Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron

Macron’s Dialogue With Russia: A French Attempt to Fix the European Security Architecture

May 12, 2021
Juliette Faure

In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron put forward the idea of engaging a strategic dialogue with Russia as a necessary step to create an “architecture of trust and security” on the European continent. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the European Union had adopted a two-track approach of sanctions and dialogue with Russia. According to Macron’s special envoy for strategic dialogue with Russia, Ambassador Pierre Vimont, the French engagement with Moscow was thought of as a way to provide for the lack of concrete implementation of the dialogue component of this approach. With this initiative, Macron aimed to seize leadership in fixing Europe’s critically ailing security architecture. The French president thereby took stock of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s disregard for transatlantic partnership and put forward France as a balancing power able to stir a broader European strategy for dealing with Russia. Macron’s inclusive move toward Russia stood out as an innovative break from a strict containment policy. In that sense, it arguably challenged the U.S. interest in preserving cohesion among NATO’s allies in their approach toward Russia. However, with U.S. President Joe Biden’s determination to restore the transatlantic relationship, there are prospects for renewed cooperation between the U.S. and France in their attempt to address Europe’s security issues.

Following on the Russo-Georgian war and, earlier, wars in former Yugoslavia, the conflict in Ukraine came as the most significant evidence of the collapse of the European security architecture. In 2019, the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty over Russia’s alleged violations and the uncertainty around the extension of the New START Treaty further deteriorated the foundations of Euro-Atlantic security. As stated by Macron, France’s dialogue with Russia was meant to step back from the Russian-American standoff and initiate strategic talks on issues such as the frozen conflicts in Europe, conventional and nuclear arms control, space programs, terrorism and cybersecurity. The announcement of this roadmap had also been encouraged by Volodymyr Zelensky’s victory in the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections, which, in Macron’s view, provided a new opportunity to move forward on the implementation of the Minsk agreements to halt war in the Donbass.

Macron’s proposal occurred at a defining moment for the French diplomatic leadership. In 2019, France served as president of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and held the presidency of the G7. In addition, the impending enactment of Brexit likely fueled France’s reaffirmation of its leadership as the EU’s only nuclear-weapon state and member of the U.N. Security Council. Within NATO, Trump’s disregard for transatlantic partnership reinforced Macron’s long-time commitment to build Europe’s strategic autonomy in the management of its neighborhood policy. Furthermore, NATO’s lack of coordination in Syria, where the Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces reneged on the Alliance’s support for the Kurds-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, was a particular determinant of Macron’s ambition to refine France’s position as a “non-aligned” “balancing power” claiming a certain “freedom to act” and “flexibility.”

Macron’s new policy toward Russia built on a steadily strengthening bilateral relationship with Moscow. Macron has met regularly with his Russian counterpart: just a few weeks after his election, he hosted a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Versailles, where the two heads of state announced the launch of the “Trianon dialogue” to foster cooperation between civil societies. A year later, Macron participated in the St. Petersburg Economic Forum and in 2019, a Macron-Putin summit was held at the French president’s retreat in Brégançon, just a few days prior to the G7 meeting in Biarritz.

France’s interest for strategic talks with Russia stems from their shared involvement in issues such as Arctic exploration and outer space technology, and in the resolution of conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic. Bilateral consultations, therefore, aimed to establish communication channels, explore the potential for cooperation and set up deconfliction measures in case of confrontation. Increased economic exchanges between the two countries were also a major pillar of the relationship. While the French-Russian trade balance had decreased by about a third between 2013 and 2017, Russian exports to France increased by more than 25 percent between 2017 and 2018 (see table 1 below). The reinvigoration of dialogue with Russia in the summer of 2019 was paired with the announcement by French oil and gas company Total of the launch of Arctic LNG 2, its second major project of direct investment in Russian liquified natural gas. Total’s LNG projects significantly contributed to positioning France as the second largest source of foreign direct investments in Russia, on equal footing with China, and just behind Germany. In 2020, France became Russia’s fifth top trading partner for imports, up two spots from its position in 2010 (see table 3 below). Overall, however, in 2010, Russia ranked 10th among France’s top trading partners, but fell to 17th in 2020. In contrast, France in 2010 was Russia’s 12th top trading partner overall, falling by one rank to 13th in 2020 (see tables 2 and 3 below).  

