Macron Must Avoid the Immolation of French Influence

Flawed approach: French President Emmanuel Macron during a meeting with Vladimir Putin in February 2022. Image: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

President Macron’s aspiration to mediate between Putin, who does not respect him, and Ukraine, which does not trust him, is damaging French influence at a time when European leadership is critical.

French President Emmanuel Macron has once again put himself forward as the leading voice for a negotiated end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that does not ‘humiliate’ President Vladimir Putin. In this he echoes an increasingly regular drumbeat of articles in the New York Times and other broadsheets emphasising the risks of an open-ended conflict with Russia and the inevitability of eventual compromise.

There are four fundamental problems with those publicly advocating for a negotiated compromise with Putin. Firstly, they have revealed their desperation for a process while signalling their indifference to its results. Secondly, by repeatedly taking things off the table in exchange for no concessions from Moscow, they are ceding leverage before they have even entered serious talks. Thirdly, by projecting their own view of what is best for Ukraine and Eastern European allies, even when those same allies clearly state their interests for all to hear, they are undermining their credibility as mediators. Fourthly, by repeatedly suggesting to Putin that the defence of Western values will last only so long as it is novel and convenient, they encourage the prolongation of Russia’s invasion and an escalation of economic destabilisation through the implication that eventually those backing Ukraine will tire and fold.

To begin with the primacy of process, there is a trite refrain that all conflicts end in negotiated settlements, or even more naively, that there are no military solutions. This is historically illiterate. The reason why the Taliban can flagrantly breach the terms of the Doha Agreement is that they imposed a military defeat on the Afghan government and its international backers, just as it was the Taliban’s capacity to kill and maim more US soldiers than could be tolerated that led Washington to negotiate with them directly, rather than through Kabul. History is replete with examples of militarily imposed settlements, with France having been a victim of this on several occasions – in 1814, 1815, 1871 and 1940.

There are also conflicts that end in compromise at the point when both parties find themselves in a mutually hurting stalemate. These conditions do not yet appear to have formed in Ukraine. Although the Russian military has suffered significantly, there is no indication that Russia intends to halt its military aggression against Ukraine, that it would not utilise any ceasefire to continue to destabilise the Ukrainian state and return to the fight having regrouped, or that Russia has abandoned its most extreme objectives in Ukraine – of subjugation and cultural genocide. Since Macron’s plea to avoid humiliating Putin, the Russian president has publicly stated that he intends to reclaim lands that he believes to be Russian, irrespective of international law. To suggest concessions just to start negotiations, with an interlocutor who is prepared to concede nothing, means the opponent can keep pushing for further concessions just by threatening to walk away.

The proclivity of French diplomats in private to explain what Eastern European states should and should not accept is having a detrimental impact on French leadership

And Macron is making concessions, not least by removing Putin’s humiliation from the table. This is an especially damaging negotiating position because Putin’s humiliation is a condition that can only be defined by Putin. If the West will not humiliate Putin in any negotiation, then all Putin must do to collapse talks or win further concessions is to declare that he finds Western proposals ‘humiliating’. Macron is therefore establishing a framework for negotiations that structurally favour Russia from the outset.

Privately scoping out the compromises that Moscow might accept, exploring what concessions might get an eventual negotiation over the line, and mapping the escalation risks of maximalist positions is of course a sensible activity in designing any negotiating strategy. But Macron’s statements go far beyond testing hypotheses in private. Instead, they betray a determination to project what France thinks Russian interests are onto Moscow, what Ukrainian interests should be onto Kyiv, and Eastern European interests onto Poland and the Baltic states, even when these very same states flatly contradict French hypotheses. It is interesting that a national security architecture that proved oblivious to Russian intensions before the conflict should be so confident about what will and will not ‘humiliate’ Russia once the conflict started.

The proclivity of French diplomats in private to explain what Eastern European states should and should not accept as regards to concessions is having a detrimental impact on French leadership, even as that leadership is most required. With the Republicans anticipated to do well in the US midterms and the trajectory of US foreign policy in 2024 uncertain, while US national security strategies increasingly emphasise the Pacific, there is a clear need and limited time for Europeans to become serious about the provision of their own security. The EU – and France’s role in it – should be important building blocks in an emerging European security architecture. But the impression given by France that the feelings of Russia’s leaders are more important than the territorial integrity of its neighbours means that trust in Paris’s will to offer protection or leadership on defence is dying.

Each time Macron has advanced his hypotheses and received criticism, the Elysée has mobilised the Légion de Flatterie to spring to the president’s defence, explaining what the president meant in spite of what he said. The argument is advanced that France has provided material support to Ukraine and that the president is right to think of tomorrow. This view overlooks both the very small scale of French material provided so far, and the fact that for Ukrainians it does not undo the damage of France insisting on the continuation of deliveries of thermal sights to the Russian Army after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. For the reasons outlined above, Macron’s hypotheses actually damage the Western negotiating position rather than preparing the ground for talks.

If anything, Macron’s desperation encourages Moscow to expand the economic harm wrought by the war and to wait for a collapse of Western unity

For France’s allies, the message being received – irrespective of whether it is the message Macron intended to convey – is deeply concerning. It has not escaped the notice of Eastern European states that this is far from the first French diplomatic failure under Macron. Following the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan told me how he felt that Paris had proposed itself as a mediator while clearly taking Armenia’s side, largely in deference to Russian interests. Similarly, in Mali, the rejection of French support – and the invitation extended to Russia’s Wagner Group – in no small part reflects a belief that French officials had been far too ready to tell Malians what their interests were. In short, to those who might have looked to Paris for leadership, this latest debacle is perceived to represent something of a pattern rather than a problem isolated to Ukraine.

The perception of French pronouncements in Eastern Europe and among Russian officials appears to be that Macron will defend a principle so long as it is convenient and for as long as political pressure demands. For Putin, the over 100 hours spent dictating to Macron on the phone is worthwhile precisely because it sows distrust between NATO members and allows the Kremlin to show its public that Moscow is still taken seriously internationally. The fundamental problem with Macron’s statements is not that he is in favour of negotiation, but that his approach is flawed. This is fatal for an aspiring mediator. There is no shortage of more credible intermediaries, including Israel, Turkey and India. If anything, Macron’s desperation encourages Moscow to expand the economic harm wrought by the war and to wait for a collapse of Western unity.

France has an opportunity to change how it is perceived. There are signs that the Elysée recognises that it has a problem. With Macron’s visit to Romania this week, and the potential to visit Kyiv, a clearer articulation of Western ends and Paris’s commitment to them could reassure allies at a time when French leadership is vital in Europe and in NATO. We may hope that there will be a time when a window for negotiation opens. When it does, Ukraine’s allies need to clearly and consistently articulate their interests. They need to have built up as much leverage as possible to be able to extract as well as make concessions. They also need to convince Putin that concessions are necessary. Until then, Macron’s pursuit of talks without any unifying idea as to what interests are to be defended will fail.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Jack Watling

Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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