Eurasian politics on the cusp of change

Relatives of Ukrainian prisoners arriving from Russia at Borispil Airport, outside Kiev, September 7, 2019

The meeting of the foreign and defense ministers of Russia and France in the 2+2 format in Moscow on September 9 signified not only a warming up of relations between the two countries but a reset in Russia’s ties with the West. 

The last time a Franco-Russian event in the 2+2 format took place was in October 2012 in Paris. A year later, the conflict erupted in Ukraine and the European Union imposed sanctions against Russia. The trajectory since then appears to be reversing its course. 

The first signs appeared during the G7 summit in Biarritz on 24-26 August where the schism between the West and Russia significantly narrowed. The US President Donald Trump announced that he intended to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to next year’s G7 at Miami. 

In the run-up to the Biarritz summit and immediately thereafter, the host, French President Emmanuel Macron underscored that reversing the trend of distrust between the West and Russia is in the common interest. (See my blog Macron’s Carolingian Renaissance of the G7.)  

Antagonism in Europe toward Russia has been steadily giving way to a new thinking that isolating Moscow is not a viable strategy on the global stage. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas declared in July that “without Russia, we will not find answers to the pressing issues in global politics.” 

Italy, of course, pioneered the new thinking and has sought the removal of the EU’s sanctions against Russia. In July, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte described EU restrictions as “sad,” and “not good for Russia, nor for the EU, nor for Italy.” 

However, it is France’s role that becomes crucial today. Despite Moscow’s backing for Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate in France’s 2017 presidential election, Macron seemed a model of moderation no sooner than he assumed office to invite Putin to visit him. Putin gleefully accepted the invitation (although Macron was seen in Moscow as the least desirable presidential candidate for Russian interests.)  

In a summit at the highly-symbolic and sumptuous setting of Château de Versailles in May 2017, Macron held a “frank exchange” with Putin where they discussed “disagreements”. At a joint news conference, both leaders said there were opportunities to work together more closely. 

Clearly, within ten days of assuming office as president, Macron was on the ball to bring Putin back in from the cold. Macron kept the lines open with Putin and even invited the Russian leader for talks at his residence on August 19 just days ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with French President Emmanuel Macron (R) at Fort Bregancon near the village of Bormes-les-Mimosas, France, Aug 19, 2019.

Macron sees that it is upto him to grab a leadership role for France. He has attempted to play the role of a mediator in Libya’s civil war, the Syrian conflict, Ukraine and the situation around Iran. As Tatiana Kastoueva-Jean at the French Institute of International Relations recently told the AFP: 

“The stars are aligning a bit for Emmanuel Macron. He has the presidency of the G7 and the Council of Europe; Germany is no longer playing an active role in these matters; and London is paralysed by Brexit. He’s the de facto leader of Europe, and can legitimately speak for the West.” 

Macron senses that a breakthrough is possible over Ukraine where the new president Volodymyr Zelensky appears determined to improve relations with Russia, which is also what his massive electoral mandate expects from him. 

On the other hand, Putin is eager to encourage Zelensky to push ahead to unlock the stalemate in Donbas by exploring the potentials of the Minsk agreements regarding some degree of autonomy for the breakaway regions. 

To be sure, the growing rapprochement between Moscow and Kiev resulted in the swap of dozens of prisoners in each other’s custody on Saturday, which is a hugely emotive issue and clears the deck for a summit meeting of the Normandy format (France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine) to accelerate a peace process in Donbas. 

Meanwhile, a trilateral meeting is also expected to take place within the year between Russia, European Union and Ukraine to discuss a new framework for Russian gas supplies to Ukraine. 

Indeed, the ground beneath the feet is shifting. Trump struck the right cord by promptly welcoming Saturday’s prisoner swap: “Russia and Ukraine just swapped large numbers of prisoners. Very good news, perhaps a first giant step to peace. Congratulations to both countries!” 

Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump doesn’t see any vital US interests at stake in pitting Kiev against Moscow. Trump’s detached attitude is making a difference. He understands that only by easing tensions over Ukraine, a meaningful rapprochement with Russia becomes possible. 

On his part, Putin too knows that in order for Russia to play the optimal role as an independent power centre on the global stage and as a balancer in big-power politics — as well as for sustaining Russia’s resurgence in the medium and long-term — the strengthening of the European vector of its “Eurasianism” becomes imperative. 

Putin hopes to secure an easing of EU sanctions and a possible return to the G7. On the other hand, he is acutely conscious that the divergences among the Europeans and the discords within the transatlantic alliance strengthen Moscow’s hand in negotiations. 

However, there is going to be robust opposition from the western camp to any dismantling of sanctions against Russia. Britain will oppose tooth and nail any moves to give ground against Russia. (See an acerbic piece by the British think tank Chatham House titled On Russia, Macron Is Mistaken.) 

Again, how far Trump succeeds in forcing his will on the Russia policies remains to be seen. Fundamentally, the US establishment is nowhere near willing to accept the growing multipolarity in the world order. The US’ dual containment strategy against Russia and China is cast in stone, as the speech by the US Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper at London’s Royal United Services Institute last week reminds us. 

But then, the Chinese have a saying — ‘Dripping water can pierce a stone.’ The Russian-Ukrainian swap of prisoners and the resumption of the Franco-Russian meeting in the 2+2 format signal a high degree of perseverance on the part of Macron and Putin — with tacit support from Trump. One can hear the sound of dripping water.  

(The joint press conference after the 2+2 meeting of Russian and French foreign and defence ministers in Moscow, Sept. 9, 2019)

The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in Moscow after the 2+2 talks, “The time has come, the time is right, to work toward reducing the distrust between Russia and Europe, who ought to be partners on a strategic and economic level. It’s not yet the time to lift sanctions. (But) we are seeing a new state of mind compared to that of the last few years, which we are pleased about.” 

The point is, Russia will never give back Crimea and France’s European allies may have to consider that to be an acceptable price to end the Ukraine conflict. Such a strategic adjustment is entirely conceivable but it takes time to mature.