Macron’s outreach to Russia lacked support from the Western diplomatic community. Domestically, at the annual 2019 Conference of the Ambassadors, Macron explicitly framed his initiative as a president-led attempt to unsettle the inertia and dogmas of the “deep state” running the French administration. In contrast to what he perceived as a “structural distrust” ruling the French foreign services’ attitude toward Russia, Macron embraced a realpolitik approach, which had been vocally advocated for in the media by former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. According to Védrine, mutual ignorance between the EU and Russia had led to a “strategic non-sense,” where both parties had “worse relations than during the last three decades of the USSR.” Macron’s initiative was widely criticized by French experts and scholars, who raised concerns over its lack of coordination with European partners and its contribution to legitimizing the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Beyond France, Macron presented his opening to Russia as part of a broader endeavor to reassess the Western narrative on the post-Cold War “triumph of the West.” He warned instead against the forthcoming “end of Western hegemony” and diagnosed NATO with “brain death,” thereby causing an uproar in the alliance. In the fall of 2019, the new orientation of French diplomacy was further contested by criticism over the French veto against integrating Albania and Northern Macedonia into the EU and France’s consideration of the NATO-rejected Russian proposal to impose a moratorium on missile deployments in Europe.

Macron’s agenda covered three areas. At the bilateral level, France and Russia set up a council of cooperation on security issues to hold “2+2” meetings between their ministers of foreign affairs and ministers of defense. In addition, thirteen French-Russian working groups were set up to carry consultations on strategic stability and regional and international crises. At the European level, Ambassador Pierre Vimont advocated for France’s initiative to set up engagement channels between the EU and Moscow and to start a reflection process on the EU’s strategic vision for its neighborhood policy. These efforts achieved some results, as seen by the addition of the relationship with Russia to the agenda of the informal meetings of European ministers of foreign affairs. Most importantly, the French-Russian dialogue provided momentum to resume talks among the Normandy format contact group (Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany) regarding war in the Donbass. While negotiations had been stalled since 2016, in September 2019, the group was able to agree on an exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists. In December 2019, the four heads of state convened in Paris, where Russia committed to retrieve military forces to allow local elections in Eastern Ukraine. Finally, at the NATO level, Macron’s ideas contributed to launching a “Forward-Looking Reflection Process” led by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who gathered a group of 10 senior experts to “assess ways to strengthen the political dimension of the NATO alliance.” Macron’s pick for France’s representative, Hubert Védrine, sat with firm advocates of containment toward Russia, such as the American A. Wess Mitchell and Poland’s Anna Fotyga. As reported by Védrine, the “French ideas” for strategic European autonomy met little support in the consultations held within NATO and the EU. However, Védrine acknowledged the group’s success in reaching an “acceptable compromise regarding Russia and arms control.” Alongside deterrence measures, NATO’s  report, published in November 2020, recommends “maintain[ing] regular contact with Russia,” developing “de-confliction and confidence-building measures” and supporting “increased political outreach to negotiate arms control and risk reduction measures.”

In 2020, France’s dialogue with Russia encountered a series of roadblocks. One of the major difficulties was using France’s bilateral contacts with Moscow to spark wider European engagement with its eastern neighbor. This ambition did not receive support from European partners and was significantly discredited by Russian behavior in 2020. The Russian backing of Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus during the August unrest and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny put an end to French-Russian ministerial consultations. France postponed a 2+2 meeting planned in Paris and a visit by Macron to Moscow sine die. Subsequently, the Nagorno-Karabakh war in the fall of 2020 and, most recently, the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, further imperiled Europe’s regional peace and security. Despite this challenging environment, Macron has claimed consistency in his approach. He has repeatedly professed his lack of “naivete” and his intention to draw “clear redlines” with Russia. In the meantime, he remains committed to pursuing a “constructive and effective dialogue” in the long-run, as demonstrated by the continued meetings of the French-Russian working groups.

Macron’s initiative was launched in a context where the U.S., under Trump, favored high-level contacts with Moscow and neglected cooperation with its EU allies. The French president used this opportunity to lead an attempt to shape Europe’s strategic autonomy in the management of its eastern neighborhood. However, Macron’s policy has met little success so far, mainly due to the lack of support from the European Union and France’s difficulty in sustaining high-level dialogue with Russia on acceptable grounds in the aftermath of Navalny’s poisoning. In 2013, in response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, the U.S. had aborted a similar program of bilateral strategic consultations with Moscow. Since the issue of Europe’s security is also at the core of the U.S. management of its relationship with Moscow, it would be in the U.S. and the EU’s interest to seek cooperation in organizing their strategic talks with Russia. Indeed, competition over dialogue ownership might prove a zero-sum game. Instead, France, the rest of the EU and the U.S. share strategic interest in jointly engaging with Moscow to keep Russia away from China, establish a new framework of arms control in Europe and foster cooperation on global security issues such as terrorism, cybersecurity, nuclear proliferation and climate change. Biden’s trip to Europe in June, during which he will participate in G7 and NATO summits before meeting Putin, offers an opportunity to act on that interest.


Juliette Faure

Juliette Faure is PhD candidate in political science at Sciences Po Paris. She is currently a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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