaw, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, by contrast, see themselves as Russo-realistic and the French president as dangerously deluded in his soft approach to President Vladimir Putin.

In Paris, malign activities like election meddling or extra-territorial assassinations are part of a more complex relationship with Russia, a country that is also the land of ballet and the Hermitage Museum, and the obvious supplier of caviar, the perfect accompaniment to champagne.

But in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia is the cause of violence that led hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to emigrate to neighboring countries. Poland lives with heavy militarization in the neighboring Russian region of Kaliningrad, while the Baltics offer shelter to political opposition leaders and journalists who have fled potential persecution, including staff of news sites like Meduza, or allies of the jailed anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.

These contradictory views came into sharp focus this week as Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for a new Russia policy, only to be brutally rebuffed.

The rancorous debate exposed deep internal divisions among EU leaders over Russia, and the failure of Merkel and Macron’s initiative embarrassed the bloc’s two biggest powers.

Ironically, the summit conclusions ultimately approved by leaders are arguably the most effective diplomatic statement on Russia ever issued by the EU — sending a firm message that Moscow must meet numerous preconditions, including putting an end to malign activities on European soil, if the Kremlin wants any chance of securing better relations.

But as the heads of state and government departed Brussels on Friday, it was clear that the drastically diverging perspectives persist, raising serious risk of a splintered approach.

Speaking to reporters, Macron expressed dismay that the EU would take a tougher line toward Moscow than the U.S., even though he stressed Russia is the EU’s neighbor.  

And he expressed annoyance that President Joe Biden had discussed issues at a meeting with Putin in Geneva last week that are of more immediate importance to Europe.

“The aberration is that we are today the power that is the harshest with Russia, but they are our neighbors,” Macron said. “We saw it a few weeks ago, President Biden met with President Putin, I said it to my friends around the table ‘he didn’t ask you for your opinion, and you, you watch him have a summit and it doesn’t shock you?’”

As for the heated debate among EU leaders, Macron said: “The discussion was complex, it’s normal. It’s normal because on this issue we don’t have the same histories.”

In fact, the problem is that France and EU countries closer to the Russian border don’t share the same present.

“We have to deal with Russia but being very cautious about the real intentions of Putin’s regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda said at the summit.

Nausėda said that leaders advocating new engagement with Russia were being naïve. “If, without any changes, positive changes in the behavior of Russia, we will start to engage it, it will send a very bad and uncertain signal,” he said, adding: “It seems to me like we try to engage the bear to keep part of the honey safe.”

Some analysts and experts said they didn’t know whether to be relieved that the European Council finally reached consensus on strong conclusions, or to be terrified at how Macron and Merkel pushed so aggressively for re-engaging Putin without setting tough demands.

“The French perspective is for us quite naïve and dangerous for Europe as a whole,” said Agnieszka Legucka, senior research fellow on Russia at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw.

Legucka said that EU leaders shouldn’t compare themselves to Biden, who can fall back on the issue of nuclear nonproliferation as a basis for any discussion with Putin. And she said that a high-level meeting with Putin without concessions by Moscow would be a mistake.

“I know that they would like to have business as usual, but it’s even worse than usual, because it settles the status quo,” she said. “We’d be giving up values, support for democracy, civic society, Crimea. Everything Putin did, just after a meeting, will be gone and forgotten.”

“Russia is using this narrative very often that people in Poland or the Czech Republic or the Baltic States are Russophobic,” Legucka added. “It is not true we are Russophobic. We are, maybe, Russia-aware. Aware of what it’s doing all around, what kind of goals it has.”

In what appeared to be some effort at damage control, Merkel and Macron each noted —quite accurately — that they don’t need an EU summit to talk to Putin. At one point during the summit, Merkel challenged her critics, asking if they were suggesting that she should not engage Putin in the context of the Normandy Format — the Ukrainian peace process of which Germany and France are the two outside sponsors.

Macron made a similar point to reporters as he left the European Council meeting. “I don’t need an EU summit to speak to Vladimir Putin,” he said. “I saw him multiple times since I was president, and I will continue to see him. The most important thing is that we are building this agenda and that we stay united.”

But critics of the Merkel-Macron approach noted that their defense only highlighted the problem — that the EU has always maintained a high-level dialogue with Moscow, with Paris and Berlin largely leading it, and the efforts have utterly failed. European Council President Charles Michel similarly acknowledged at a news conference on Friday that he had two lengthy phone conversations with Putin in recent months.

Legucka, the Warsaw-based analyst, said the conclusions adopted by the Council ended up being a positive step. “I am very happy those conclusions finally were so strong and supportive to any member states not feeling secure, and send a very strong message about preconditioned dialogue,” she said. “The first steps have to be made by Russia, not by the European Union.”

Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.